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The Last Kashmiri Rose: Murder and Mystery in the Final Days of the Raj    by Barbara Cleverly order for
Last Kashmiri Rose
by Barbara Cleverly
Order:  USA  Can
Carroll & Graf, 2002 (2002)
* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

The Last Kashmiri Rose, subtitled 'Murder and Mystery in the Final Days of the Raj', was recently hailed by the New York Times as a spellbinding debut mystery. I could not agree more. Mystery readers today are looking for books out of the ordinary, with unusual settings and detectives, and this one certainly fits the bill.

The tale takes place in 1922 in the waning days of the British occupation of India right after World War I, a fascinating period in which the class-conscious English colonial society intersects, sometimes dangerously, with the exotic world of native India. Anyone familiar with the wonderful Jewel in the Crown TV series will recognize the familiar in British military families, who may have been just regular folks back home but fancy themselves the elite in India, where they live in great style supported by myriad faceless servants.

British police detective Joe Sandilands has been visiting India to teach the local police some of the newer Scotland Yard detection methods. Eager to return home, he is suddenly requested to remain and investigate a puzzling series of deaths. It seems that on the Panikhat post north of Calcutta, five military wives have died under suspicious circumstances in recent years. The deaths all occurred in March and a blood-red Kashmiri Rose was left on each grave. Sudden and even violent death was not that unusual in India, where a cobra might be lurking nearby or a lantern could spark a thatch roof fire, but this series of deaths of English memsahibs was just too much to ignore.

Sandilands is sent to Panikhat by the Acting Governor of Bengal whose attractive young niece Nancy Drummond is married to the Collector of Panikhat. Nancy's closest friend was the latest wife to die, and she has persuaded her uncle that something must be done. At Panikhat Sandilands is assigned an able Indian officer, Naurung Singh as his assistant. When Sandilands looks into the deaths, the earliest of which occurred back in 1910, he is frustrated by the shoddy police work done at the time. However, Nancy is able to help him understand some of the people involved, both the victims and their grieving husbands. Even more helpful is Naurung, who is able to penetrate the native world and also go unnoticed by the British to whom he's just another brown face.

As they investigate there is a continuing concern that they will find that the crimes were committed by Indians, which would stir up military reprisals against the local population followed by violence against the British. Many of the older people still remember the catastrophic Sepoy Mutiny (in which hundreds of British women and children were murdered) and greatly fear a reoccurrence. Fortunately the detective trio forms an effective team. Although material evidence is lacking, Joe is able to draw on his experience and ability to understand people and their motivations. The team eventually solves the mystery, in a very surprising conclusion. Along the way, the reader is immersed in the well-drawn setting - the formal rituals of military station life as well as the sights of Calcutta streets and the smells of the beautiful Indian countryside around Panikhat.

Cleverly is reported to be at work on another Joe Sandilands mystery, and it is to be hoped that she will allow Joe to remain in the fascinating Indian setting rather than return him to the familiar and well-worked English milieu.

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