A Straits Settlement by Brian Stoddart

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A Straits Settlement

It is the summer of 1923, and Madras is so hot that even the locals are finding it hard going. Many of the British civil servants, who still run India, are suffering torments inside their formal suits and starched collars. One employee of the Raj, however, is coping better than others, as he is widely regarded by more conservative colleagues to have ‘gone native’, both in dress and lifestyle.

Superintendent Christian Le Fanu is an English policeman who, despite considerable bravery during World War I, has vowed never to set foot in the land of his birth again. His lover is a woman of mixed race, and he strives to do his job efficiently while treating law abiding Indian people with fairness and respect.

Le Fanu has been festering behind a desk for months since taking on the position of Acting Inspector General, and he welcomes the chance to get his hands dirty once more, as he is asked to investigate a disappearance and a death. The disappearance is of a minor functionary of the Raj from the country town he helped administer, and the death is that of the son of a powerful – and widely disliked – British entrepreneur and colonialist.

Brian Stoddart is a university professor who has studied South Asia extensively, and his knowledge of India and its history is immense. The beauty of his writing, however, is that he shares his learning with the lightest of touches, so that after a chapter or two you’ll feel you know all the steps in the elaborate dance between the British administration and the steadily growing but irresistible forces of Indian nationalism. Stoddart spoke to us in this interview, and revealed his deep love for India and its many complexities.

But this is a crime story, and not a masterclass in colonial diplomacy – or a lack thereof. Does the story convince? Yes, without qualification. If you want white knuckle tension and big set-piece action you will not find them here, but what you do have is beautifully stylish writing, a wonderful foil to Le Fanu in the Indian policeman Habibullah, and a sense of place and time which stands shoulder to shoulder with the very the best in historical fiction. Le Fanu himself is, paradoxically, both complex and straightforward. He can wear his heart on his sleeve, but a dispiriting – and failed – marriage has left him both vulnerable and indecisive when it comes to his relationships with women.

Le Fanu’s search for the missing Southlake, and the all-too-dead Hargood takes him far from Madras, and to the exotic Malay island of Penang, where he finds a beguiling mixture of colonial and Chinese culture. He also finds himself in the equally beguiling arms of a beautiful Chinese woman. Unfortunately, she is the daughter of a wealthy merchant who appears to be right at the centre of Le Fanu’s investigations.

This is the third episode in Christian Le Fanu’s career following A Madras Miasma and The Pallampur Predicament. The title refers to three British colonies at the time called Straights Settlements – Penang, Malacca and Singapore. Not least of Stoddart’s skills is his ability to weave together different themes to make a beautiful whole. Thus, we have a police procedural, a political thriller, an historical drama, a romance, and an intense portrait of a gifted but very complex man. No-one currently writing manages this with as little fuss and fanfare as Stoddart. The book ends with Le Fanu at a crossroads, both in his professional and personal life, and I will be in suspense until the next book reveals which way he has decided to turn.

Crime Wave Press

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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