Thursday, June 4, 2020

Murder Mystery, Legal History III: The Afterlives of Empire in MM Kaye and Agatha Christie

An Indian butler is shot on a moonlit island filled with radiant Chinars at the centre of Kashmir’s dal lake. A German housemaid is clubbed to death on a Berlin street lined with families of British officers occupying former homes of wealthy Nazis. An English secretary is strangled in a charming white washed cottage “amid the scent of roses and jasmine” in sunny Cyprus. A leftwing Arab Zanzibari is poisoned on a flight from Mombasa throwing suspicion on a small group of English and American tourists. A picnicking party finds itself stranded on an Andaman island, amid a raging hurricane, as a killer picks off the guests one by one. Pirate treasures, Nazi diamonds, Russian spies, gun runners and Mau-Mau fighters are thrown into alongside love, hate, lust, greed, fear and revenge in the mix of motives.

As I moved on from Nairobi following research leads to London and then Delhi, I found my research sites mirrored in the work of M.M Kaye. I was looking at histories of civil liberty lawyering across territories that had been part of the British empire, most of my lawyers were engaged in resisting the powers of a variety of Emergency regimes, be it during anti-colonial wars of independence (Kenya, Malaysia, Cyprus); struggles of postcolonial state formation (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), or during military occupation (postwar Europe). These mobile lawyers moved across colonial/postcolonial jurisdictions in the course of their practice, and using their lives as an archive helped think across fields that are usually historiographicaly distinct. The independence and partitions in South Asia are seen as distinct from the long drawn out wars of decolonization in Kenya, Malaysia, Cyprus and Palestine, while the British occupation in post-war Europe is rarely put together with events in Asia and Africa. Yet they come together in concert in Kaye’s mystery volumes, as places deeply interconnected. Lt. Colonel Robert Melville in Death inBerlin for instance has served in Egypt and is headed to Malaya after Berlin (Berlin counts as a home posting, according to his horrified wife). The murder of Monica Ford’s brother in a Mau Mau in Kenya is a turning point in the plot of Death in Cyprus.

These interconnections are not a coincidence, Kaye’s murder mysteries are based on notes she had taken while following countries where her husband served as a British military officer during the 2nd World War and after. Death in Berlin (1955) is dedicated to “army wives like (herself) who have followed the drum”. Mary Margaret (Mollie) Kaye was very much a child of the Raj. Born to an intelligence officer in the British Indian Army, M.M Kaye returned to Simla in 1941 after a decade of living in London and earning a living as a writer and children’s book illustrator. Like many of her heroines, she got engaged a British Indian army officer in a whirlwind romance, having two children before his divorce with his wife in Ireland got finalized. As she would later explain, “We just couldn't wait. Had it been peacetime, I wouldn't have done it because of the way I had been brought up. But these were the pressures of war." Kaye’s considerable fame came from her hugely popular Indian historical novels, The Far Pavilions  and the Shadow of the Moon which are both set in the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (Kaye’s great uncle Sir John Kaye was a leading historian of the Revolt of 1857 and the First Afghan War). However, her lesser known works include a set of six murder mysteries set in India (Andamans and Kashmir), Kenya, Germany, Cyprus and Zanzibar.

Read together they tell a story of an Empire in retreat, carrying it’s flotsam and jetsam with it. Discussing their contemporaries in a Srinagar ball on the eve of Indian independence, Major Hugo Creed, dispassionately notes that the eccentric Lady Candera, was a “special brand in the Indian Empire. Next year there will be no Indian Empire, so that brand will become extinct- along with Johnnies and Helens and their ilk. They won’t go to ground in England, because it will not be able to give them what they want, so the Lady Candera’s will retire to infest places like Cyprus and Maderia and the Johnnies and Helens will probably get themselves to Kenya”. As recent scholarship has shown, tools of colonial governance including the managing of anti-colonial emergencies were exported from region to region. Binyamin Blum for instance shows how Palestinian policemen and forensic practices were exported to Kenya, and as were counter-insurgency tactics from Malaya. The legal infrastructure in place in East Africa and South-east Asia, were often transplants of law codes developed in colonial India. 

