Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Historical novels are perhaps most effective when they bring events and eras to what you might call the human level. If the story concentrates on the plot and people involved, rather than factual details, readers are more easily invited to invest themselves in the story. To show how that works, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Brian Stoddart’s A Madras Miasma, the first of his novels featuring Superintendent Christian Le Fanu.
It’s 1920 in Madras, during the British Raj. The body of a young, European (probably English) woman has been pulled from the Buckingham Canal. Since the victim is European, Le Fanu knows that he and his assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah, will be expected to give the case full priority and solve it quickly.
Within a short time, two important things emerge; one is the victim’s identity. She is Jane Carstairs, an English visitor. She and her friend Virginia Campbell have been staying at the home of Sir Roland Wark during their time in Madras. The other thing that comes out is that Jane was murdered (i.e. this was not an accident).
Now Le Fanu and Habi have the thankless task of tracing the victim’s last days and hours. It’s going to be very delicate, because Jane and Virginia were members of what’s (unflatteringly) called ‘the fishing fleet.’ That term refers to young women, no longer in their early twenties, who haven’t yet found a good husband, and are sometimes desperate to do so. A group of them tends to end up in Madras, looking for officers, doctors, and so on, who might be good husbands. They attend all of the parties, sailing outings, dances and other events that they can, and mingle with everyone. And in this case, ‘everyone’ includes some very highly-placed members of the European establishment in Madras.
Bit by bit, Le Fanu and Habi narrow down the possibilities to a few interviewees. Then, there’s a local protest that turns very, very ugly. And there’s a murder. Since this new victim is involved in the Carstairs case, Le Fanu suspects that this murder was deliberate – ‘disguised’ by the violent protest.
As the investigation continues, Le Fanu discovers that the trail leads to some very high places. This is going to be a problem for him for a few reasons beyond the obvious. One is that Madras Commissioner of Police, Arthur Jepson, already dislikes and distrusts Le Fanu, in part for being ‘too soft’ on Indians. And Jepson is all too eager to sabotage Le Fanu’s career if he can. Another is that the case very likely involves some ‘dirty linen’ that the local establishment does not want aired in public.
Le Fanu is under pressure to solve the case, though. So, with the support of the Inspector General, Sir Maurice Wilson, he and Habi put the pieces of the puzzle together. In the end, they learn that Jane Carstairs’ death has everything to do with some secrets that some highly placed people have been keeping.
One of the most important elements in this novel is its sociocultural context. In this part of India, at this time, there is a very rigid social hierarchy, with Europeans (preferably English people) at the top. There are exclusive clubs and other groups that ensure that power is firmly in the hands of the British; this is nowhere more true than in Madras, which is more conservative than other places in India. As an example, in one sub-plot, Le Fanu faces a personal dilemma. His wife has left him and returned to England; now she wants a divorce. In the meantime, Le Fanu has fallen in love with his housekeeper Roisin McPhedren, who is Anglo-Indian. The feeling is most definitely mutual, and for both of them, it’s much more than an employer taking sexual advantage of a member of his staff. These two truly care about each other. But each knows it’s a doomed relationship. If word of it gets around, that will mean the end of Le Fanu’s career. It’s the end of a ‘respectable’ job for his lover, too.
There is, however, talk of some necessary political and social reform. While the entrenched establishment opposes it vehemently, there are also plenty of people who think the time has come for a more equitable distribution of power. Some even talk of some sort of home rule at some point in the future. The political debate about India’s future isn’t the main theme of the novel. I can say without spoiling the story that it’s also not the motive for the murders. But it does provide a sociopolitical backdrop.
The city of Madras (now known as Chennai) features heavily in the novel, and Stoddart depicts the various socioeconomic strata as they’re reflected in the city’s geography. Readers also get a sense of the lifestyle, daily culture and so on of those who live in that area.
Since the story is told from Le Fanu’s point of view (in third person) readers learn quite a bit about him. Having served in World War I, he has his own share of past trauma, and he is in a sense lonely, especially since he knows that given the culture, he and Roisin can probably not marry. But he’s hardly one to wallow in misery. Readers who are tired of drunken wrecks of sleuths who cannot live functionally will be pleased to know that Le Fanu is quite functional indeed. He’s bright, determined, and skilled. That doesn’t mean he’s perfect or invulnerable; he is neither. But he does his job well.
So does Habi, whom Le Fanu respects and trusts. In fact, given the time and place, they have an unusually interdependent relationship. Habi knows he’s fortunate to have a boss who respects him, so he is loyal. He is not, however, obsequious, and he has his way of preserving his own dignity. He’s good at his job, too.
A Madras Miasma is the story of a crime and cover-up told against the backdrop of the last decades of the British Raj. It offers a close look at the Madras of that time, and features a skilled sleuth who is trying to negotiate the sometimes-difficult sociopolitical situation of the era. But what’s your view? Have you read A Madras Miasma? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 28 December/Tuesday, 29 December – The Dead Pull Hitter – Alison Gordon
Monday, 4 January/Tuesday, 5 January – A Time to Kill – John Grisham (The people have spoken!)
Monday 11 January/Tuesday, 12 January – Dead Before Morning – Geraldine Evans