Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review of Mrs D’Silva’s Detective Instincts and the Shaitan of Calcutta by Glen Peters (Carnival/Parthian, 2009)

It’s 1960 and Mrs D’Silva is a young, Anglo-Indian, widow trying to make ends meet in Calcutta having lost her husband to a rail accident five years previously. She teaches at Don Bosco’s Catholic School, which her ten year old son Errol also attends. On a picnic visit to Our Lady shrine in Bandle Errol discovers the mutilated body of a young woman washed up on the bank of the Hooghly river, a tributary of the Ganges. The girl had been raised in the Loreto convent and had recently married a much older man who has converted to Christianity. In the absence of any compelling evidence, the death is ruled as suicide by a judge. Two of the girl’s friends, Anil – a former pupil of Mrs D’Silva - and Philomena suspect foul play. Unbeknownst to Mrs D’Silva, both have become involved in a Mao-backed communist movement and are active in a campaign against a British owned engineering company. At one of the protests a manager in the company is stabbed to death with Anil’s knife and he is arrested for murder. When Mrs D’Silva visits him in prison he protests his innocence and she vows to try and clear his name. A few days later he is found hanging in his cell in suspicious circumstances. It seems as if Dutta, the ruthless Shaitan of the communist movement, will stop at nothing to secure a new India free of the legacy of colonial rule. Despite the obvious dangers, Mrs D’Silva in her own understated way tries to help uncover the truth.

The back cover describes Mrs D’Silva’s Detective Instincts as a ‘vivid and engaging novel of recipes and murder, intrigue and romance’. Food and culture certainly feature strongly in the story and Peters takes great care to detail sights, sounds, and particularly the tastes, of the melting pot of 1960s India, just a few years after independence. To that end the book is informative and provides strong historical contextualisation. The story, for me, however never really amounted to more than an okay read; a relatively pleasant sojourn but failing to turn into a real page turner. I think this mainly to do with (somewhat ironically) taste. Mrs D’Silva is effectively an Anglo-Indian cozy that fairly gently rolls along, so that despite the murders and political intrigue it never really builds up a head of steam. In the first half of the book, the plot meanders aimlessly until Mrs D’Silva discovers her rather shaky detective instincts and the story starts to gain some structure and purpose. The characterization is fine without being stellar and while Mrs D’Silva herself is ably drawn I have no particular longing to catch up with her on any of further adventures. For me, the thing that is most striking about the book is its production values. The novel is beautifully presented and feels like something invested with time and passion. It’s just a shame that the story itself didn’t instil the same in me, although I know that it has received very favourable reviews by others – see:

It’s a Crime
Crime Scraps

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