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.

Heading up Cleverly's cast of characters is Commander Joseph Sandilands, a Scottish detective who's just completing a brief tour of policemanly duty in Calcutta. He's hot and bothered by India, finding the climate and the colonial system equally oppressive. But before he can catch a boat back to Europe, the governor of Bengal province requests his assistance in investigating a death at a military station. And once the governor's pretty and intelligent niece, Nancy Drummond, explains the case to him, Sandilands decides that he can't say no.

So he catches a train to a place called Panikhat, 50 miles south of Calcutta, where a cavalry regiment -- the Bengal Greys -- has been stationed for decades. Nancy lives there with her husband, an officer with the title of "Collector of Panikhat." Nancy's friend Peggy Somersham, a fellow military wife, recently died in what appeared to be a suicide. But Nancy believes the death to be murder, and so does Sandilands.

What makes Somersham's demise more ominous is its echoing of four deaths that took place on the same station before World War I. All five deaths were of officers' wives. All, with the exception of Somersham's, were ruled as accidents. All took place in March. The similarities are eerie enough to put the station wives on edge. But, like most colonials, these Englishwomen are tough. They compose a darkly comic ditty in honor of the dead spouses:

Hold the line, girls! Steady!
And wipe the tears from your eyes.
Here's a toast to the dead already,
And here's to the next girl that dies!

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."

"And the spark that could ignite it?" asked Joe, already knowing the answer.

"A fuse. A trail of murdered memsahibs. Already it is spoken of. One thing is lacking, sahib. The match. And that you hold in your own hand."

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.

Equally perturbing is the romance between Sandilands and Nancy Drummond. Granted, they make a lively detective team, but it's hardly credible that two members of the British upper-middle-class in the early 1920s would waltz so blithely into an affair. With the exception of a late, fleeting pang of remorse on behalf of Nancy's husband, and a cursory mention of the "looseness of morals" in colonial India, both parties are happily unconcerned about taking a roll or two in the hay. D.H. Lawrence aside, this couple is anachronistically modern.

However, a strong plot and a vivid sense of place are never out of style, and Cleverly is very good at developing both. Like Christie, Cleverly is adept at shepherding a large and colorful cast of characters through a complicated yet logical plot. And like Conan Doyle, Cleverly can create lush atmosphere without (in most cases) resorting to overwrought description.

Page after page, Sandilands finds himself fascinated by the unusual culture surrounding him. A particularly memorable flower of the region is the dignified-but-down-to-earth Mrs. Kitson-Masters, better known as Kitty, "the doyenne of Panikhat." British, but Indian to the core, Kitty helps Sandilands with her encyclopedic knowledge of the denizens -- alive and dead -- of Panikhat. She also reveals a strange bit of information:

Kitty called after him. "It probably is not of the slightest interest or importance but there is one rather odd thing I've noticed ..."

Joe smiled encouragingly and waited for her to go on.

"It's the roses. They've appeared again. The crimson Kashmiri roses -- well, that's what I call them. I believe they're actually a wild China rose that's made its way through Nepal and Kashmir and down here to Bengal, Rosa indica minima, but I first saw them in Kashmir and that's what they'll always be for me -- Kashmiri roses. Well, a bunch of them appeared on Joan's grave and has done every year since her death. A bunch appears regularly, every March, on Joan's grave, on Sheila's, and on Alicia's. And, this morning at church, I saw that someone had put some on Peggy's grave too. Now what do you make of that, Commander?"

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. ..."

Again the girls nodded in understanding. Thuggee. The word still had the power to terrify. The thousands of innocent travellers, garotted and buried in mass graves in the last century and all in the name of sacrifice to the blood-thirsty goddess Kali, were not forgotten.

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.

Cleverly clearly knows who she's imitating. A former teacher who lives in an English village, she claims that she was inspired to create the character of Sandilands while rummaging through old photos in a musty attic trunk. As yet, her detective is a bit thin on personality. He's intelligent (though not infallible), sentimental, easygoing and diplomatic. He fought in the First World War and gave up the law to go into police work. He's your average good guy, but slightly bland. Nevertheless, with a second installment of her series, this one called Ragtime in Simla, being released this month in Britain and a third, Two Graves at Gor Khatri, due out after that (according to the author's Web site), Cleverly should have plenty of opportunity to fill in the sketchy outlines of her hero's character.

Alas for Sandilands, it sounds like he won't get much of a chance to return to his beloved London flat; he'll be too busy detecting his way around the much more colorful confines of 1920s India. Will he find true love? Calm the restless natives? Modernize the colonial police force? Stay tuned and see. | September 2002


Caroline Cummins is a Berkeley, California, resident and frequent contributor to January Magazine.