There is often no better way to spice up a bit of historical fiction by adding a murder mystery. The historical detective story has taken crime and history lovers to plenty of times and places through ancient Rome, Tudor Britain and, in the more recent past, Ireland during the Troubles. Brian Stoddart has set his Inspector Le Fanu novels in Madras in the years after World War I. The British are still in power but their grip is slipping, thanks partly to the pacifist uprising being led by Ghandi. It is a fascinating time and place to explore and Stoddart clearly knows his way around.
The Pallampur Predicament has a number of intersecting mysteries that all revolve around life in British India. At the centre of the web is the Raja of Pallampur, brutally murdered in his Madras home after a formal reception. Just prior to that there were rumours of corruption, tax evasion and other strange goings on in Pallampur. As the case unravels connections spiral out to include the nascent British secret service and the influence of international organised crime organisations.
Inspector Le Fanu himself is typical of the historical crime genre. As the readers’ eyes and ears, Le Fanu brings a distinctly twenty-first century view of the world he is living in. He can see the writing on the wall for British Rule, he promotes his staff based on their ability, he clashes with some of his superiors over the way they treat the local people and he has an Anglo-Indian lover, something frowned upon by Madras society. He is also a dogged investigator, keeping his blackboards up to date and following the “rule book” for a successful investigation.
Where The Pallampur Predicament excels, its wealth of historical information, is also where it falls down a little. The plot tends to get bogged down with digressions full of historical exposition. At one point, a character even apologises for the lengthy explanation he has to give to the police about a particular historical point. The central mystery itself takes a bit of a back seat to the history lesson that all of the investigation of red herrings and dead ends brings to the reader. And the resolution of who killed the Raja and why is decidedly weak. But for those who like their history with a dash of mystery, The Pallampur Predicament is worth the effort.