I’m thrilled to host mystery author Brian Stoddart, creator of the Superintendent Le Fanu historical series set in India in the 1920’s. Think Sherlock Holmes meets The Jewel in the Crown, with a bit of my favorite thriller, too.
Brian is a New Zealand-based but globally engaged writer whose historical crime fiction is based in Madras, India of the 1920s. He trained as an historian, and worked as an academic in Australia, Malaysia, Canada and the Caribbean before becoming a university executive and later an international consultant on World Bank, Asian Development Bank and European Union projects in Cambodia, Laos, Jordan, and Syria. Follow him at www.brianstoddartwriter.com.
1.Carmen Amato: Brian, thanks so much for stopping by. I love historical mysteries that teach me something and your Superintendent Le Fanu series set in 1920’s India reminds me of the BBC’s Jewel in the Crown, with a touch of Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts thrown in for verve. Tell us how you came to write such a complex and fascinating series.
Brian Stoddart: My PhD research was on modern nationalist politics in South India, and even as an academic I thought that those times and events had great dramatic qualities. That backdrop immediately allowed me to develop characters and events that were based in the historical record and, as we all know, truth is often more fascinating than fiction.
Some of the characters in the Le Fanu novels really did exist, and around them I can orbit fictional characters who also draw off people who were working at that time. The detailed historical knowledge allows me, then, to weave these stories in detail.
That said, I have had also to revisit Madras (now Chennai) as a writer rather than historian, because the city is as much a character as the people. Knowing the city well has allowed me to make the blend and set a place that is different, exotic but knowable. I am delighted that readers have felt that they learned something from the stories as well as being entertained by them.
2. CA: How do you create multi-dimensional fictional characters, including your lead character Christian Le Fanu? Where do you look for inspiration when creating characters?
BS: Those historical characters who lurk behind my fictional ones were all multi-dimensional and complex, often controversial, frequently combative and sometimes illogical. All those traits feed into Le Fanu and his colleagues as well as his opponents.
For example, I wrote a biography of an Anglo-Italian named Arthur Galletti who served in Madras and was the archetypal square peg in a round hole: anti-authority, hugely intelligent, socially awkward, pro-Indian and all the rest. Others were themselves writers who questioned the British regime. All of this feeds easily into creating characters who belong in the time. So that inspiration comes from the past and the historical record.
The other influence is from other writers and seeing how they create characters who live. Among my favourites are writers like Evelyn Waugh, Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, Parker Bilal, Fred Vargas – this is by no means exhaustive but will give you the idea. I also draw ideas and influence from television writers like Sally Wainwright, Anthony Horowitz, Neil Cross and others, because they create visuals that transfer well into print.
3. CA: Le Fanu has a personal relationship that was not allowed under British law in India at that time. How will this impact his decision-making as the series goes on?
BS: It was not so much “not allowed” to have a relationship between European and Anglo-Indian (mixed race) as severely damaging to a reputation and career, much the same if not even more so as a relationship between European and India. That is a trope for several novels, of course, perhaps beginning with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.
I use Le Fanu’s complicated relationship with Ro McPhedren almost as a lodestone to that complex matter of race relations in India at the time, and that shows up in how some other European characters relate (or do not relate) to Indians both professionally and personally.
By definition, the relationship will continue to bear on Le Fanu’s life as a whole, and be something of an allegory for the broader relationship patterns as independence nears for India. At the same time, the relationship allows me to explore the nuances of all this community-based activity in British India: Anglo-Indians who dominated the railway services, the missionaries who brought another corrective, the European business classes who had different outlooks again, and a range of others. India was all about relationships, in many respects, and Ro McPhedren helps focus that.
4. CA: What makes India a good setting for a mystery? How do you use setting to create and build suspense?
BS: As I say, Madras for me is really another character that influences the interactions between the characters. There are those Europeans who hate the place because they hate being in India and refuse to understand the locals. Le Fanu’s boss and bête noir Arthur Jepson is like that. As a result of WWI, Le Fanu now understands India and Indians better and is at home exploring it. That is why the Udipi food stand is in there – Le Fanu is the only European in the small eatery (which itself is drawn from reality and was the beginning of what has become a major restaurant chain). Habi, Le Fanu’s sidekick, provides the strongly necessary Muslim element in the story because Madras has always had a big Muslim presence.
In many ways, India is such a natural setting for these kinds of stories because of multiple cultural strands (the north differs from the south), cross-faith issues, caste, education, and all the rest. The historical context itself provides so many opportunities which is why the Le Fanu plots and storylines move across all these things and others like them – Madras in the 20s was replete with visitors blundering into systems and situations of which they were ignorant. That makes for great stories.
5. CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?
BS: Oh wow! I will cheat and pick one dead, one alive. The latter first. Andrea Camilleri, the marvelous Sicilian creator of Commisario Montalbano. The books and the television series are captivating because they so “get” local nuance, story, history, relationships and networks. The menu would be all seafood drawing on the restaurant favourites and recipes that appear in the books. I am a huge fan – my wife and I have even been to Ragusa and that area of Sicily to immerse ourselves in the Montalbano story. The conversation would be about writing and storytelling based on local knowledge and insights, and how far fact can be stretched into fiction.
The writer from the past would be Robert Louis Stevenson who was one of the very first writers to impress me way back when, and who I talk about these days in my cruise lectures. When he went to Samoa he immersed himself in local politics and culture, and the stories from then reflect that. The food would be Polynesian, and the discussion would focus on the relationship between history and fiction. And the fact that he was a Scot is a bonus.
6. CA: How do you go about researching your books? How do you know when you have done enough to begin a project?
BS: Really great question. The research for Le Fanu has, of course, been done over many years and is almost natural. I have a lot to draw on. Because of that, the idea of when is enough really does not arise. What I tend to research now are the details of places and historical figures.
I spend a lot of time on geography, for example, trying to get the streetscape right. That includes finding local tales and myths that might add to the plotline or the storyline. Those are things that historians sometimes overlook but are the things that writers rely on. When I am happy I have enough of that to pace the book, then I am happy to quit, until the next time.
7. CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?
BS: I am really driven by the idea of what I call “crime and place”. That is, in all locations and settings the best storylines and plots are driven by local history, folklore, events, characters and conditions. So the concept of place in crime fictions is something I am always trailing after and I always get a great buzz and a sense of encouragement when I find examples that push the boundaries in the genre.
For that reason I find great encouragement in work by people like Barbara Nadel (Istanbul), Donna Leon (Venice, although I think she is having trouble aging Brunetti), Michael Connolly (a really complex character in Bosch set in the ultimate tangle of LA), Paul Thomas (Auckland, with a Maori cop), John Enright (Samoa) and others like that. The inspiration, then, is from the interplay between location, background and character. Hopefully, something of that emerges in the Le Fanu series.