Palanquin, set in 19th-century India and Victorian London, opens with a fictional preface and introduction by the son of one of the story’s second-tier characters. This is followed by a short publisher’s note explaining the decade-long delay in the book’s release to protect one character’s sacred reputation. These three statements present the novel’s conceit, that it is a factual chronicle of actual persons and events as recorded in the collected papers and documents of the writer’s deceased father, and in others’ journals, diaries, etc. to which the son had access.
The two opening chapters establish historical context for the main narrative, the first describing the birth of British trade in 17th-Century India with a fictionalized encounter between historical figures Capt. William Hawkins, master of the Hector, and Mughal Emperor Jahangir. This leads to the emperor’s execution of three high-placed traitors whom Hawkins exposes, and advancement of British trade. A short second chapter reports on how the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) sets the tone for much of Britain’s imperialist conflicts that follow (and, incidentally, in Afghanistan today).
Next (1847) we meet Jehan Arjani as he discovers a severely wounded British soldier lying on the steps of Uncle Zubin’s medical clinic in Poona, India, Jehan’s home. As Jehan helps Zubin save the life of Lieut. Christopher “Kit” Hale, he takes his first step in what will become his career as a battlefield surgeon. Shortly after this initial episode, Jehan returns what remains of Kit Hale’s bloodied tunic and meets two of his fellow officers, Capt. Gabriel West and Lieut. “Jock” Gough-Martin. (Decades later, Gough-Martin’s’s son Hugh will write the fictionalized preface and introduction for this novel.) Under West’s questioning, Jehan recounts details of Hale’s injury, Zubin’s skills, and some of the surgical methods used. This encounter adds to Jehan’s open ambitions in medicine and begins Gabriel West’s secret ambitions in service to his soldiers.
Jehan departs and, while Kit and Jock share a drink, the unpopular Christian evangelist Capt. Sebastian Griffin arrives, discusses current conflicts in northern India, and leaves (he will play a major role in future events). Capt. West appears, planning with Jock to attend Hale’s final suture removal, where we meet Zubin the surgeon, West exposes more of his hidden interests, and Jehan exhibits more of his enthusiasm for medicine.
A few years hence, Arjani returns to Poona as a qualified doctor and bumps into Gabriel West who, in recounting some key battlefield experiences, reveals his “long game:” to improve the standards of combat medicine in the British Army. He will convince Arjani to work with him and to take an Army commission, but not before Arjani and Zubin debate medical methods, points of ethics, and Arjani’s choices, during which Zubin reveals some clues linked to Hale’s attacker.
West introduces Arjani to Maj. Angus Stirling, and Arjani’s Army career soon begins. He quickly learns that, despite his surgical ambitions and clinical skills, he abhors the brutality and violence of war. Yet he also learns how valuable his skills are to his fellow man suffering on the front and in the stench- and fear-filled Army infirmaries. 1854 brings war in Crimea, and Arjani, Stirling, West, and others ship out via the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and Balaklava.
Within the year, Arjani is taken prisoner by the Russians, spending his captivity working under the hand and eye of Nikolai Pirogov, a renowned and highly skilled Russian (true-to-life) combat surgeon, from whom he learns many disciplines, therapies, and principles that will revolutionize medical practice and Arjani’s life.
Arjani escapes with fellow prisoner Dominic Cartwright, a dazzling horseman and deadly shot in eluding the Cossacks. They reunite with comrade Angus Stirling during his secretive Crimean affair with Florence Nightingale. As this war ends (1856), they return for India, but are diverted to the Anglo-Persian War, where Arjani absorbs a painful lesson in his surgical judgment. Departing Persia for India, the ship stops in Muscat, where Stirling is murdered in the souk (mimicking, as Arjani discovers, several soldiers’ killings, but a lack of evidence frustrates his investigation.) They are not long back in India when the infamous and highly destructive Sepoy Rebellion (1857-59) erupts in Bengal and the surrounding regions. Arjani and his comrades are once more drawn into the fear, death, and suffering of war. Among the uncountable dead and wounded on both sides, Kit Hale is killed at the battle of Jhansi, and another soldier is murdered in the fort, in the same manner as Stirling and the other cases.
After heinous brutality from both the British and the rebels, the war finally draws to a close (1859), and, with assistance from one of his generals, Arjani departs India for an academic post in London. While crossing the Med and exploring Marseille, Arjani has a warm, mutually rewarding affaire de coeur with two free-spirited Italian sisters, with promises of future visits. He arrives to London by boat-train from Paris and embarks on the next chapter of his life, emerging, in time, as Professor of Medicine and Anatomy at the prestigious St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. As he proceeds with his research and teaching, he encounters Florence Nightingale and must break the long-ago news of Angus Stirling’s death. Arjani attends Nightingale’s momentary collapse, and the mutual emotional bond leads to affection between them, and then to love.
