There is a long and honourable list of crime fiction novels set in places of learning. With Harriet Vane solving murder in Shrewsbury College (Gaudy Night, Dorothy L Sayers, 1935), Sir Richard Cherrington stalking criminals in Fisher College (The Cambridge Murders, 1945, Welcome Death, 1954, Glyn Daniel), and a rich seam of Inspector Morse novels set among Oxford Colleges (Colin Dexter, between 1975 and 1999). But what of academics turning the tables and writing their own crime novels?
Emeritus professor Brian Stoddart is an academic who was the vice-chancellor of La Trobe University, Melbourne. He is a well-known commentator on sporting matters, being involved in the foundation of the Australian Institute of Sport and being the author of many books exploring the history and importance of sports in society. It is as a writer of crime fiction, however, that we focus on Brian Stoddart.
Born and raised in New Zealand, Stoddart’s academic career took him all over the world including long periods in India, Malaysia, Canada, the Caribbean, China and Southeast Asia, and it is as an ‘old India hand’ that he emerged as a crime writer. A Madras Miasma was published in 2014, and it introduces us to Superintendent Christian Le Fanu, of the Madras Police. Le Fanu is estranged from his English family and, after experiencing at first hand the horrors of the trenches in The Great War he has, some would say, cast himself adrift in post-war India.
The Great War changed many things in the world, and its aftermath has given new life to the desire of Indians to be their own masters. While many in the civilian administration cannot – or will not – see it, there is a wind of change blowing across the land, led by men such as the young lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Some of Le Fanu’s superiors think he has ‘gone native’. He has a live-in lover-cum-housekeeper, Anglo-Indian Roisin, and is far too friendly with his assistant, Sergeant Habibullah, for the liking of many in the English community.
There have been three Le Fanu novels thus far – A Madras Miasma, The Pallampur Predicament and A Straits Settlement. Le Fanu travels far and wide, particularly in the latter book, but always in the background the death knell for British imperialism is sonorously tolling. Stoddart gives us all points of view, from the starched collared and inappropriately dark suited old-style administrators who refuse to accept that the world is changing, via men like Le Fanu who can feel the winds of change, through to firebrand revolutionary types who want to see the back of the British at any price.
Stoddart wears his scholarship lightly in the crime novels, but he is a gifted and compelling writer when dealing with the real world. In A House in Damascus – Before the Fall (2012) he examines the tragedy of the Syrian conflict and its effect on ordinary people for whom the complex political issues mean nothing but shattered lives, hardship – and death.
There is no activity, short of waging war, however, which arouses passions quite like sport, and for those in the southern hemisphere donning the baggy green cap, or pulling on that shirt which bears the simple – but uniquely intimidating – logo of the silver fern, is the closest many get to out-and-out conflict.
With this in mind, the closest Britain and Australia ever came to war with each other was during the legendary 1932-33 Bodyline cricket tour of Australia when every stereotype box was ticked. Douglas Jardine, the autocratic English snob, was depicted as a close relative of the army officers who sent brave Australians ‘over the top’ in The Great War. to combat German steel and bullets with nothing but their manly chests. Don Bradman and Bill Woodfull, plucky Australian lads, direct descendants of the ANZACS, faced the barrage of Larwood and Voce with nothing but a small piece of shaped willow wood. Stoddart co-authored, with Ric Sissons, Cricket and Empire, an account of this bitter battle.
Stoddart’s fascination with cricket – not only as a game, but as a means of national identity – is never far from the surface, and co-edited Liberation Cricket, described thus:
“The essayists argue that cricket mirrors the anti-colonial tensions and ideological and social conflicts over race and class that have shaped West Indian society. In consequence, it has helped promote the region’s democratic ethos and fragmented nationalism.”
You can read more about what makes Stoddart tick both as a writer and an influential thinker by checking out his website:
The most recent Christian Le Fanu novel, A Straits Settlement, was the Fully Booked Historical Novel of the Year for 2016, and you can read a detailed review of the novel by linking back to the feature here.