Thursday, May 26, 2016


A STRAITS SETTLEMENT by Brian Stoddart (Crime Wave Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

In the third installment of the Le Fanu Mystery series, the intrepid superintendent is promoted to Inspector-General of Police in 1920s Madras, which proves to be more boring than he had envisaged. Instead of pushing papers across his desk, Le Fanu focuses on the disappearance of a senior Indian Civil Service officer and an apparently unrelated murder. As the two incidents intertwine, the world-weary detective is drawn into the worlds of indentured labour recruitment and antiquities theft.

The Le Fanu series from author Brian Stoddart is one of those extremely elegant combinations of mystery fiction and historical lesson that also provides entertainment for readers. There's even a bit of good old fashioned romance from the male point of view. In short, there's something for all readers within these pages.

The third book, A STRAITS SETTLEMENT sees Le Fanu promoted above his desired wishes to acting Inspector-General, buried in paperwork and oddly behaving subordinate officers, increasingly desperate to resolve his ongoing faltering love affair with a local Anglo-Indian woman. It's not surprising that this reluctant bureaucrat seizes the opportunity to get back into some proper investigating work when a senior Civil Service member goes missing, and a seemingly unrelated murder occurs.

The sense of place and time in this series is absolutely pitch perfect - using as always something from the time as an element of the crime - in this case highly suspect indentured labour recruitment, people smuggling and antiquities theft. Always though, the ongoing question of British rule in India and the bubbling pressure for independence forms the backdrop, with elements of the struggle between colonial thinking and posturing and the reality of day to day life for the people cleverly incorporated. Le Fanu is the point of difference in the Colonial powers, and in the day to day society, with the manner in which he runs his household, his love affairs and his interactions with the locals. Even his food choices are not what the Colonial powers would approve of.

The manner in which Stoddart writes these books is pitch perfect. The historical elements, the factual tidbits, are built into the narrative in a way that lets the reader learn a lot and experience what it must have been like in that part of the world at that time. The mystery elements remain to the forefront and the personal bits and pieces are dotted throughout creating a character with depth. Le Fanu is not just a totally believable character he's nicely vulnerable, complicated and extremely easy to connect with. A series that really hasn't put a foot wrong, A STRAITS SETTLEMENT pushes the story of Le Fanu, his life and his future forward, setting up some major changes for the next book. Really looking forward to that.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and the Ned Kelly Awards. She kindly shares her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

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