During an Army reunion at London’s Oriental Club, Arjani encounters Sebastian Griffin displaying his collection of Asian battle swords. These, combined with other evidence, implicate him in Arjani’s mind as the killer of Stirling and a dozen others, and as Kit Hale’s attacker. Arjani pretends an interest in the swords, and agrees to meet Griffin at his flat in Covent Garden. The next evening, as Arjani’s carriage rolls down the Strand for that meeting, Florence Nightingale spots him and, carrying a message, has her carriage follow him. Griffin, suspecting Arjani has evidence of his guilt, has set a trap to kill him in his flat. Griffin attacks, wounds Arjani, and is about to kill him when Nightingale appears at the door. Griffin tries to use Christian evangelism, racism, and Nightingale’s background to convince her that his motives were God’s will, but she’s not even remotely swayed. She draws an Army pistol from her handbag, one given to her by Angus for protection on London’s streets, and orders Griffin to retreat.
Griffin is still wielding a battle saber when Arjani describes Griffin’s murder of Stirling, and Griffin justifies the death because Stirling was consorting with a “pagan Asian woman.” As he advances on Arjani for the kill, Nightingale shoots him dead. She and Arjani then collect diaries and documents from the flat to prove that Griffin was the serial murderer of all the soldiers.
[This event serves as a conclusion to the novel in shorter form (80,000 words), but the extended version (94,000 words) grew out of discoveries in my research for the book. Arjani’s professorship at St. Bartholomew’s (1862 onward) intersected with the medical studies of John Watson, Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. I am not a Doyle or Sherlock Holmes disciple, but when this coincidence turned up I explored it for a larger story.]
John Watson, a Scotsman, graduated with a bachelor of medicine from University of Edinburgh in 1874, matriculating to Bart’s for his graduate degree (M.D., 1878). He trained in combat medicine, and then fought and was wounded in the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War (1880), returning to Britain a bit aimless—where Doyle picks up his story. Watson meets Holmes in 1881, and they begin their “consulting detective” adventures. In time, Holmes seeks out Watson’s professor Arjani for a number of science- and medically-related questions. The answers are more than satisfactory, including causes of death and how to identify perpetrators by their “finger marks,” a discipline many decades old in India. More collaboration follows.
In 1888, approaching the pinnacle of Holmes’s reputation, Jack the Ripper appears. The two never meet in Doyle’s fiction, but with the Arjani/Holmes contacts imagined above, and Arjani’s extensive experience in both warfare and brutal murders, there is ample reason to bring them together regarding the Jack the Ripper killings and the enduring mystery around them.
Palanquin recounts a number of the Ripper’s killings, many of them, if not all, targeting “women of the night.” A reliable identification of the knife (or knives) the Ripper used has never been established. However, the well-documented wounds are similar to those received by Angus Stirling and the other soldiers killed in British India. Going back to evidence from the 1840s in India, Kit Hale’s wounds, Angus Stirling’s death, and details from the deaths of the other soldiers, Arjani is convinced that the weapon was a Nepalese kuhkri, a combat knife carried by Gurkha soldiers in the British Army. Griffin had one in his sword collection, convincing Arjani that he was a suspect, proven leader at his Covent Garden flat after Nightingale kills him.
After Griffin’s death, his possessions, including a Sikh dagger, a kirpan, were returned to Griffin’s family in Devon; Arjani had seen the kirpan in Griffin’s possession, similar to a kuhkri, but smaller. Griffin’s estate went to the oldest son. The second son, also an ardent Christian, but with few material possessions, has deep reason to avenge his father’s death by exercising Christian justice on sinners in the Gomorrah of Victorian London. Arjani identifies the slashed throats of the women as coming from a kirpan. Cunning and clever, the young Griffin tracks Holmes, Watson, and Arjani, suspecting they have clues to his identity. Once he is convinced of that fact, and armed with an Army pistol matching Nightingale’s, he confronts Arjani, Holmes, and Watson in Arjani’s flat, announcing his intention to kill them all in revenge.
What young Griffin overlooks is that Florence Nightingale is also present in the flat, unseen in the hall, hearing young Griffin’s heated threats. Once again, she produces the Beaumont Adams Model 1856 pistol, .442 caliber, her gift of protection from Angus Stirling, who trained her in its deadly use. When young Griffin swings his weapon toward her, she shoots him through the temple and then the heart, where she had also shot his father.
Florence Nightingale is judged to have justifiably killed two heinous murderers, one only later revealed, and his son Enoch Griffin, who bore the identity Jack the Ripper. Holmes found the kirpan on him, and matched the blood on it to the Ripper’s last victim. The truth of Nightingale’s involvement was kept from the public for sound reasons, hinted at in the Publisher’s Note, and explained in the Epilogue. It was a combination of protecting her reputation and not revealing the clumsy efforts of the Metropolitan Police in stopping Jack the Ripper.