The Last Kashmiri Rose
by Barbara Cleverly
Published by Carroll & Graf
288 pages, 2002
Buy it online
Murder on the Indian Express
Reviewed by Caroline Cummins
Among mystery writers, setting a story against an exotic historical backdrop is a time-honored practice. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle loved to create elaborate backstories -- involving Mormon pioneers, fugitive Klansmen, Chicago gangsters, etc. -- for characters in his Sherlock Holmes tales. Agatha Christie, who liked to locate her contemporary novels in such far-flung lands as South Africa and Mesopotamia, found the time to write a mystery set in ancient Egypt, 1945's Death Comes as the End. Now, following in the footsteps of these authors, comes Barbara Cleverly, a British writer whose first novel, The Last Kashmiri Rose, takes place in India in 1922.
Hold the line, girls! Steady!
It takes Cleverly a while to get her storytelling and her detecting in order; Sandilands emphatically declares that two of the deaths were undoubtedly murder, before the reader has been introduced to any hard evidence that would support those conclusions. But once Cleverly settles down to it, her book's dramatic deaths and the evidence that suggests they were murders become compelling. Sandilands proceeds methodically, even pausing for an internal soliloquy that neatly summarizes the Sherlockian school of detecting:
He made no predictions, advanced no theories until he was certain that he had learned as much as there was to be learned about the crime. He knew the danger of constructing a neat explanation which could then be shot to ribbons by the late entry of a new piece of information.
If the five deaths are indeed linked, then Sandilands is dealing with a serial killer, a relatively recent phenomenon at that time. (Cleverly references Jack the Ripper as the first known serial slayer, along with George Joseph Smith, a murderous bigamist who in the 1910s came to be known as England's "Brides in the Bath" killer.) Such an unusual criminal demands unusual detecting, and Sandilands, who is up on his Freud and Jung, is full of theories as to how serial killers are created and sustained. He's a bit deflated to realize that criminal profiling isn't news to the Indians -- at least, not to an Indian father-and-son team, the Naurungs, who have been helping him investigate. When Sandilands declares that there is no "criminal type," but rather only people who have been driven to crime via circumstance, the Naurungs nod sagely.
Naurung senior said, "We have a saying in Bengal -- 'The Rajah's son does not exchange shoes with the cobbler's son.'"
And the British, of course, do not like to trade places with the Indians. Crucial to solving the mystery of the five deaths is whether or not the perpetrator is British or Indian. An Indian killer of British women could have violent, even rebellious repercussions. Naurung senior is careful to point this out to Sandilands:
"Many fear the powder keg is in place."
Cleverly does a fine job of delineating the inequities of British India's hierarchical society. So it's a disappointment that once mentioned, the topic of native unrest dies a quiet death. None of the characters worry about it again; instead, in fine parlor-mystery fashion, the murders are solved and society is temporarily restored to normality. Except that in colonial India, "normal" doesn't have quite the same meaning as it does in an Agatha Christie village whodunit.
Kitty called after him. "It probably is not of the slightest interest or importance but there is one rather odd thing I've noticed ..."
At the very least, the book's title is a bit misleading; there's not much of Kashmir in The Last Kashmiri Rose, after all. But there's plenty of Indian slang peppering the speech of the proper British colonials -- so much so that the author seldom pauses to explain what the local terms mean. Such words as "maidan," "punkha," "shikari" and "burra" are left up to the reader to puzzle out from their context. Which is too bad, because when Cleverly stops to lend a helping hand, the results are worthwhile. For instance, when Sandilands delivers a speech to a group of officers' wives, he makes a slight linguistic detour:
"We have all heard of the religion and despicable (to us) habits of the Thugs who infested this part of India until quite recent times. ..."
Lurid, yes. But it's also a memorable origin story for the everyday English word "thug." And it's evocative of the many melodramatic Indian characters, romances and plot lines that turned up throughout the Sherlock Holmes stories, most notably in "The Sign of the Four," "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" and "The Adventure of the Empty House." After all, even Dr. John Watson had done his tour of duty on the subcontinent, fighting in Afghanistan. And the complicated resolution to The Last Kashmiri Rose -- with its unusual blend of psychological, rational and cultural detecting, capped off with a very Victorian bit of tidying up -- feels like an appropriate homage to Holmes.
Caroline Cummins is a Berkeley, California, resident and frequent contributor to January Magazine.