Crime Scene: BRIAN STODDART A Straits Settlement. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
A third Le Fanu crime novel in under two years will keep Brian Stoddart’s growing army of readers happy.
When the story opens in the 1920s we find Chris Le Fanu undertaking higher duties as Acting Inspector-General of Police for the Madras Presidency with continuing support from Mohammed Habibullah (Habi) and Jackson Caldicott, both promoted to substantive positions as assistant superintendents of the Crime Unit and Special Branch. Unfortunately for LF his work as IG – mainly paper shuffling – is dreary and his private life is unfulfilled. At the end of the previous book, The Pallampur Predicament, he had been joined in Madras by his Anglo-Indian lover and former housekeeper Roisin McPhedren (Ro) and marriage seemed likely. But now she has returned to Hyderabad without saying why. Communication has broken down.
LF needs engagement. Policing is what he is good at. A senior Indian civil servant goes missing, another man is murdered. Both are white men (Irish – Trinity, Dublin; English – Eton, Oxford) so there are probable political ramifications. It concentrates the mind. With the blessing of Chief Secretary Sir Charles Whitney, LF takes charge of the dual investigation.
The main plot moves slowly in the energy-draining Madras heat as well as in Cuddapah, where bureaucratic backs are turned on corrupt practices regarding indentured labour recruitment for the Malay states. While tenuous links are established between missing district magistrate Weston Southlake and Oliver Hargood (the corpse), the son of an aristocrat with widespread business interests in India and the Straits Settlements, it is not until LF crosses the Bay of Bengal to continue his investigation that the pace quickens.
LF’s life remains a muddle. At a personal level his relationship with Ro is unresolved. Politically, as a supporter of Indianisation, he has both friends and enemies in high places. Those on his side are Whitney and the Governor, Lord Willingdon. Those against are two Arthurs who favour the old order of British control: First Member of the Board of Revenue, Arthur Jamieson; and Arthur Jepson, who has telegraphed from Port Said with the message that he is returning to reclaim his job as IG. There are complications. Whitney and Willingdon are set for promotion elsewhere although they promise they will look after LF. The case needs to be solved, and soon.
A further complication arises mid-ocean on the voyage to Penang. The British India Line’s SS Ekma on which LF is travelling is the same ship that carried him to war and horrific hand-to-hand combat against the Ottoman army. He is deep in reverie reliving that experience when disturbed by an alluring fellow passenger:
She was in her thirties, tall, slim, partly Chinese. The cream and laced flapper dress reached her ankles. Low-heeled cream shoes confirmed her height. The peach coloured European style jacket was etched out with Chinese embroidery. Her black hair was fashionably short, surrounding the delicately boned, softly shaped face dominated by deep green eyes.
Who wouldn’t fall in love?
Romance is the last thing LF needs and especially when Jenlin Koh’s businessman father turns out to be at risk of being implicated in illegal indentured labour recruitment and the stolen antiquities trade. Nevertheless he remains an assiduous detective and works well with his new partners – the exotically named René Henry de Solminihac Onraet, Head of Special Branch in the Straits Settlements, and MI6 operative Miles Watson – in bringing the case to its conclusion.
The resolution of the connections between the two cases might appear unsatisfactory. But a weakness can also be a strength. Connections can be too convenient. As LF observes of Southlake, ‘… just how ordinary a story this was, after all the speculation. It was just another personal relationship gone wrong.’
LF drinks numerous cups of coffee and sips glasses of whisky in company with Habi, Caldicott, Whitney, Onraet, Watson and his friend, Madras Mail editor Chester Barnes, reminding us that the lot of a senior policeman is to be always on the job.
Stoddart’s strength as a novelist might seem to be with the politics, history and geography of his various locations, either when tracking Southlake:
The man might be dead, of course. In some ways, Le Fanu thought grimly, that would be the best result, for the Government, if not for the victim. No embarrassing speculations or revelations. For the police it was easier to find a victim than a man who did not want to be found …
– or while travelling to the Law Department in Madras:
The towering High Court domes loomed up on the left, sitting imperiously in leafy gardens that emphasised the idea of the court sitting in judgement, rather than being a part of it. He felt cowed in there, so any Indians appearing before lofty judges must feel insignificant to the point of powerless.
Yet Stoddart also has a sharp eye for the personal: ‘Jamieson oozed from behind the desk, shook Le Fanu’s hand weakly’; ‘Assistant Superintendent Habibullah rolled into a chair’; and he offers an exceptionally vivid description of the Secretary of the Law Department:
Sir Adrian Allison was of average height but well beyond average build, having seen too many club lunches and dinners. The good quality lightweight suit struggled to contain the bulk. A maroon tie stood out horizontally from under the lowest of several jowls before its end fell off a stomach precipice to dangle somewhere about normal belly height. Sparse hair straggled over a red, sweating head, and perspiration streamed from the florid face. Sir Adrian cannoned into the chair behind the desk, jammed between its arms.
I look forward to Le Fanu’s next case.
Brian Stoddart A Straits Settlement Crime Wave Press 2016 PB 272pp $27.95
Bernard Whimpress usually writes on sport and most recently edited a cricket anthology, Baggy Green: A selection 1998-2010.
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