Barbara Cleverly






Constable (Dell for US readers), 2001
Reviewed by Sunnie Gill

It's 1922 and the setting is the town of Panikhat, 50 miles from Calcutta in India. The wife of one of the officers of the Bengal Greys army regiment has been found dead in her bath, her wrists slashed an in apparent suicide. At least that's what the British chief officer of the local police, Superintendent Bulstrode, thinks. There are those who don't agree with him. In particular, Nancy Drummond, the niece of the acting governor of the region. At her urging he calls on Commander Joe Sandilands, who is spending a month in India teaching the police about the latest methods of detection.

Joe reluctantly agrees to investigate with the help of Naurung Singh, assigned to him by Superintendent Bulstrode who thinks the natives are inferior beings. Bulstrode is an arrogant, stupid man who has missed what Sandilands quickly discovers. Over the past twelve years, there have been five wives of officers of the Bengal Greys who have died suddenly in the month of March; all of those deaths put down to an accident. Every March a bunch of Kashmiri roses is left on the grave of each of the women by an unknown person. Sandilands doesn't believe that this is the work of an Indian, but of a member of the British community.

Author Barbara Cleverly had the idea for writing THE LAST KASHMIRI ROSE when she discovered an old trunk in her husband's attic, full of old photos and memorabilia of a family who had been part of expanding the British Empire.

Cleverly paints an interesting picture of life in India for military officers and their wives. An enclave of British life "more British than England" is cut off from most of the everyday lives of the Indians. She has used Sandilands' investigation into the deaths to reveal the range attitudes and social conventions that existed in this part of British society in the 1920's: the older women conservative and rigid, the younger wives embracing the social freedom that the 1920's presented.

I found the mystery to be absorbing until just over the halfway mark. But then the author decided to add a romance between two of the characters which seemed to stall the plot and make a diversion from the main thread of the book. I'm not a fan of romance novels and so I found this to be a little aggravating as the book seemed to lose some momentum after that.

The resolution was satisfactory, but didn't quite live up to the promise of the early chapters. However, Cleverly has established a cast of characters for an ongoing series and to date has published four books in this series. Her latest book, DAMASCENED BLADE, won the Crime Writers Association Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award for 2004.

Despite the reservations expressed here about THE LAST KASHMIRI ROSE, I think this is a series that is probably worth persevering with.

February 2006


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