In spite of the constant shifting around, however, the structural variety works very well. Dispensing with a consistent structure gives the author the freedom to choose the medium that works best for the chapter and the information it needs to convey. I'll admit that it took me a good 50 pages to arrive at this opinion, but ultimately I appreciate the author's choice.
As for a summary of the story, I'm going to rely on the information on the book cover, since I honestly can't find a better way to present the overall sense "what's going on here":
In a small Bihari village, Captain William T. Meadows finds just the man to further his phrenological research back home: Amir Ali, confessed member of the infamous Thugee* cult. With tales of a murderous youth redeemed, Ali gains passage to England, his villainously shaped skull there to be studied. Only Ali knows just how embroidered his story is, so when a killer begins depriving London’s underclass of their heads, suspicion naturally falls on the “thug.” With help from fellow immigrants led by a shrewd Punjabi woman, Ali journeys deep into a hostile city in an attempt to save himself and end the gruesome murders.To boil it down even further, Amir Ali pretends to be a "thug" -- since that's what/who Captain Meadows is hoping to find, and claiming this gets him to England -- but the ruse backfires on him when a series of headless bodies start showing up around town. Inevitably, the authorities assume Amir Ali is involved (and, of course, he isn't), so he has to clear his name by assisting in finding out who is responsible.
As far as themes go, there's quite a lot packed into the story, and Khair takes advantage of all his options: phrenology, Eastern cultures in Victorian London, Victorian London itself (in all its grungy glory), among other things. Khair is an exceptionally skilled writer, in the sense that every sentence is meaningful, every word counts, every statement is there for a reason; so even if this is not a particularly long book it has a lot to say. It's dense and requires a close read to appreciate it fully, but it's worth the effort.
In addition, Khair does a great job of infusing the story with just the right atmosphere. The book cover notes influences of authors such as Wilkie Collins and Michael Chabon. I'd say there are also hints of the eeriness that Sheridan Le Fanu gave to his stories, and at some moments I felt like I was walking through the London of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland (which I'll note, for the record, is intended to be set well after the setting of The Thing About Thugs -- maybe it's just something about the ambience of London in general).
Highly recommended. Curl up with it on a rainy afternoon (or three), and get lost in a ripping good yarn.
My thanks to TLC Book Tours and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for making this book available to me for review.
Year of publication: 2012
Number of pages: 244
*See here for more information. It was entirely new to me, and I feel a little foolish that I was unfamiliar with the history/meaning of the word.