 Kaye’s cast of characters is always led by a plucky damsel (often in distress and a silent, strong, sardonic hero, usually with a job in military intelligence. Their frequent clashes animate the investigation, with slaps, rough kissing and making sounds like “infuriated and frightened kitten’. Military men (bluff and genial, old and doddery, young and resentful); military wives, ranging from Mrs Leslie in Berlin , “the model of an army wife (“one knew instinctively that she referred to her husband’s regiment as “My regiment”, to the regimental wives as “my wives”, did her duty as to Welfare, and all that concerned the good of the battalion, played an excellent game of bridge, and adequate game of tennis and gold, read all the bestsellers, and was sincerely convinced that there was only one regiment in the British army that counted”) to those that absolutely hated army life, Stella Melville for whom the East was “uncivilized and frightening). There are several predatory women on the lookout for other men’s husbands (Death in Cyprus actually has four); eccentric spinsters like Miss Pond in Death in Kashmir who wore in “addition to an anxious expression, a haphazard collection of garments that gave the impression of being flung together in a hurry…including short buttoned boots, a batik scarf, mustard yellow gloves and several assorted beads”;   middle aged secretaries in love with their bosses, an occasional loud American or an extremely Anglicized “native” who can mix with the English such as Sayyide Zuhra-binti-Salem, who the heroines discovers with some shock, speaks seven languages, has a BA degree and was “considerably better educated than herself or for that matter the majority of European women”. While superficially similar to say Orwell’s cast of colonials in Burmese Days, written several decades later, Kaye’s gaze is sympathetic of the dying breed. Reviewing Johnny and Helen Warrender, the hardrinking polo playing office of the Lunjore Lancers and his social climbing wife in Death in Kashmir as “their world crumbled around them” with the mechanization of the cavalry, the “makrs of dissipation and weakness” and “discontented middle age settled upon them”.  India was to be given her freedom and there was “nothing left for the Johnnies and Helens except memories and debts”. Kaye’s heroine notes, “there is always something more pitiful in the destruction of petty but prized possessions than in the crash of dynasties, for the latter is at least spectacular and dramatic, while the former is of no more account in the eye of history than the breaking of the child’s toy”. Trapped into an army routine, Stella Melville draws a quivering breath and says “I hate the army! I hate it, Oh why did Robert have to be a soldier? Why couldn’t he have been a farmer or a pig-breeder or a stockbroker or anything but a solider?.....the dirt, the dust, the flies, the dark secret faces, the horrible heat and the awful club life?..the awfulness of brassy sunshine?

The advantage of a detective novel, is no one needs to be what they seem, and the easy stereotypes could actually be an effective disguise. So the rosy cheeked Bonzo and Alec, 18 year old twin military officers in Kashmir who spend most of their time skiing and wooing the heroine, are Boris and Alexis with a White Russian mother, and possible communist sympathies? Why passions seeth under the regimental Memsahib’s sensible tweeds. Is the bluff and hearty colonel, looking forward to his retirement on an pension in an converted “worker’s flat” or can his loyalties be tempted by financial game? If the crime in the detective novel arises out of social conditions, the “malice domestic” in Kaye’s novels arise out of the temptations of Empire.  
The Occupation Detective Novel: Berlin as a Space of Emergency

Written during the travels of an army wife, it is no surprise that every site is one of a legal exception/Emergency. Her two Indian novels are set in Kashmir and the Andaman Islands. Kashmir, was a semi-autonomous princely state in 1947 operating outside of colonial law, soon to be drawn into a long drawn out international conflict between India and Pakistan with successive emergency regimes in both Indian and Pakistani administered Kashmir. The Andamans, a penal colony in the Indian Ocean, as Uditi Sen argues, was imagined as “terra nullius” open to colonial/postcolonial authority and transformation. Cyprus and Kenya are both sites of violence wars of decolonization and draconian laws, while Zanzibar (though semi-autonomous) is on the brink of revolution.
             Novels written in the wake of an occupying army adds Berlin and postwar Germany to the mix of sites of decolonization in interesting ways. Postwar Berlin was divided into sectors run by different allied powers and was a site of jurisdictional conflict. While military authorities exercised jurisdiction over uniformed servicemen, their authority over civilians remained ambiguous. These tensions played out in the real life case of Madsen v Kinsella, where the glamorous Brooklyn born wife of an American serviceman was convicted of murdering her pilot husband in occupied Germany. Mrs Madsen’s filed a habeas corpus petition arguing that the US Court for the Allied High Commission in Germany did not have the jurisdiction to try her. A suspect, like Madmoiselle Beljame in Death in Berlin might easily disappear into the Soviet sector, never to reappear. 

