A Greater God, Brian Stoddart

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

Book 4 and we're now probably at the point that A GREATER GOD will require some effort to catch up if you're new to the Chris Le Fanu series. Set in early 20th century India, around the tensions leading to Indian Independence from Britain, Chris Le Fanu is a member of the English police force, and an outsider in both the local and ex-pat community. You'll also find yourself catching up with a complicated personal life that involves an old-love who is now very unwell and hospitalised a long way away in Hyderabad. There's also an off-screen new love interest, Straits Chinese woman Jenlin Koh, who is travelling to join him in Madras, even as he travels within India to ensure that Roisin McPhedren is cared for and safe.

Whilst all this heavy lifting is going on in his personal life, Le Fanu is dealing with some very particular problems in his professional life, as the general political unrest in India continues, and racial tensions start to appear between local Hindus and Muslims. To say nothing of Inspector-General Arthur "The Jockey" Jepson, long-time arch enemy of Le Fanu, protected by just enough members of the British ruling groups to remain in power when he's clearly barking mad and dangerous to boot. It's probably in this area that coming cold to this series at this point may be a little confusing for new readers, as the background of the politics and the internecine warfare being undertaken by some members of the ruling elite are complex and ongoing. 

Having said that, Stoddart knows his subject matter, and the historical details are cleverly balanced against an almost visual feel for the setting, the people and the society. To say nothing of the descriptions of food which could very well be blamed as the straw that breaks many diet backs. The way that the factual background to the lead up to Independence is woven into each of these books, and the manner in which the cities come to life is one of the great attractions overall, as is the idea that Le Fanu is a quintessential outsider in his own community, embraced with considerably more enthusiasm by locals. This goes right down to his preference for the local cuisine over the boring English stodge served with Raj establishments and his complicated love life, which is both touching and a bit of a train wreck. All in all it makes for a more rounded, complex character than your typical policeman from that era, and his regular sidekick Habi gives the author real opportunity for insight into the Muslim community as the racial tensions increase. 

Highly recommend this series to fans of historical crime fiction in particular, as the only minor quibbles with A GREATER GOD are strictly ones of personal expectation after having read all the books. With Jepson, rather than just disappear from view as he did, I wanted a lot more public excoration, and in matters of love, even this hard-hearted cynic was sort of hoping that the train wreck would have been dragged back onto  the tracks by now. 

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Superintendent Chris Le Fanu returns to Madras from Penang where he leaves his new Straits Chinese love interest, Jenlin Koh, and a tempting new post in police intelligence there. He finds Hindu-Muslim tension on the rise in Madras, and his friends and subordinates Mohammad Habibullah and Jackson Caldicott at loggerheads as a result.

A series of Muslim murders around the Presidency adds more tension. Le Fanu's arch enemy, Inspector-General Arthur "The Jockey" Jepson is reacting recklessly to the new conditions, then Le Fanu has to travel to Hyderabad where his former housekeeper and lover Roisin McPhedren is seriously ill. Le Fanu swings between his personal and professional challenges as a gang of revolutionaries and Hindu nationalists from North India travel south to aggravate the troubles. Le Fanu and Jepson clash head-on as the latter causes several policemen to be killed, and Le Fanu is losing support because his main civil service protectors are leaving Madras.

Just as he seems close to overcoming all these problems, news arrives that Jenlin Koh is on board a ship reported missing near Ceylon. How will Le Fanu cope? 

Review A Greater God, Brian Stoddart
Karen Chisholm
Friday, February 22, 2019

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