Madras has been his home for twenty years, since 1905 … He was comfortable here. … India had certainly changed since his arrival but, despite rising calls for political independence, Gandhi’s mass civil disobedience campaigns, British India’s obdurate response and his own allegiances being challenged by a growing sympathy for India’s cause, the place still mesmerised him.”


It’s a brave writer who sets a book in a foreign locale, in a different time period, in a particularly significant time in history – Brian Stoddart does all this in A Greater God, the fourth outing of Superintendent Chris Le Fanu, and he does it stylishly and with a lot of grace.

Set in 1920s’ Madras, when the Quit India movement is gaining momentum in India, Muslim–Hindu tensions are rising and anti-British feeling is palpable, Stoddart’s book is not just a fascinating historical crime novel, but is also a very readable synthesis of an important part of twentieth-century colonial history.

The south, which quite often gets overlooked in literature, is showcased beautifully, Madras shining through. The detail with which Stoddart evokes this British-controlled city – from the architecture and street life to the food and religion – is quite astonishing, particularly as we view it through Le Fanu’s mainly loving eyes. It’s a place he’s spent twenty years in and it’s home.

Le Fanu lives a very untypically British life in India, mixing with the ‘natives’, living in a predominantly Tamil Brahmin neighbourhood which supports Congress and having relationships with non-European women. It’s all too suspicious for his straight-laced, racist superiors, and he’s drawn attention to himself at a time when the whole idea of empire is being called into question, and made quite a few enemies as a result.

Stoddart’s Le Fanu is a man at odds with himself, his own career and choices. While he commands loyalty from many of those close to him, he also seems to have a lot of people gunning for him, and that’s in addition to dealing with a complicated love life that seems to be the result of his own indecision.

As the book opens, Le Fanu is returning to Madras from Penang, where he’s been working and has also found the time to fall in love. He’s thinking of resigning from the Crime Unit: his nemesis, Arthur Jepson, a deeply prejudiced and small man, has returned to become the new Inspector-General of Police. His mission, it seems, is to make Le Fanu’s life a misery and to undermine him at every turn.

Le Fanu’s allies, the Governor and the Chief Secretary, are both leaving the territory, his former lover is seriously ill with typhoid and his new love is among those missing on a ship lost at sea. It’s a very challenging time. Add to this, the growing communal tensions which Jepson fuels with his discriminatory, aggressive and increasingly erratic behaviour, and the murders of Muslims in the community, and it’s all rather a mess.

Set at a particularly turbulent period in both India and Britain’s history, it’s Madras that is the star of this book – vibrant, exotic, challenging and utterly fascinating.

I love books like this, ones that draw heavily on real historic events, bringing them to life through great plots and strong characterisation. In this, it reminds me of Boris Akunin’s excellent Erast Fandorin series, set as the Russian Empire is waning, and brimming with intrigue and historic and political detail.

Plot apart, A Greater God is a very well presented book, with lovely fonts, a map (a map!) and a beautiful illustrative cover – and jackets do sell books.

All in all, a really lovely book.


A Greater God | Brian Stoddart | Selkirk Books |#LeFanu4

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Acknowledgements: This review is published as part of the virtual book tour organised by Anne Cater, of Random Things Tours, to whom we extend our thanks. Many thanks also to the publisher for supplying a review copy of the book. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved. Image ‘A lovely book and a nice espresso sans whisky’ © The Literary Shed 2018.

Also of interest: ‘A tale of “Jews and shoes” in modern China, Spencer Wise’s debut novel’; ‘Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Dialogue’s brilliant debut; ‘The Woolgrower’s companion‘; ‘20 books this summer challenge – lovely words‘, no 14 on the list; ‘Soundings – in search of one father’s war‘ (interview, artist Kate Gritton); ‘The stark beauty of William Shaw’s Salt Lane‘; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper –indie publisher, Orenda, does it again‘; ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry’.


This review is © 2018 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.