While Kaye’s gaze on Asia and Africa is appreciative of the colour and natural beauty, the “shattered ruins” of Berlin remind her of the “stupidity of it all! The waste and horror of man’s inhumanity to man”. The devastation is there to see, unlike in the British colony, where the devastation is imagined in the future. The naïve heroine in Death in Zanzibar is reminded that of the romanticism of the colony, “It is the only place I have yet hit upon where black and white and every shade in between’em appear to be able to live together in complete friendliness and harmony with no color bar. It is a living proof and practical demonstration that it can be done, They are all, whatever their race or caste or religion, loyal subjects of His Highness the Sultan..but it won’t last, In the end one …of them will manage to destroy it…Progress is a Lout”. In Berlin, Britain’s changing role in the world is underlined, as Norah Leslie, the Brigadier’s wife confesses that German’s terrified her, not because of their politics, but their industry. In contrast to postwar Britain with its welfare state, a country “too intent on its tea breaks, five day week and next pay rise”, the German workmen were willing and eager to work flat out, they are finding their feet and bursting with confidence. The changing world stage would requires special measures that might seem “un British”, a young schoolboy told off for snooping as “not British” austerely replies, “ “the secret service has to snoop. Where’d us British be if we didn’t? Beat by the Russians and the Japanese, and the FBI, that’s what”.  As AWB Brian Simpson charts, the 1950s, saw Britain trying to simultaneously build a postwar order with lipservice to human rights and the rule of law, while trying to keep it’s colonial territories and counter-insurgencies outside their jurisdiction. 

Crime in the Colony: Empire and the Golden Age Detective Novel

"Take all this business about Kenya," said Major Palgrave. "Lots of chaps gabbing away who know nothing about the place! Now I spent fourteen years of my life there. Some of the best years of my life, too."
Despite Major Palgrave’s central role in the plot of Agatha Christie’s A CaribbeanMystery, the readers never do get to know much about the “business in Kenya” or apart from the convenience of drowning, a chance remark by a Venezuelan tourist and a blackmailing housekeeper, do we know much of the Caribbean either.
In contrast, empire, in all its forms, courses through early English detective fiction. Wilkie Collin’s  The Moonstone, which set the rules for the early genre, centered on a diamond (named after the Hindu god Chandra) that was stolen during the Siege of Seringapatnam and a troupe of Indian jugglers. Dr Watson meets Holmes after being injured in service in the 2nd Afghan War. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 drives the plot in the Sign of Four. Sumatran bacteria, Lime house Opium dens, comrades from the Boer Wars, mysterious Malays and Calcutta trained snake charmers menace who young women with swamp adders . It existed as part of the landscape, as a racial stereotypes, as a signifier of criminality, of oriental exoticism and shaping the political economy. An Indian student, Daulat Ras (“quiet and methodical”) is one of the key suspects in the Adventure of the Three Students, while the key antagonist in the Sign of Four is a blow dart wielding Tonga, from the Andaman Islands. Laura Otis even suggests that Holmes is the creation of a physician, who see’s the detective as protecting the “British nation” from the ills of contamination of the empire.  Holmes’s himself declares that he spent two years in Tibet after his “death” at the Reichenbach Falls (an episode delightfully reimagined by Jamyang Norbu in the Mandala of Sherlock Homes).
            In contrast, the Empire recedes from view in the Golden Age Detective Novel. Take for example, the work of Agatha Christie (whose first husband was born in Peshawar and the second worked as an archeologist in Iraq and Syria), the empire functions largely as a backstage to remove characters from the scene. Never doe’ll sons are sent off to Australia (Dumb Witness), mining prospects in Africa are occasionally "motives for murder (A Pocketful of Rye), grandchildren in Ceylon remove an eyewitness from the scene (4:50 fromPaddington) returning memsahibs struggle with the absence of a fleet of servants (Mrs McGinty’s Dead) and a policeman retiring from Malaysia (perhaps service during the insurgency) investigates a serial killer in an English Village (Murder in Easy). Earnest archaeologists (Murder in Mesopotamia), women politicians (Appointment with Death) and writers of salacious novels (Death on the Nile) may voyage to the east, but travel with a self-contained world of Home Counties Englishman and a smattering of temperamental Europeans. Historian Christopher Prior contrasting Christie’s pre-war and postwar fiction notes a general trend where the postwar books showed a spike in the number of murderers who had connections to or were born in the colonies. The “natives” are clearly ruled out as suspects, though occasionally a clever murderer might disguise themselves with a turban.  I pick Christie as the key example, because she is the third most published writer in  the English language, outsold only by William Shakespeare (and the Bible!) and sells more in India than in the UK at present. In contrast, her contemporaries with the exception of the New Zealand settings of Ngaio Marsh (a New Zealander herself) limit themselves to London squares and English country houses.

