A couple of months ago I received a strange request on my blog. If the writer would be kind enough to send his postal address it ran, he would receive a book. Now books have always been my weakness and so I responded at once. The sender was however not a one-eyed Chinaman with a pronounced limp but Australian author Brian Stoddart. An acknowledged international authority on sports and culture, he specialises in Asia, being a commentator on affairs here for more than forty years. In fact his Ph D was on the history of modern India. Brian, having worked in various countries across Asia has also authored sixteen non-fiction books. And then he turned to crime fiction. The first in that genre happens to be A Madras Miasma, a whodunit set in our own city of Chennai.
When the book arrived I was not impressed by its cover. Obviously done by an artiste who knew perhaps just Delhi and maybe parts of Rajasthan I reflected, for it featured an arched gateway through which veiled women were walking up and down. I wondered if the rest of the book was the same. After all when you have once read a novel that claimed to be set here and featured women bathing topless on the beach, you know what to expect. But A Madras Miasma was completely different. I have rarely come across a work of fiction that is so well researched. The author who set himself the difficult task of capturing the Madras of the 1920s has barring a couple of very minor errors, excelled himself.
At the heart of the story is the Superintendent of Police Christian Jolyon Brenton Le Fanu, a Britisher despite that odd sounding name. The history of the police force in Madras has had names such as LeBon, LeGeyt, LeNeve and Loveluck. So Le Fanu is not out of place. We first meet him standing in knee-deep water in the Buckingham Canal (ugh!!) trying to reach out to the body of a dead (and but naturally, a beautiful) English woman. She is in faultless evening dress, and we can only pray that she was dead before she was pushed into the canal. Had she been alive, she would have experienced a fate worse than death.
Le Fanu’s search for the killer has him going up and down Madras. He lives in an independent bungalow on Edward Elliots (now Radhakrishnan) Road, itself named after a Police Chief who coveted a friend’s wife and got away with her. You find him going to haunts that we can all recognise – the Madras Club, then where the Express Avenue Mall is now, the Secretariat, then as now in Fort St George, the General Hospital, still where it was then, the British business houses on First Line Beach, alas all gone barring EID Parry, the houses of the Sahibs in the Adyar area, the Board of Revenue building at Chepauk, now a burnt out shell and the Governor’s weekend retreat at Guindy, now the Raj Bhavan.
As he moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform, always shadowed by his boss who is eager to see him fail, Le Fanu interacts with characters who though fictional are easily recognisable to any student of Madras history. There are English women who are here to find a suitable match, boxwallahs drowning business stresses in alcohol, freedom fighters staging meetings on the beach, pompous civil servants (call me “Third Member and don’t refer to me by name” says a particularly obnoxious specimen) and the Governor himself, in this case, a real historic personality – Lord Willingdon.
Back at home, Le Fanu relaxes in the company of his Anglo-Indian housekeeper, his wife having gone back to England, preparatory to filing for divorce. He clearly loves his Madras, rejoicing in traditional South Indian breakfasts and refreshing himself by driving along the Beach or down Mount Road all the way to Guindy.
The murder of the Englishwoman comes at a particularly tense moment for the administration of Madras. The First World War is over but Jalianwala Bagh has also happened and that means a spurt in the freedom related activities. The Press and the people appear to have lost faith in the Government and those in office who are sympathetic to Indian interests are viewed with suspicion by upper crust British society in the city. It is in this matrix that Le Fanu has to work and find out who exactly killed Jane Carstairs. She may be dead for the full length of the book, but what comes alive is the city. If you like murder mysteries and love Chennai, then this book is for you. May be I should do a Le Fanu heritage tour one of these days.
A Madras Miasma
Author: Brian Stoddart
Publisher: Crime Wave Press
Price: Rs 876
This review appeared in The Hindu’s Literary Review page on Sunday, December 7, 2014