500 Words From...is a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books. Here Brian Stoddart explains the background behind A Madras Miasma, published by Crime Wave Press.
Brian Stoddart is a writer, blogger, commentator, and academic. He is a former Vice-Chancellor and President of La Trobe University in Australia where he is now an Emeritus Professor, in addition to being a Distinguished Fellow of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne. Brian has lived and worked all around the world, most recently in Phnom Penh and Damascus - he wrote about the city in A House in Damascus: Before the Fall, an account of life immediately prior to the present conflict. He has published widely on aspects of India’s modern history.
A Madras Miasma is Brian's first novel. It introduces Superintendent Chris Le Fanu of the Indian Police Service, who heads a new investigative crime unit in 1920s Madras. He clashes with the city’s Commissioner just when the rise of Gandhi’s nationalist movement is making the European community fear for its future. Le Fanu thinks political change is inevitable, so he is considered almost a traitor by his colleagues. Meanwhile, his wife has left him, and he is now controversially involved with his housekeeper, a mixed race Anglo-Indian. When a young Englishwoman is found murdered, Le Fanu uncovers a drug ring led by the city’s leading European businessman, thus further upsetting the city’s elite and putting his career at risk.
So: 500 Words From….Brian Stoddart
Madras, now called Chennai, was the first non-Western city I lived in way back in the last millennium, and remains a favourite anywhere among many. I read about it extensively in my PhD research so “knew” it as an entity when I arrived. Crime fiction does that, too: I “knew” where to go in Venice when I arrived there, having read all Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels! My cultural knowledge of Madras, though, grew over years as the city, like most in India, changed greatly but somehow retained its distinctiveness.
My research on British India’s Madras Presidency revealed as much socially as it did politically, and introduced me to many characters whose real lives sounded like fiction. I mention in particular Arthur Galletti, an extraordinary Anglo-Italian who served as an Indian Civil Service officer in Madras from 1900 to 1934. I decided he was so interesting I wrote his biography. Click here for details.
My dissertation concerned the rise of Indian nationalism in the south, but I became just as fascinated by people like Galletti and their families who shipped out from Britain to find themselves hundreds of miles from a major centre, overseeing millions of people as the Raj clung precariously to power. What made these people tick?
Although my academic interests later varied, India always remained a focus. So did my reading of crime fiction. Much is now written about the genre, but one driving interest for me was always the interaction between characters, events and places with locations shaping stories. The Kiwi crime writer Ngaio Marsh set the pace when from the 1930s to the 1950s she had her main character relocate from London to New Zealand in several stories, but the real trend for linking crime and place came later. It is typified in the so-called tartan noir of Ian Rankin and his successors and in writers like Barbara Nadel (Istanbul), Andrea Camilleri (Sicily), Jason Webster (Spain), Michael Walters (Mongolia), Mukoma Wa Ngugi (Kenya) and numerous others. This is the social geography of crime, represented in Southeast Asia by writers like Colin Cotterill, Sharmini Flint and Tom Vater, to name a few.
Given my background, when I wanted to write about British India in a different way, an historical crime novel was the obvious choice - and that led to Superintendent Le Fanu. A little research will reveal three things: there was a nineteenth century Madras Indian Civil Service officer called William Joseph Henry Le Fanu; he was a relative of another Le Fanu who became Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia; and he was also related to the Irish crime/horror writer Sheridan Le Fanu. The name selected itself. Similarly, much of the context for A Madras Miasma is formed by the actual events of the early 1920s and some real historical figures appear, hopefully adding authenticity to the story.
A Madras Miasma is the first title in a projected series. The second Le Fanu novel is under way - he will return with another case later this year or early next. Once again, the story is as much about Madras as about him, the city is his marker.
A Madras Miasma is currently available as an eBook. A paperback is forthcoming, the date to be announced.