The central conceit of picking a Belgian detective, was Christie’s (and Poirot’s) self-awareness of how contemptuously the English viewed foreigners. Poirot self-consciously becomes more foreign, when he wants suspects to under-estimate him. Christie’s pre-war works are full of casual anti-Semitic and racist observances, made bearable only by the ruthless decimation of European nationalities, the French are mendacious, the Italians and Spaniards temperamental, the Americans are flashy and tasteless, and one character is gently dismissed with the words “Poor creature, she’s a Swede”.  Significantly, unlike say Holmes, race and nationality are never correlated to criminality. It was usually the “Old School Tie” wearing establishment Englishman or the gentle paragon of the Women’s Institute who was pouring strychnine into the soup.
            The one stock character is the retired colonial army officer/official, neatly summed up as Miss Marple listens to Major Palgrave drone on “somewhat uninteresting recollections of a lifetime”,
 “ It was a routine with which she was well acquainted. The locale varied. In the past, it had been predominantly India. Majors, Colonels, Lieutenant-Generals - and a familiar series of words: Simla. Bearers. Tigers. Chota Hazri - Tiffin. Khitmagars, and so on. With Major Palgrave the terms were slightly different. Safari. Kikuyu. Elephants. Swahili. But the pattern was essentially the same. An elderly man who needed a listener so that he could, in memory, relive days in which he had been happy. Days when his back had been straight, his eyesight keen, his hearing acute. Some of these talkers had been handsome soldierly old boys, some again had been regrettably unattractive, and Major Palgrave, purple of face, with a glass eye, and the general appearance of a stuffed frog, belonged in the latter category.
Indeed, the stock character is so familiar, it allows a villain to disguise themselves as an Anglo Indian colonel with a turbaned Indian butler, choleric temper, gout and tables laden with Benares brass. But as Poirot points out, the “retired Anglo Indian army officer, a well-known comic figure with a liver and choleric temper” is “bogus, very bogus”. Empire is both an exit and a disguise. 

