They say, nobody reads a mystery in search of the middle; they read it to get to the crux – if it’s a downer, quite simply, they won’t buy you anymore. A detective fiction, in itself, must necessarily be a predicament – a seam, screaming to be deboned, the obligation being constant and the powers of supply variable. With time, the reader grows more refined and tricky to gratify and the novelist, more fatigued. And, this is what happens in the case of Barbara Cleverly, a British writer, whose first novel The Last Kashmiri Rose takes place in India, 1922.
Setting a story against an exotic historical milieu is a time-honoured practice. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle loved to create elaborate backdrops for characters in his Sherlock Holmes tales. Likewise, Agatha Christie liked to position her contemporary novels in far-flung lands. Cleverly tries treading on their footsteps but doesn’t quite match up to the standards.
As the star of the series, Cleverly creates Commander Joe Sandilands of London’s Metropolitan Police. He is a World War I veteran, who entered into police work as an expected progression from military intelligence service. Other than being tall and good-looking, except for a battle scar, he is also single, which leaves him at ease to shape sporadic liaisons with fascinating ladies along the journey, as and when required. Unlike many protagonists in this genre, Sandilands doesn’t have any noteworthy vices or idiosyncrasies.
The primary action of The Last Kashmiri Rose takes place at a military and government base in Panikhat, about 50 miles south of Calcutta, where an officer’s wife has just been murdered in a rather horrific way. Joe quickly learns that this murder is only the latest in a series of similar crimes that began in 1910 with the death of another officer’s wife in a terrible house fire.
Cleverly begins her narrative with a brief telling of the events surrounding that incident – a tactic that she makes use of in the succeeding novels in the series, as well. For this escapade, Joe has two companions – Nancy Drummond, a sharp, quick-witted and eye-catching young woman, who is married to one of the high-ranking government officials on the base and Naurung Singh – a young Sikh officer, who is assigned to work with Joe on the investigation.
Cleverly does a neat job of demarcating the imbalance of British India’s hierarchical society. However, as austerely as it might have begun, the issue of a possible native turbulence once the mystery is solved, dies a hushed death. None of the characters lose sleep over it again; instead, in a perfectly parlour-mystery mode, the murders are solved and society easily slips back normalcy.
Equally disquieting is the romance between Sandilands and Nancy Drummond, for it’s hardly plausible that two members of the British upper-middle-class in the early 1920s would foxtrot so gaily into an affair, without so much as fluttering an eyelid over the potential scandal. With just about an ephemeral mention of “looseness of morals” in colonial India, this anachronistically modern couple appear blithely nonchalant about taking a roll or two in the hay in broad daylight!
Moving on, Ragtime in Simla picks up from where The Last Kasmiri Rose ends, around March 1922.
After the opening episode prepares the leg for the mystery, we find our hero aboard a train to the mountain town of Simla. In this novel, Joe has Simla’s Police Superintendent Charlie Carter as his sidekick, who courteously accepts Joe’s participation in the investigation that is to follow.
Alarm rings as Joe’s travelling companion; a Russian opera singer is shot at his side on the road up to Simla and the detective finds himself neck-deep into a murder investigation, which has its roots in the aftermath of the First World War. As the obscurity unfolds, he finds that behind the dazzling facade of the social life in Simla, lies a shadow of murder, vice and blackmail.
And as far as The Damascened Blade is concerned, it is once again, like the former, a tale of revenge, tracing the legacy of a bitter grudge, with roots embedded deep in the past. Where Cleverly distinctly falls short, is her characterisation, not to mention her uncanny tendency of revealing more than requisite at inopportune moments. A criminal demands unusual detecting – he is the creative artiste, the detective – merely a critic.
Sandilands, who is up on his Freud and Jung is full of elaborate theories – as to how killers are created and sustained; he needs to realise that criminal profiling is hardly news! Noticeably thin on personality, he is easy-going and diplomatic and appears anything but intelligent (despite repeated claims by those around him)!
Also, Cleverly lacks precision. The long descriptive passages; dallying with side issues and atmospheric preoccupation hold up the action and introduces issues irrelevant to the chief purpose. Where the crime should disrupt the status quo for readers to take pleasure in the transgressive thrill; to survey approvingly as the detective sets things right, Sandilands becomes monotonously predictable and that’s where Cleverly fails to make the grade!