1920s India – a place of racial tension and resentment against the British Raj. Superintendent Chris Le Fanu can see more than most of the other Police and Government officials he works with that this tension, resentment and changing society will bring, and is bringing, trouble. The confusion in his life is not merely professional however; his personal life is causing problems. This is a book that works on so many levels as a novel of the politics of the times, a description of the different communities that are beginning to prise the country apart, but most successfully and intensely, of a man of some integrity trying to save lives in impossible circumstances. It gives a vivid picture of the streets, clubs and other organisations that Le Fanu encounters, but also the people that he cares about or finds difficult to deal with. This is the fourth Le Fanu book, but the comprehensive style of writing means that it can be read very much as a standalone book. This is much more than a historical police procedural as the action expands into the violent jealousy of a colleague with his own agenda against the background of civil disturbance. I was extremely grateful to read a copy of this book as part of a book blog tour.
As the book opens Le Fanu is just returning to Madras from a spell of work in the Straits Settlements. I was unsure of the geography of this book, but it proves to be a very different place culturally and socially, as well as a place that has meant a new romantic liaison for Le Fanu. His return is made uneasy by his friends and colleagues Habi and Jackson whose working lives have been made more difficult by his absence and the actions by the completely irrational and criminally incompetent senior officer. The language becomes rather strong, but well in keeping with the characters. While Le Fanu tries to sort out the competing claims on him, an old love becomes dangerously ill. As he tries to engage with a complex web of would be assassins, those intent on attacking communities and other crimes, the whole chain of command is unstable. He is a fallible man from whom miracles are demanded; yet this is a completely convincing narrative of his situation in dramatic circumstances.
It says much for the flair of the writing in this book that even though I had not previously encountered Stoddart’s books, I was able to keep track of the characters and setting easily and enjoyably. As the complexity of working with armed police and soldiers increases, Stoddart manages to focus on the personal as Habi’s concern for the Muslim community increases in the face of dangerous forces. This is a more than satisfactory book, as the characters are well established and differentiated, and the history of a rapidly changing society is well conveyed. As historical fiction it is excellent, as a crime novel it succeeds in being far more than a murder mystery in its complexity and humanity. Despite my initial misgivings concerning a book about a situation I was largely ignorant of, this turned out to be a real insight into communities and characters I felt were invested with real life, and I would certainly seek out other books by this exceptional writer.
Meanwhile in the Vicarage, a great variety of Christmas events saw me wrestling with Christingles, bottles of wine and hand held microphones! Happily all went well and no burns were sustained as over a hundred people lit and handled candles! As today is our Thirty fifth wedding anniversary, no doubt more treats are to come!