John C Adams Reviews 'The Last Kashmiri Rose'
The Last Kashmiri Rose by Barbara Cleverly
(Constable Robinson, 2001)
'The Last Kashmiri Rose' is set in the Golden Age of murder mysteries, the Twenties, but unlike many of the novels of the time it is set in India during the days of the Raj. This makes is a historical murder mystery and the novel won the Crime Writers' Association 'Historical Dagger' award.
Joe Sandilands came through World War One alive but so marked by the experience that he gave up being a lawyer and became a policeman instead. He serves a short stint in India, but still isn't feeling like he understands the country when he is seconded by the Governor of Bengal to solve the mystery behind the deaths of five memsahibs whose husband's serve in a high-profile cavalry regiment, The Bengal Greys. The presence of the governor's niece, Nancy, sweetens the pill and they head off to Panikhat to begin their investigation.
All of the officers' wives have died in March over a course of a number of years. Some of the killings go back a long way. Others were more recent. Two of the women were pregnant. Each died in a way that spoke to their worse fears, and Joe soon realises that the killings were not accidental and that the murderer knew enough about them to personally tailor their deaths to their own nightmares. At the risk of putting some noses out of joint he is determined to discover the culprit and unmask them.
I liked the way that the light of modern thought was cast over the relationship that the British had with India. The distance of time has given us some space to reflect upon our behaviour there in all the many ways that it was wanting and be honest in our reappraisal. Cleverly managed to be warm in her description of the Raj without being uncomfortably nostalgic. Her criticisms of the behaviour of the British in India were fair, and on balance she loved the period and enjoyed writing about it. That came through very clearly in her writing, and it enhanced my enjoyment of the book a great deal. A tricky balance was struck between a genuine love of India and fascination with the subject matter, and seeing the Raj period and the environment through rose-tinted spectacles. 'The Last Kashmiri Rose' was drenched in detail and Cleverly's research was impeccable. I haven't returned to India since I backpacked there in 1991, but I felt like this murder mystery really took me back.
I did guess the identity of the murderer quite early on, but this wasn't necessarily a reflection on the writing or the author. I just got there sooner than I do with other murder mystery books. It wasn't predictable, though, in any way.
The modern perspective meant that a woman and a local policeman were given far more prominence in the investigation than might have been true of the period, but again I appreciated the fairness given to minority characters in 'The Last Kashmiri Rose' because it threw a light on one of the many ways that we could have done better over there.
Joe was warm, funny and intensely likeable. He was modest enough to share credit for his hard work and managed a little romance along the way. 'The Last Kashmiri Rose' was more emotionally engaged with the detective than many murder mysteries and I particularly appreciated that about it. There are six more Joe Sandilands murder mysteries and I'm looking forward to reading more of them.
The comment section is open. See you on Friday for my next post.
Many thanks to Jamie Street, Jon Tyson and Bhavesh Sawant for providing the images for this blogpost via Unsplash.