Sunday, March 15, 2015


A MADRAS MIASMA by Brian Stoddart (Crime Wave Press, 2014)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Madras in the 1920s. The British are slowly losing the grip on the subcontinent. The end of the colonial enterprise is in sight and the city on India’s east coast is teeming with intrigue. A grisly murder takes place against the backdrop of political tension and Superintendent Le Fanu, a man of impeccable investigative methods, is called in to find out who killed a respectable young British girl and dumped her in a canal, her veins clogged with morphine. As Le Fanu, a man forced to keep his own personal relationship a secret for fear of scandal, begins to investigate, he quickly slips into a quagmire of Raj politics, rebellion and nefarious criminal activities that threaten not just to bury his case but the fearless detective himself. 

Set in 1920's India, A MADRAS MIASMA takes place in an India that is looking towards independence from the British. With a strong sense of place, culture and time built in, this is debut crime fiction with potential.

The central character, Superintendent Le Fanu is a complex man in a judgemental and class-riven society. His wife has left him, he's in love with an Anglo-Indian woman, a relationship frowned upon by the ex-pat British "society" that remains influential. His investigative side-kick is a local man, who he admires for his ability, and skill as an investigator. Another point against him on the part of the establishment, of course a man like this is going to be plagued by a hierarchy populated by buffoons and twits - although his particular rod to bear is a particularly odious, and stupid man.

Whilst that hierarchical aspect of our put-upon detective, and the undermining boss is nothing new, it is helped along by the class and societal implications of the power-base that Le Fanu must work within. It's particularly interesting to look at the implications of that, and the relationship of the authorities and the local people, and the "gentry" and the local people, with an eye to the date, and that independence fight. On the one hand the British come across as masters of their own demise, although there are glimpses of the opposite view - people like Le Fanu that appreciate the country and the people.

All of this is built into a good plot, that again feels "of the time". The rather striking discovery of a young woman's body dumped in a canal, leads quickly to the discovery of morphine in her body, taking the investigation of her murder into some dark recesses. Again, interesting historical connections are drawn here - with the ex-pat community made up of business people, military, spies, diplomats and members of the "Fishing Fleet" - young women of a certain age on the hunt for a husband. There are connections at all levels between Britain and India, and the never-ending fight against drug smuggling rings and corruption.

There's a very strong sense of time, place and culture about A MADRAS MIASMA and the story flows well. It feels a little like it could have been written in the 1920's. Le Fanu is a nice balance of put-upon, stand-alone, maverick cop and thinker. A man who is not comfortable in this place, or this time, because of the strictures and petty politics of ex-pat society, who, it has to be said, earns points because of that.

A really enjoyable debut, A MADRAS MIASMA finishes with what feels like the lead in to book two. Hope that's true.


Karen Chisholm is one of the most respected crime fiction reviewers in Australia. An absolute stalwart of antipodean crime fiction, Karen created and has been running her Aust Crime Fiction website since 2006, highlighting a plethora of authors and titles from this part of the world, to the wider world online. It is a terrific resource - please check it out. 

Karen also reviews for other outlets, such as the Newtown Review of Books, and since 2014 has been a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel - the New Zealand crime writing award. Her reviews of New Zealand crime novels will now be shared here on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction


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