IBN-e-Safi, the author of the book which has two novellas compiled together, has written about 245 novels under two series – Jassosi Duniya and Imran series and thus led to the birth of Urdu fiction. He is considered the grandmaster of Urdu crime fiction today. His book was first published in Urdu in 1955 under the title, Khaufnak Imarat and it became a landmark as the first of the series featuring detective Ali Imran, a Ph.D.
On reading the first story, The House of Fear, the protagonist of the novel seems to be a rich, handsome buffoon with his sports car, eccentric dress sense and bizarre sense of humour, like when he tells his colleague Captain Fayyaz that he wants to marry the one-eyed daughter of a judge so that “she will look at me and my dogs with the same eye.” However, in reality, he possesses a razor-sharp mind and the agility and strength of a perfect spy. His colleagues in the secret service make fun of him, but little do they know that he is their mastermind Chief X2 – a man who can defeat any enemy and solve all mysteries.
The House of Fear is a fast-paced story of a spate of murders occurring in a spooky abandoned house on the outskirts of the city. The plot is staged in Karachi, the capital city of Pakistan soon after Independence though the city is not mentioned by name in the book. The city is, however, a hotbed of mystery, intrigue and conspiracy. The protagonist, Ali Imran, is an oddball with weird habits and a weirder sense of humour. Being a ladies’ man, it is not unusual to find him in Tiptop Night Club courting high society women and sipping wine or coffee at Café Nebraska. He quotes liberally from Ghalib’s books and is a dogged womaniser from a long gone age. He is an expert in foiling conspiracies and unearthing sinister pots. What is more, not only is he an efficient detective with an uncanny ability to dodge bullets but agile, educated and fluent in several languages.
In this abandoned building, dead bodies are found, one after another with each bearing three identical dagger marks, exactly five inches apart. Who is behind these eerie murders? The author has a very humorous style of narrating even simple events and the book has to be read to be enjoyed and to find how Imran solves the mystery of the dead bodies bearing the dagger marks.
The second story Shortcut at the Rock has Colonel Zargham, who is a middle-aged man with an imposing and dignified face and a bushy moustache tilted downwards. Colonel Zargham knows he is in grave danger when he receives a three-inch long wooden monkey in mail. This is no ordinary thing but a warning from 200-years old, Lu Yu Ka, one of the world’s deadliest gangs. Imran is called in to solve the case which is set on a hill station to help out Colonel Zargham. The monkey is followed by a wooden snake and finally with a wooden rooster, after which the Colonel is to be swiftly murdered. But before that can happen, Li You Ka has to deal with the genius sleuth, Ali Imran, who will not let death take over Colonel Zargham.
Ibn-e-Safi became a very popular writer during the ‘50s and ‘60s when his books were found at every book counter of the railway stations. It is really sad that he died young due to pancreatic cancer, otherwise he would have churned out many more such fast-paced thrillers. The translator, Bilal Tanween, has done a good job of translating the Urdu stories in English.
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