Ragtime in Simla

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Ragtime in Simla Barbara Cleverly, book reviewRagtime in Simla by Barbara Cleverly is the second of her four novels featuring Comander Joe Sandilands of the Metropolitan Police on secondment to India in the 1920s. It’s the third I’ve read and fits neatly between The Last Kashmiri Rose and The Damascened Blade. Of the three it’s the one I enjoyed the most.

The book doesn’t start in India; instead we kick off with a train accident in France several years earlier in 1919. The train is travelling to the French south coast where Englishwoman Alice Conyers plans to catch a boat to India. She’s an orphan whose only brother is missing presumed dead after the First World War and as the last remaining member of the family – except for a second cousin already in India – it’s her responsibility to take over the running of the family business, ICTC or the Imperial and Colonial Trading Corporation. When the train crashes into a ravine, few survivors are registered, but one of them is Alice.

The story fast-forwards to 1922 and Northern India where Joe Sandilands is taking a train journey to Kalka, the hopping off point for the Toy Train to Simla, the summer capital of the Raj. Fortunately Joe doesn’t need to take the slow and uncomfortable Toy Train because a car is waiting to drive him up the mountains, a car belonging to one of the most important men in Simla – Sir George Jardine. .

Perhaps Joe should have been wary of Sir George’s motives in inviting him to stay and what should be a holiday soon turns into business as usual when the man Joe invites to share Sir George’s car, gets shot dead on a bend in the road to Simla. The dead man is Feodor Korsovsky, a famous Russian tenor who was travelling to Simla to perform at the city’s famous Gaiety Theatre. His killing bears remarkable similarities to the assassination of another man, the brother of Alice Conyers – now Alice Conyers-Sharpe. Joe quickly realises that the two killings are linked and we readers are not slow to work out certain things about Alice either. Somehow she seems to be the common link between the two dead men, but all the obvious suspects for the shooting have water-tight alibis.

Working with local policemen, Charlie Carter, Joe Sandilands soon learns that lots of people in Simla are not quite who they seem to be and beneath the apparent respectability of the city, there are plenty of less honourable things going on. There’s a very successful brothel run from the back of a florist’s shop, and a psychic is doing good trade with bereaved relatives – something that was common between the wars. Simla is full of disreputable men and guns for hire, blackmailers and extortionists and enough gossip to keep the tongues wagging for years. Carter is happy to have a proper crime to deal with, telling Joe that it “makes a nice change from rounding up blasted monkeys”.

Simla – or Shimla as it’s now known – is one of my very favourite Indian cities and it’s a fantastic place to set a novel. It was a city renowned for naughty behaviour, especially between wives who’d been sent to the mountains for the summer and visiting military men. Simla was the centre of British government in India but it was also a racy place where intrigue and subterfuge found fertile ground. Ragtime in Simla was the first of Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands novels to be set in a city I know quite well and I had no problem at all to picture the settings and the architecture of the place since much remains the same nearly a hundred years later. Whether it would resonate quite so well for readers who don’t know the city is unclear, but I’ve enjoyed the other two Cleverly novels which were set in places I didn’t know. The craziness of Shimla, the absurdity of its ‘little England’ architecture and its attempt to recreate the English Home Counties make it a place that’s long been recognised as an anachronism. As the great architect Edwin Lutyens once said – and as the policeman Charlie Carter quotes him in the book – “If one were told that the monkeys had built it, one could only say “What clever monkeys! They must be shot in case they do it again””

I found Ragtime in Simla quite unconventional in its structure. I had guessed Alice’s secret about a quarter of the way through but it was much later before some of the other characters slotted into place. I couldn’t work out how the author could possibly keep that pretence going throughout the book. As it turned out, she didn’t – revealing what had been happening about half way through the book. Once we know why the two men have been killed, it’s easy to think there can’t be half a book still to go but Cleverly lives up to her name and plots a clever series of twists and turns including an ending which is both frustrating and totally fitting. Undoubtedly for many people with slightly unsavoury backgrounds, Simla – and India in general – offered a place for people to recreate themselves and for those who know the lies to profit from that knowledge.

The way Joe follows the trail of clues in this book is the best of the three I’ve read so far. In the other two books he almost stumbles across the answers whilst in Ragtime in Simla there’s a logic to his sleuthing that’s intriguing to follow and it’s hard not to respect Sandilands and his investigations. I liked the inclusion of Charlie Carter as his side-kick, especially his use of young local boys as an informal network of informers.

It’s not entirely perfect. Cleverly’s inclusion of a dark mysterious Pathan man – something she’s done in each of her stories – is becoming a bit of a cliche and sometimes there are just too many coincidences with regards to people knowing one another who really couldn’t have been expected to do so. However, despite these couple of annoyances, there’s little not to like about Cleverly’s second Joe Sandilands novel and I recommend it highly.

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Ragtime in Simla
by Barbara Cleverly

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