Publication :Selkirk International Pty on 30 Nov. 2018
Superintendent Chris Le Fanu returns to Madras from Penang where he leaves his new Straits Chinese love interest, Jenlin Koh, and a tempting new post in police intelligence there. He finds Hindu-Muslim tension on the rise in Madras, and his friends and subordinates Mohammad Habibullah and Jackson Caldicott at loggerheads as a result. A series of Muslim murders around the Presidency adds more tension. Le Fanu’s arch enemy, Inspector-General Arthur “The Jockey” Jepson is reacting recklessly to the new conditions, then Le Fanu has to travel to Hyderabad where his former housekeeper and lover Roisin McPhedren is seriously ill. Le Fanu swings between his personal and professional challenges as a gang of revolutionaries and Hindu nationalists from North India travel south to aggravate the troubles. Le Fanu and Jepson clash head-on as the latter causes several policemen to be killed, and Le Fanu is losing support because his main civil service protectors are leaving Madras. Just as he seems close to overcoming all these problems, news arrives that Jenlin Koh is on board a ship reported missing near Ceylon. How will Le Fanu cope?
I am very pleased indeed to be welcoming Brian Stoddart to Live and Deadly today. Today is the publication day of Brian’s 4th Superintendent LeFanu book, A Greater God. These acclaimed books are incredibly popular and Adrian McKinty, Edgar Awards winning author, referred to the books as “One of my current favourite mystery series. Always superbly well researched & supremely witty these books capture colonial era India’s (particularly Madras) glamour, mores, hypocrisy, racism & skullduggery with delightful aplomb. Highly recommended!”
The Superintendent LeFanu books are a historical series set at the time of British rule in the Raj. I invited Brian Stoddart to discuss the LeFanu series and the context in which it is set. After reading this, I need to go back and read the whole series in order!
Over to you, Brian.
“Superintendent Chris Le Fanu embodies, among other things, the complex lives of those who represented Great Britain around its late-stage Empire.
Contrary to popular perception the Raj was not monolithic, and in all service arms men like Le Fanu questioned the nature of British rule, even its legitimacy. Bernard Houghton served in Burma but became a trenchant critic of Britain’s role, a communist associate of Indian radicals in England, and subject of a Delhi Special Branch file. In Madras, Arthur Galletti (mentioned throughout the Le Fanu series) was a constant if not so radical gadfly. And the most noted recusant was that other Burma man, Eric Blair aka George Orwell.
In places like Madras, especially after 1918, service personnel worried about their futures, with concern ranging from professional self-interest through to an ideological fear for Britain’s global future.
That led officers like Le Fanu to look more kindly, even supportively upon India’s rising nationalism led by the Indian National Congress – it is worth remembering that among its 1885 founders included another Indian Civil Service renegade, Allan Octavian Hume, also remembered as the “father” of Indian ornithology. Unlike Le Fanu, for most that tolerance did not extend to Gandhi, who inspired hatred among imperialists generally from Winston Churchill down.
The micro-level crimes and social rebellions that Le Fanu and his colleagues confront throughout the books reflect a cultural struggle for India’s future. Through institutions and practices like the clubs, cricket grounds, libraries, museums, architecture, food, universities and, of course, the police and the legal system, Britain tried to turn India into something that it was not, in the name of “improvement’.
Le Fanu is a marker for change, caught uncomfortably between his shifting views on India and the government system he serves. This tension is ever-present in the mysteries, aggravated in A Greater God by British India’s handling of emerging parallel demands for more Hindu dominance on the one hand, and creation of a separate Muslim state on the other.
Islam arrived in India around the turn of the seventh century CE, their presence later consolidated with the arrival of the Mughal Empire whose best known symbol for most people around the world remains the Taj Mahal. The southern-most offshoot of that later incursion was in Hyderabad, where the Nizams ruled from 1724 until 1948 it was taken forcibly into the Indian Union. Hyderabad features prominently in A Greater God with Le Fanu learning more there about the differences between princely and British India.
Up until the First World War, Muslim leaders served within the Indian National Congress believing they could and should co-exist with Hindus in any independent state. But the defeat then dismemberment of the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire changed all that and, as the novel outlines, India’s Muslims became disillusioned and divided on how best they might survive in a changed environment. During the war some even supported the Ottomans against Britain and its allies, driven purely by faith.
That aggravated Hindu-Muslim relations in and outside Congress, and from the early 1920s onwards sparked the drive for a separate Muslim organisation and, ultimately, a separate home. Muhammad Ali Jinnah then emerged more prominently, by 1933 the term Pakistan (or Pakstan) had been created, then 1947 saw Partition and all its terrible bloodshed.
Le Fanu sees all that beginning through the personal difficulties that the clash of faiths causes between his two best allies, Assistant Superintendents Muhammad Habibullah and Jackson Caldicott. Normally good friends and colleagues, Habi’s concern for the future of his fellow Muslims alienates Caldicott who reacts like most British did at the time. Effectively, Le Fanu does not like the future he sees here, but struggles to cope because of the cultural barriers.
In his case, the same goes for women. Awkward in his relationships at best, in this colonial setting Le Fanu struggles even more, as highlighted throughout A Greater God in his constant struggle to choose between Ro McPhedren, his Anglo-Indian (mixed race) former housekeeper and lover, and Jenlin Koh, the Straits Chinese woman from Penang met in A Straits Settlement. With both he has to deal with ruling class perceptions about “fit and proper partners” – neither woman conforms with those perceptions, making Le Fanu look even odder to his colleagues.
The prevailing attitudes towards these women underscores the difficulties most women had in India and in colonial settings generally – they led tough and isolated lives, were restricted to home duties and patronising social work, their children were sent off to boarding schools at impossibly early ages, and in many cases they themselves became culturally stranded while their men conducted the antics seen in the Le Fanu stories.
Le Fanu, then, is a touchstone for British India and a witness for the country’s journey towards independence, as well as a participant in the daily struggles of life out in the far flung reaches of Empire.”
Absolutely fascinating and I can now understand why the Ngaio Marsh judges described Brian Stoddart as “a marvellous prose stylist with an impressive command of dialogue in particular; he uses setting superbly, captures the political absurdities of the place and time, and subtly foreshadows the loss of a colonial grip in the region. First-class crime writing.”.
Brian Stoddart is a writer of fiction and non-fiction who is now based in Queenstown, New Zealand. Born and educated a Kiwi he has worked around the world as an academic, university executive, aid and development consultant, broadcaster,commentator and blogger.
He works as an international higher education consultant and has worked on programs in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Syria and Jordan as well as in the UK and USA. This work follows a successful career as university researcher, teacher and senior executive which culminated in a term as Vice-Chancellor and President of La Trobe University in Australia where he is now an Emeritus Professor. That academic career took him all over the world including long periods in India, Malaysia, Canada, the Caribbean, China and Southeast Asia.
He has written extensively on sports history, politics and culture as well as on India and south Asia in which field he completed his PhD.
Most recently he has begun writing on his contemporary experiences, beginning with his life in an old house in the Old City of Damascus immediately before the upheavals of 2011-12.
He is now also a crime novelist. A Madras Miasma was the first in a series of books set in 1920s Madras in India, and featuring Superintendent Chris Le Fanu. The Pallampur Predicament was the second and A Straits Settlement appeared in 2016 as the third.
He also writes extensively for mainstream and new media as well as expert commentary for press, radio and television. Brian is also a cruise ship lecturer, specialising in international affairs and history.
In his spare time, he enjoys photography, reading (especially crime fiction),travel to new places, and listening to music, especially gypsy jazz