Friday, November 23, 2018

"Reading" The Past: Crime Fiction and History: Guest Post by Brian Stoddart

Brian Stoddart:
“Reading” The Past: Crime Fiction and History 

Among the exhilarations of writing historical fiction, including crime, is learning from readers that they not only enjoyed the story but learned something new about people and places unknown to them previously, or on which their earlier views were now changed.

All good historical crime fiction does that. Cathi Unsworth’s work set around World War II Britain points out the “stiff upper lip” history flaws by highlighting collaborators and saboteurs, con artists and opportunists who exploited wartime opportunities. Two very different British television series demonstrate that important difference. Dad’s Army framed small town England’s imagined positive response. Foyle’s War mirrored Cathi Unsworth. Foyle, significantly was written by Anthony Horowitz who wrote Poirot for television, recently produced a James Bond novel, and has his own crime fiction series.

In The Past Is A Foreign Country, David Lowenthal riffed elaborately on L.P. Hartley’s famous The Go-Between opening, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Both authors pointed us to an important historical fiction maxim: the broad picture inevitably looks different from and may even contradict the detailed one. And that is without even beginning to consider the professional historian’s starting point: what does the extant factual record omit, conceal, or ignore?

English dramatist Hugh Whitemore, in his A Letter of Resignation, suggested Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s own personal situation influenced his handling of the John Profumo/Christine Keeler political crisis. In A Marvellous Season For Plums, Whitemore did the same for Anthony Eden during the Suez crisis. In Breaking The Code, Whitemore was the first writer to note that Alan Turing’s gay identity lay at the heart of his tragic story.

Historical fiction, then, should challenge monolithic, generalised views. That is really important now as the world’s popular media reverts to terms like “Muslims” to ascribe sameness to vast numbers of people. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has fifty seven nation state members who hold vastly different outlooks and attitudes, yet we are still regaled with usually negative blanket suggestions that “Muslims” subscribe to one view or another.

My Chris Le Fanu mystery series set in colonial India tries to disrupt both British and Indian monolithic views of the Raj, and place discordant personal trajectories against received views of history. That, in turn, interacts with shifting modern views about imperialism, colonialism and contemporary consequences - the argument now traverses the impact of British rule and, again, that is no one-sided debate despite politicians desiring to make it so.

A Greater God, Le Fanu’s latest outing, starts from a position many casual observers find surprising: India being the world’s third largest Muslim nation, well short of Indonesia and just fractionally behind Pakistan. The Madras Presidency, Le Fanu’s south Indian home, had a substantial Muslim presence. His loyal sidekick, Muhammad Habibullah, is Muslim and speaks all the necessary languages because not all Muslims there spoke the same one.

The book is set in the mid-1920s when opinion inside the Raj was splintering over the direction in which India should develop politically. Most official and non-official Europeans, represented here by Le Fanu’s bombastic boss Arthur “The Jockey” Jepson, opposed any form of independence but others, like Chief Secretary Sir Charles Whitney, considered concessions inevitable.

Meanwhile, Muslim leaders wondered where their best interests lay. Many lamented Britain’s wartime aggression against the Ottoman (Muslim) Empire; the use of Indian troops in Mesopotamia; the lack of concern for Muslim interests following the war; and rising anti-Muslim sentiment within the Indian National Congress. This began the idea of a separate Muslim state, the pathway to Pakistan, and was aggravated by parallel demands for a Hindu nationalist state promoted by radicals like V.D. Savarkar.

In that context, Le Fanu is challenged personally and professionally by Habibullah’s concern with British disregard for Muslims; by increasing opposition to rather than embracing of unstoppable social and political change; by emerging doubts about the benefits of British rule; by worsening Hindu-Muslim communal relations; by ongoing public resentment of his own cross-cultural personal relationships; and by uncertainty about what might come next.

The fictional Le Fanu interacts with “real” historical figures including Madras Governor Lord Willingdon who was incensed by the local Indian Civil Service’s conservatism. Hilton Brown (renegade novelist and long time Punch contributor) and Arthur Galletti (a pro-Indian maverick whose biography I wrote) appear, contrasting those recalcitrants and underpinning important discordant inflections in the received record.

A Greater God, then, is hopefully not just a good story but a pointer to the intensity of debate inside the Raj about what best to do, and to how individuals in different life stations came to see and deal with change. And along that way, many of those personal and institutional decisions set the scene for contemporary India where the Hindu-Muslim relationship is again under pressure.

Professor Brian Stoddart is an international consultant who works mainly on higher education reform in Asia and the Middle East, and is currently Distinguished Fellow of the Australia India Institute based at the University of Melbourne. He trained as a South Asianist then also became an international authority on sport and culture.  His academic career was spent in Australia, Malaysia, Canada and Barbados, and he finished his formal career with a term as Vice-Chancellor and President at La Trobe University in Australia.  In addition to his formal work he is a regular contributor to regular and new media as a columnist and commentator. 

Brian Stoddart is also a crime novelist. A Madras Miasma was the first in a series set in 1920s Madras in India, and featuring Superintendent Chris Le Fanu. The Pallampur Predicament was the second and A Straits Settlement appeared in 2016. A Greater God is the fourth in the Le Fanu series and appeared in 2018.

Stoddart has published extensively in non-fiction, too. A House in Damascus: Before the Fall recounts his experience of living in an old house in the Old City of Damascus immediately before the outbreak of the war in Syria. That memoir became an Amazon #1 in Middle East Travel, and won gold and silver medals at the 2012 e-Book Awards for Creative Non-Fiction and Travel respectively


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