The period of the British Raj in India is a fascinating time and I’ve read two books recently that used it as a backdrop to criminal events. The first probably needs no introduction to readers of this blog. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is, of course, considered to be one of the first British crime novels. But the moonstone of the book’s title is a large diamond stolen by an army officer which results in three Hindu priests coming to England to reclaim it. It’s an excellent novel and I very much enjoyed rereading it over the summer.
The second book, however, is a recent novel by Australian writer Brian Stoddart. A Madras Miasma features Superintendent Chris Le Fanu of the Special Crime Unit in the Indian police and his sergeant Habibullah who investigate the death of a young British woman. The dead woman had come to India as part of the ‘fishing fleet’ looking for a husband amongst the officers and other colonial officials. However, British rule in the country is under pressure and, as tensions mount, Le Fanu becomes embroiled in a political scandal reaching to the top echelons of Madras society.
You can usually tell from the first page the quality of an writer’s prose. Brian Stoddart is already the author of a couple of non-fiction books and his writing is excellent. It’s exactly the sort of prose I like to read: tightly constructed sentences within a more free flowing narrative.
The murder plot, the killing of Jane Carstairs, provides a fascinating insight to Madras life at that time. British women, nearing their thirties, would come to India on the search of a husband and the phenomena is both socially accepted and widely derided. Le Fanu is separated from his wife and having a relationship with his servant, Ro, an Anglo-Indian. Stoddart details the problems of women of mixed British and Indian ancestry who are forbidden access to either society. Ro is a sympathetic character whose education hardly helps her progress beyond the restrictions imposed on her.
The political troubles, combined with what turns out to be particularly vicious murder, makes this a page turning read and I found myself thinking about the book when I wasn’t reading it. For me it’s a sign of a good novel and I’m looking forward to the sequel which I believe is out this year.
Thanks to the author for my copy.