Hickory Dickory Death: Decolonizing London

            I want to briefly turn to Hickory DickoryDock  (1955),  the one Christie novel that has a sizable number of  non-White characters (apart from Death Comes as the End, which is set in Thebes in 2000 BC). An international student’s boarding house in London (built by knocking down through two Victorian townhouses) is disturbed by a series of mysterious thefts of items ranging from a diamond ring, a stethoscope, lightbulbs and bath salts. Set in the 1950s, it’s one of the few to reflect the changing composition of University of London students, it’s inhabitants include two Indians studying political science, a Jamaican law student, a West African, an Egyptian, an American Fulbright scholar, several Frenchwomen, a stolid Dutchman and two unnamed Turks and an Iraqi. Owned by a Greek proprietress (often drunk) and excitable Italian staff, it’s managed by a cheerful Englishwoman just returned from Singapore, which meant she “understood racial differences and people’s susceptibilities”. Scholarly appreciation of Christie, gingerly steps around Hickory Dickory Dock, embarrassed by the racial stereotypes and the extremely improbably plot that leads to 3 murders within 48 hours and the plausibility of three-way switch between a bottle of morphine, a bottle of bicarbonate of soda and a bottle of boracic acid.  The TV adaptation changes the settings to the 1930s and erases all the non-White characters from the script.
            This is one of the few Christie’s that gives a sense of a changing United Kingdom, and there are ways of reading her stereotypical representations against the grain . As Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon remarks, “half our nurses in our hospitals seem to be black nowadays….and I understand much pleasanter and more attentive than the English ones”. The expansion of the National Health Service at the end of the Second World War had led to a severe shortage in medical personnel, which was met by increased recruitment of nurses from Jamaica and the Bahamas. Beginning with arrivals on Windrush, the Carribeannurses and medical professionals were integral to building the NHS and faced both arduous working conditions and racism. The passing acknowledgement in Christie’s murder mystery, comes up sharply in contrast with say the absence of Caribbean nurses in Call the Midwife, a contemporary TV show depicting the lives of midwives in East London in the 1950s (the first West Indian nurse joins the cast in Series Seven). With increasing numbers of students from the colonies/former colonies coming to the UK to study, London increasingly became a hub of anti-colonial activism in the 1950s, allowing the creation of networks across regions and colonies. Mitra Sharafi’s new work shows, several were studying law in the Inns of Court and would return to lead movements for political and social change in their homes. While colonial law students had been coming to London since the late 19th century, the second world war widened the demographics and politics. Wartime travel restrictions changed the requirements for legal training in London. Instead of spending two years in London to train at the Inns of Court, prospective students could do the first year of coursework in  their own countries and only spend nine months in the UK keeping their dinners and giving the qualifying exams. These changes opened up the profession to wider demographic, including women and students from working class backgrounds, including several lawyers who I follow in my current research.  Unlike the sons of merchants, colonial officials and landed gentry who came to study in the late 19th and early 20th century, the 1940s saw children of schoolteachers, railway engine drivers and small shopkeepers making their way to LOndon.  It is not surprising that Elizabeth Johnston, the Jamaican lawyer is described by Poirot as the most intelligent person in the hostel, is both studying law and is found to be card carrying member of the Communist Party.  This also makes student hostels, like the one on Hickory Road, a site for police surveillance 
            Christopher Prior classifies thenon-white cast into one of three stereotypes: arrogant and condescending; simple and credulous and excitable and temperamental. Yet, each of Christie’s stereotypes can be inverted to reveal something about the politics of the time. Take Elizabeth Johnstone, the Jamaican law student dismisses her American housemate’s feeling that something is wrong, as “her American way of thought. They are all the same, these Americans, nervous, apprehensive, suspecting every kind of foolish thing! Look at the fools they have made of themselves with their witch hunts, their hysterical spy mania and their obsession over communism”. As a left wing Carribean student, Johnstone is acutely aware of the McCarthy era witch hunts which were actively criticized for their departure from ordinary legal norms in London’s leftists circles. Pamplets were written on the Rosenberg prosecution and the Smith Act cases, and student groups debated and followed the American “Red Scare”.

            The West African student, Akibombo, discomfits his housemates by suggesting the murder is the result of a blood feud or an honor killing. While much of his description is a crude caricature, the actual solution involves convoluted family relationships, dressed up in modern scientific language.  Finally, the Indian medical student, Chandra Lal is dismissed as a suspect by Poirot, given that his mind is entirely occupied by “politics and persecution mania”, and indeed Lal is in full form, threatening to cause an international incident when his room is searched as part of the murder investigation and calling out his housemates for borderline racist humor. When the housemates express surprise at a “seemingly senseless” damage to Elizabeth Johnstone’s notes, Lal becomes “excited and voluble” pointing out this is “oppression, deliberate oppression of native races, contempt and prejudice, colour prejudice”. Christie intends Lal to be a figure of caricature, but reading him in the 21st century, shows him to be astute, analogizing the narrative of “senseless violence” with the British who claim to not know, “Why the Mau Mau? Why does Egypt resent the Suez Canal”. The answers, he suggests are clear, well authenticated examples of racial oppression. With Indian independence, the postcolonial Indian state had emerged as a powerful voice in international affairs pointing out racial discrimination and arguing for decolonization. It successfully passed a General Assemblyresolution condemning the anti-Indian legislation in South Africawas engaged in drafting the UDHR, drew attention to atrocities carried out by colonial authorities in Malaysia and East Africa and sharply responded to racial discrimination against it’s citizens in the UK. The British state was both embarrassed and exasperated by Indian use of the international institutions and media, and believed them to by hypocritical given its military action in Hyderabad, Goa and Kashmir, and limiting of rights of its own citizens through constitutional amendments. As mysterious thefts plague the hostel, the other Indian student Gopal Ram just “smiles and says material possessions do not matter” but only because nothing has yet been stolen from him. 

My posts so far have largely looked at murder mysteries written by British authors with colonial settings, in my last post I will turn to a set of detective stories written by Indians, Singaporeans and Kenyans set in the same period.