I wish I could say I’d been dying to get back to the entirely personable and pleasant Joe Sandilands, but Ragtime in Simla (2002; this edition, Dell, 2006) was more of a desperation move after a few other false starts. Ratlines was an initial bust, and so was Detective Inspector Huss. The former was too much of a prose adjustment after Benjamin Black, and the latter was just boring. While it is true that Huss is a refreshingly positive change after the dour Scandinavians of Henning Mankel and that crowd, her story just never sparked much interest and worse, seemed to be written in cliché after cliché. Could it have been the translation?
In any case, I’d decided to give Barbara Cleverly’s early 20th century detective another try, and I’m not unhappy that I did. For various reasons, World War One veteran and Scotland Yard detective Joe Sandilands (just got the connection – does he know Ian Rutledge?) seems to find himself regularly in India, and there is always some nefarious activity going on that only Our Hero can get to the bottom of. In this instance, Joe is on his way to the high mountain town of Simla, the summer capital of the British Raj, when he witnesses a murder. Faster than you can say bobs-your-uncle, that murder is connected to an earlier one, and the cinematic characters and settings are piling up left and right. There are beautiful women with tragic pasts, disreputable drunken chums, brisk bureaucrats, lordly elites, mysterious madams, inscrutable natives, plucky kids, and all the rest you’d expect to find in a novel set in the final decades of British rule in India. Ragtime in Simla is a pretty straight-up mystery, with some mixed-up identities, but it will keep you reading to see how it all comes out.
And you cannot miss with the setting. Cleverly has a terrific eye for detail, and while I don’t know much about India, it all reads authentically. You can look up Simla, or Shimla, as it is now called, and if you do a google image search you will indeed find pictures of an absolutely stunning setting on the edge of the Himalayas. Cleverly was not making it up, nor was Kipling, whom her characters all adore and have apparently memorized on the subject of this charming hill town. And while she has an obvious affection for the British in India, Cleverly is not above an accurate portrayal of its lesser lights, such as this description of a “chummery” where a group of the aforementioned louts live:
“Joe’s impression of Old India was reinforced as they entered the house. The furniture was European but shabby and knocked about. Bills and invitation cards jostled each other on the mantelpiece; not a few of these were over a year old. Inevitably, the prints of the “Midnight Steeplechase” hung on the wall along with a fine leopard skin and the head of a markhor. A fencing mask and crossed foils added a note of gentlemanly athleticism, and there were whips, boots, boxing gloves, boxes of ammunition, not-well-secured gun cupboards, boxes of cigars sealed and opened, the remains of what obviously been a copious breakfast amongst the debris of which could be seen a bottle of gin and a bottle of Angostura bitters.” (146)
Yes, I like the distinction between “Old India” and the current setting – suggesting that one shouldn’t paint anything – even British colonialism – with too broad a brush.
But you know, that colonialism – precisely the source of all that marvelous atmosphere – is really a bit hard to take if you think about it even a little bit. Colonialism has apparently become a focus of tourism in India, which gives about the same frisson of discomfort as touring plantations in the American South that play the antebellum romance card just a little too hard. Simla in the 1920s is about 25 years away from Indian independence, but of course this is coming after decades, centuries of British domination. And if you really go down that path, it is just ghastly to contemplate how the British imposed themselves and their nation on so so many other indigenous peoples and entire continents for so very long: North America, Africa, South Asia, and so on. It is not coincidental that I’m thinking about this because we’re planning a family trip to Ireland, and of course you can’t miss how they feel about the British. I know that lots of folks think that the US acts the same way today, but while I agree that we come on a bit strong sometimes, in context, the US’ efforts at world domination pale in comparison to the 18th and 19th c. Brits. But yeah, I felt a little breeze of collective white guilt reading Ragtime in Simla, if only because it does all sound rather lovely. Oh well, as my husband likes to gently chide, as long as you feel guilty about it.