Introducing Chris Le Fanu

After a professional lifetime’s production of non-fiction work (sixteen books and umpteen “scholarly” articles) I have finally turned to crime, fiction that is, and thanks to Crime Wave Press.

A Madras Miasma has just appeared on Amazon in Kindle e-form initially, with a print on demand version to follow soon, the new mode of publishing which is a big change from the traditional. The book had a 4-star review the day after it appeared, which is terrific, and anyone else’s contribution will be very much welcomed – in this new world, the number of online reviews has a big impact on sales, and as I am already half way through writing the next one, that is important!

Miasma features Superintendent Chris Le Fanu of the Indian Police Service in the old Madras Presidency of the 1920s. After five years World War One service in Mesopotamia he returned to his police work a different man, so much so that his wife left him and returned to England. He takes up with his housekeeper but because she is mixed race he risks severe disapproval from the rigid European community in the city. Meanwhile, a young Englishwoman out in Madras as part of the “fishing fleet” (women in search of husbands) turns up murdered and Le Fanu, head of a crime unit that employs new police procedures formulated by an Austrian criminologist, is in charge of the case. He and his immediate boss are at loggerheads, and he falls foul of the business community as well. Le Fanu and his sergeant, a Muslim educated in England, solve the case but only after traversing sections of city life that the elite would prefer not see daylight.

How did all this come about?

In the fiction writing world one of the contested ideas concerns “write what you know.” Well, I have started with what I know because I have spent a very long time in and with India and especially Madras now known, since 1996, as Chennai. Like all India’s major capitals it has changed since I first met it but, arguably, it still retains more originality than most. There are still sleepy parts to offset the new hi-tech ones, and much of the distinctive nineteenth century architecture remains. The old religious practices and the temples and the mosques and the churches are still there. Some of the old markets have gone but not all them. It is a much bigger place now but still retains some of the country village elements in its back lanes.

Chennai 1 2012 057It is still among my favourite cities around the world and, in part, that is why I have set this historical crime fiction story there. The city is central to the story, so its contours and sounds and smells are all in there. The other part is that the fictional approach allows me to tell a story based upon the reality of the city back then in the 1920s. To be precise, of what is my version of that reality.

As historians we are driven by the evidence. The sources of evidence may have spread over time, from archives to oral, for example, but the evidence is still prime. That allows us to tell a lot of stories because sometimes, as we all know, reality is stranger than fiction. That was certainly true of British India, as in some ways I demonstrated in my biography of Arthur Mario Agricola Collier Galletti di Cadilhac, an Anglo-Italian member of the Indian Civil Service who was the archetypal maverick.

But sometimes the evidence is not enough to capture the full flavour of a condition, or perhaps another form of telling the story allows a different flavour to rise.

That is essentially why I have created Le Fanu and started writing these crime novels. He allows me to explore British Indian society in a different, freer way with the fiction creating space for a broader, deeper interpretation that draws more fully on the popular culture of the time. It also allows the history a looser rein to chart those human emotions that are time-resistant like jealousy and envy and all the rest. I could sense that in the records, but it is easier to write as fiction.

And the crime genre allows all those senses to be heightened because it focuses them, tightly. For that reason, there is still a lot of the archive in the Le Fanu stories. That is because I know a fair bit of that archive, but also because it frames the stories more realistically. No doubt Madrasites will find errors in some obscure street names or dates, but the locale is pretty authentic as are several of the incidents depicted because they draw on the history.

I will be fascinated to see what you think, so please flood in those reviews!


5 Responses to “Introducing Chris Le Fanu”
  1. Hi Brian — I finished the first book madras miasma yesterday.

    Thoroughly enjoyed the period murder mystery.
    A competent, vada-eating British SP who actually cares about the Indians he works with. And he lives in Mylapore. What’s not to like?

    I could done less with the impact the seductress-criminal’s had on the good Le Fanu though. These matters are best left to the reader’s imagination.

    • Thanks a lot Vijee, much appreciated as was your comment re the post on Madras/Chennai. The third Le Fanu entitled A Straits Settlement is about to appear in the next couple of weeks. Hope you can enjoy that and the second as well

  2. Mrinalini B says:

    Dear Professor Stoddart,

    I finished the fourth Le Fanu book yesterday, and I have loved the series. Will there be a fifth Le Fanu book?

    Thanks so much for the kind comment – no new book soon but hopefully….

  3. Alan Riley says:

    Have enjoyed all the Le Fanu books so far. Hope you haven’t got bored with writing them and stopped.
    Had always been somewhat curious about the Le Fanu surname but recently came across the fact that Henry Le Fanu was Archbishop of Perth and Primate (though not a monkey) of Australia many years ago. Given your background you are probably aware of this already but I thought I’d pass it on on the off chance. I was surprised the Bishop was born in Dublin but maybe he was related to the Irish writer
    Alan Riley

    • Alan, thank you so very much and you are right. Henry le Fanu was the Archbishop here in Perth (with a house near us named after him) and then later became the Primate as you say. He was a nephew of Sheridan, and another nephew also named Henry was a member of the Indian Civil Service in Madras Presidency during the nineteenth century. Yet another nephew played rugby for England. All of that was very much in mind when I was dreaming up Chris. There is a change of publisher under way now and as that unfolds there may well be another or more in the series – definitely not bored with him! So again thanks for the kind words and I do hope all is well with you. Brian

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