Today on its final day, I’m welcoming the blog tour for Brian Stoddart’s The Greater God to A Knight’s Reads. I’ve got a fabulous guest post from the author all about location, location, location.
Big thanks to the fabulous Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me on the blog tour.
Superintendent Chris Le Fanu returns to Madras from Penang where he leaves his new Straits Chinese love interest, Jenlin Koh, and a tempting new post in police intelligence there. He finds Hindu-Muslim tension on the rise in Madras, and his friends and subordinates Mohammad Habibullah and Jackson Caldicott at loggerheads as a result. A series of Muslim murders around the Presidency adds more tension. Le Fanu’s arch enemy, Inspector-General Arthur “The Jockey” Jepson is reacting recklessly to the new conditions, then Le Fanu has to travel to Hyderabad where his former housekeeper and lover Roisin McPhedren is seriously ill. Le Fanu swings between his personal and professional challenges as a gang of revolutionaries and Hindu nationalists from North India travel south to aggravate the troubles. Le Fanu and Jepson clash head-on as the latter causes several policemen to be killed, and Le Fanu is losing support because his main civil service protectors are leaving Madras. Just as he seems close to overcoming all these problems, news arrives that Jenlin Koh is on board a ship reported missing near Ceylon. How will Le Fanu cope?
The Guest Post
When I put Chris Le Fanu into Madras and other “exotic” locations, it is the specific expression of my general fascination with “place” and, more particularly, “crime and place”. We might think there is a lot of that about now, but it has been present from the modern start of crime fiction, when you think about it.
If most of the action in The Moonstone is set in England, it is initiated by a band of mysterious emissaries from India, and its denouement reported from there. Sherlock Holmes faces his ultimate test at Reichenbach Falls. Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express are two obvious examples. Thanks to Ian Rankin, Edinburgh now is Tartan Noir Central. Barbara Nadel has done the same for Istanbul, Parker Bilal for Cairo, Fred Vargas and others for Paris and so the list goes. Los Angeles has been the quintessential crime site as demonstrated most recently by Michael Connolly.
That old joke about there being no inhabitants left in Midsomer underlines the spread of location to smaller centres thanks to talented writers like Sarah Ward, David Mark, Pauline Rowson and many more in the United Kingdom. The same applies to Iceland, and to all the other Scandi works that presently dominate crime fiction and drama. Then there is Tony Hillerman, who always acknowledged that his Navajo Police series owed a lot to Arthur Upfield’s Australian novels. And speaking of Australia, Jane Harper is now the most notable exponent of “outback” crime.
For me, this fascination with crime and place began with growing up in a small country town in Mid-Canterbury, New Zealand from which standpoint everything seemed exotic, by definition. Being cricket-mad, I supported West Indies when not obliged to follow the ever-dismal New Zealand sides of those days. How was it those people came to be so good at the game and “we” were not? (That question became an academic passion, and led to me playing and writing about cricket in Barbados). Then there those South African rugby players with all those strange names. Why? When I got to university (“first in family”, as it would now be termed), one of my first courses was on Pacific and Asian Studies that introduced me to India and China as well as places like Samoa.
In hindsight, it was inevitable I pursue an academic career in something like that, and it happened to be India because of a marvellous teacher at the University of Canterbury, Ian Catanach. The long journey towards Le Fanu began in tutorials conducted in his garret-like room perched in what was the old Arts building at the original university site in Christchurch (now the Arts centre refurbished after the most recent earthquakes). Learning there throughout winter was a very far cry from the heat and difference of Madras where I ended up just a couple of years later.
Being trained as an historian was fortuitously good preparation for writing crime fiction, even if it took a few years to get there. History is about characters, patterns, cause and effect, a respect for facts leavened by the need to speculate and theorise. And as I went through that training the “history from below” movement, focusing on the stories of ordinary people as pioneered by, say, Gareth Steadman Jones and made popular by George Rude’s wonderful work on the French revolution, began reckoning the fates of the victims to balance an earlier fixation on the vanities of the perpetrators.
At the risk of a vast over-generalisation, that mirrored the switch from a Golden Age preoccupation with “the puzzle” to a more modernistic one – the “psychological thriller” – in which motivations and consequences have become far more prominent.
So India began that journey for me, and later work took me to Malaysia, China, South Africa, Canada, Cambodia, Laos, Jordan, Syria and (yes) West Indies in addition to a few others. Those experiences simply heightened my fascination with how “place” develops and manifests itself. The differences among and between peoples lies at the heart of that, a powerful interplay between physical location and distinctive social behaviours. That is why the “flavours” of all those great “crime and place” works are differ so much in Edinburgh, Cairo, Istanbul, Los Angeles, the American southwest and the Australian outback.
That distinctiveness, the interplay between place and people, is central to the Le Fanu novels, I hope. The man makes his own decisions, yes, but they are shaped by social patterns and mores of the places in which he finds himself. In A Greater God, he must readjust to being back in Madras from the Straits Settlements where people and the ways of doing things were so different. Then he travels to Secunderabad, British India’s largest military town, right next to Hyderabad, one of the largest princely states run only indirectly by the British. He also finds himself in Guntur, a provincial centre at the heart of Gandhi’s defiant passive resistance campaigns. These are all very different locations, full of very different people who influence Le Fanu’s thoughts and actions.
And, of course, those thoughts and actions are inevitably contoured in some way by the experiences of his creator, a variation on “write what you know”, perhaps, but that awaits another story.
Many thanks Brian for that insightful post! I do love distinct backdrop to my crime fiction, both here in the UK and around the world!
Who is Brian Stoddart?
Brian Stoddart is a writer of fiction and non-fiction who is now based in Queenstown, New Zealand. Born and educated a Kiwi he has worked around the world as an academic, university executive, aid and development consultant, broadcaster, commentator and blogger.
He works as an international higher education consultant and has worked on programs in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Syria and Jordan as well as in the UK and USA. This work follows a successful career as university researcher, teacher and senior executive which culminated in a term as Vice-Chancellor and President of La Trobe University in Australia where he is now an Emeritus Professor. That academic career took him all over the world including long periods in India, Malaysia, Canada, the Caribbean, China and Southeast Asia.
He has written extensively on sports history, politics and culture as well as on India and south Asia in which field he completed his PhD.
Most recently he has begun writing on his contemporary experiences, beginning with his life in an old house in the Old City of Damascus immediately before the upheavals of 2011-12.
He is now also a crime novelist. A Madras Miasma was the first in a series of books set in 1920s Madras in India, and featuring Superintendent Chris Le Fanu. The Pallampur Predicament was the second and A Straits Settlement has appeared in 2016 as the third.
He also writes extensively for mainstream and new media as well as expert commentary for press, radio and television. Brian is also a cruise ship lecturer, specialising in international affairs and history.
In his spare time, he enjoys photography, reading (especially crime fiction), travel to new places, and listening to music, especially gypsy jazz