The time is 1922, the place is Calcutta and Commander Joe Sandilands of the Metropolitan Police is packed and ready to head back to England after a six month secondment to the Bengal Police. He can’t wait to get out of the heat and intensity of the city, but his plans to head home are thwarted by a phone call from Sir George Jardine, Active Governor of Bengal asking him to help out with an investigation. The wife of an army officer has been killed in Panikhat about fifty miles out of the city and Sir George’s niece Nancy is married to the local Collector and suspects foul play. Could Sandilands hang on a bit longer and help out? It’s not the sort of offer a police office can really turn down. It might be a chance to see a bit more of the country and there are the undoubted charms of Nancy to attract him to the case. With considerable reluctance and a regret that he’s not on the boat to Blighty, Joe agrees to stay and we get to read his story in Barbara Cleverly’s first Joe Sandilands mystery The Last Kashmiri Rose.
The dead woman was Peggy Somersham, a good friend of Nancy. She was found dead in her bath with her wrists cut and the local doctor has merrily recorded a verdict of suicide before a hasty funeral. You just can’t have bodies hanging around too long without refrigeration. But Peggy had no reason to kill herself and the cuts are all wrong. She’d been singing in the bath, she’d laid out her best perfume and clothes and had just discovered she was expecting her first child. Nancy suspects that Peggy is not the first of the officers’ wives to die in mysterious circumstances. The first in a series of dead women was Dorothy Prentice – Mrs Major Prentice – burned to death in a house fire whilst her husband was out of town, she was found with the Major’s manservant in the burnt shell of the bungalow. The next was Joan Carmichael who died of a fatal snake bite whilst having a pee in the bushes. Sheila Forbes went riding and fell off a precipice whilst another of the wives drowned crossing a river. What ties the women’s deaths together is that they were all married to officers in the Bengal Greys and all died in March. Nancy is sure that Joe can help find their killer and the town’s army wives are already taking bets on who’ll be next. Can Joe get to the bottom of the mystery with the help of Nancy and his local Sikh police helper? And does Nancy have rather more than a strictly professional interest in her London sleuth?
The main reason I’m drawn to these books is not really for the crime or the investigation, it’s for the ‘slice of life’ expressed in the characters and their setting. India is the star of Barbara Cleverly’s first four Joe Sandilands books and I already worked out that whilst I’m quite content to stroll around the sub-continent with Joe, I wouldn’t want to follow him to Paris or London in one of his European adventures. The murder mysteries alone wouldn’t keep me reading but the 1920s expat life of the army and civil service wives and their husbands enthral me. In ‘The Last Kashmiri Rose’ I also enjoyed the sub-plot of the ‘will they-won’t they’ romance between Sandilands and bold but beautiful Nancy. Her story of growing up in India, being sent back to England and being desperately homesick, and then marrying a badly wounded man who could take her back to her ‘homeland’ really touched me. We all have our impressions of what it’s like for people from Indian to come and live in the UK, but we seldom think about the generations of British born and brought up in India who were never able to fit in back in the UK, but couldn’t – especially as an orphaned woman – find any way to get back ‘home’ without the help of a man.
Nancy’s a great character, but there are other attractive and compelling folk in this as well. There’s Kitty, the grande dame of the army town who knows everyone and can be relied on for a gin or two at any time of the day. There’s Naurung Singh the bright and ambitious but self-effacing local policeman who is given the job of local support to Joe, and there are the usual cast of objectionable and boorish army men who always crop up in books of this type. Theories abound about whether there’s a connection between the dead women and explanations run from a mysterious local man who seems to have been on the scene around the time of each death to the influence of a so-called ‘churel’ or ghost of a woman who died in childbirth.
Whilst Cleverly has chosen to set The Last Kashmiri Rose a very long way from Kashmir, way across the country in Bengal, her interest in Kashmir and the North West Frontier is evident in this book. I might not have noticed that so much if I hadn’t just finished ‘The Damascened Blade’ – the third Joe Sandilands book – a few days earlier. Key characters are painted with Kashmiri characteristics, and her love of the bold, brave and handsome Pathan men and their traditions of honour and revenge run through both books, although they seem rather out of place in this one. I’ve been able to find out very little about Cleverly and whether she’s actually been to India but I’m sure I read somewhere that her stories were inspired by finding a trunk full of artefacts from an elderly relative who served on the North West Frontier and was called Brigadier Harold Richard Sandilands. For me the use of Kashmiri plots in Bengal was quite annoying although I’m sure many of her readers won’t bristle the way I did at the mixing of geography. I also thought she over-peppered the text with rather obscure terms that I suspect were Hindi rather than Bengali but without giving any translations. I read a lot of books set in India or by India writers and I found many terms I wasn’t familiar with and which weren’t explained.
All four of Barbara Cleverly’s Indian Joe Sandilands books are currently available on Amazon Kindle for just 84 pence. I bought all the ones I hadn’t already read and you might want to consider giving them a go too.
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