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Posted on 28 Feb 2019 in Crime Scene |

BRIAN STODDART A Greater God. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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Superintendent Chris Le Fanu is back in his familiar territory of 1920s Madras. In this fourth instalment of the police detective series that began in 2015, Brian Stoddart remains on top of his game.

In Stoddart’s previous book, A Straits Settlement, Le Fanu had been Acting Inspector-General of Police for the Madras Presidency when he was asked to investigate a murder with possible links to corruption regarding indentured labourers recruited from the Malay states. Half of that story was set in Penang, and brought with it wider life options for Le Fanu both in terms of work and romance, as a relationship with Jenlin Koh, a young Chinese businesswoman, unfolded.

His voyage back across the Bay of Bengal in this new story is joyless, but as he enters Madras harbour he reflects on the achievements of — and divisions caused by — British rule, the splendour of Muslim architecture, the city’s sights and sounds, and the wonderful taste of South Indian cuisine. As the SS Ekma berths, Le Fanu’s friends and colleagues, Assistant Superintendent Mohammad Habibullah (Habi), head of the Madras Police Crime Unit, and Assistant Superintendent Justin Caldicott, head of Special Branch, are there to meet him:

Two figures on the wharf stood out. One short, squat and crammed into a deep-blue suit. He was dark complexioned with a face framed by a luxurious but more or less tamed beard. The other was taller, slimmer, whiter, a clothes horse draped in a pale-lemon linen suit and matching silk shirt, offset by a neatly knotted pale-green tie contrasting with the polished tan shoes.

Would his life ever be straightforward? Would India’s future ever be straightforward?

Le Fanu is a man who deals best with the present, and the main police matter is the murder of an important man in the Muslim League and terrorist activity against Muslim business people. The widening issue of the persecution of Muslims drives the main plot but Habi and Caldicott’s varying intelligence sources — which identify people as from ‘up north’, ‘possible Bengalis’, criminals, Congress hardliners and Hindu zealots — produce some tensions between them. What both agree on, at least, is a growing Hindu-Muslim divide.

As he tells Chief Secretary Sir Charles Whitney, Le Fanu has come back to Madras to resign. He has one job offer in Penang and another working with Sir Maurice Wilson as a well-paid police chief for the Nizam of Hyderabad. But Governor Lord Willingdon and Whitney are soon to depart Madras and the two Arthurs — first Member of the Board of Revenue Arthur Jamieson and Inspector-General Arthur Jepson, who has resumed his old job after returning from England — need to be contained. In Jamieson’s case because he is seeking to replace Whitney and is plainly inept. In Jepson’s because he is a dangerous buffoon, a poor policeman and an impossible leader:

Upon becoming Commissioner Jepson took to carrying a crop even though he had visited few horses, especially in these later years. Barrel-like, he would now need a ladder to mount anything bar a Shetland pony. Whenever he was agitated, which was most of the time, everyone knew Jepson was nearby as crop thwacked against polished riding boots worn specifically for the purpose.

That idiosyncrasy sparked one of the great nick-names, Jepson known now as ‘The Jockey’ to all and sundry right up to the Governor.

Jepson is also racist, vindictive, vulgar and increasingly unhinged. He has no regard for political sensitivities and when it comes to policing, ‘You know The Jockey’s approach: never let information inform action,’ as Caldicott puts it. Although Jepson attempts to sideline Le Fanu, he fails as Willingdon and Whitney conspire to second Le Fanu to the Governor’s staff as his personal law-enforcement advisory officer, and he is able to bring Habi and Caldicott along with him. In the longer term, of course, his two colleagues’ futures depend on him. As Jepson stumbles irrecoverably, they need to know whether Le Fanu will take the job of Inspector-General on a permanent basis as he is being pressed to do.

But there remain complicating personal issues. While Le Fanu’s new love Jenlin Koh is sailing to India via Ceylon, his former housekeeper/mistress/lover Ro (Mrs McPhedren) is dangerously ill with typhoid in Hyderabad. Ro’s condition drags Le Fanu to see her on two occasions, and the intervention by Sir Maurice Wilson on the first of these enables her to receive superior medical treatment, which undoubtedly saves her life. As she is recovering, however, Wilson is reluctant to offer more than basic assistance. Such devious behaviour suggests that he is using emotional blackmail to entice Le Fanu to work in his domain.

The main crimes against the Muslim community in Madras are not clear-cut and neither is the investigation into them. What drives the book is the politics, informed as usual by Stoddart’s deep knowledge of Indian history, and the layout of Madras. As in the earlier books the intrigue is conveyed through Le Fanu’s meetings over whiskies with Willingdon and Whitney; and coffees and chat with Habi and Caldicott. Perhaps the solution is untidy because India is in a state of flux.

India is a subcontinent, a land of many races, languages and religions. There is more that divides than unites it, even among those who want the British out. As for the British, there are distinctions between liberals, nuanced conservatives and reactionaries; there are those who can see the inevitability of Indians controlling their own destiny despite the awkwardness of the process of Indianisation, and those who want to maintain British supremacy. As Habi says near the end of the book:

… this country will need a greater god than any we have now if it is to survive. And that will be so whether Indians rule or you British. There are so many Muslims here, we must be able to live together with Hindus.

Hinduisation is not the answer.

If there is one weakness in the narrative, it relates to the author’s treatment of Ro. When Le Fanu makes his first visit to Hyderabad she is at death’s door, yet their conversation is dull and detached. Afterwards when enquiries are made about her condition by Habi, Willingdon, Whitney and Chester Barnes, the liberal-minded editor of the British-read paper, the Mail, they are perfunctory. The characters seem merely to be making the right noises.

On the other hand, the resolution of Le Fanu’s love interest between Jenlin and Ro is neat: perhaps predictable in one instance but containing a surprise.

One curiosity is the reference to a female Muslim journalist who works for Barnes. She is an important source of information but makes no appearance in the novel. Is Brian Stoddart saving her for a later volume? A Greater God is another splendid read and I look forward to following Inspector-General Le Fanu’s exploits in the future.

Brian Stoddart A Greater God Selkirk Books 2018 PB 362pp $26.39

Bernard Whimpress usually writes on sport and his most recent book (with Graeme Ryan) is a biography, Joe Darling: Cricketer, Farmer, Politician and Family Man (2018).

You can buy A Greater God from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.