Sunday, October 5, 2014

Guest Blogger: Brian Stoddart--"A New World of Crime."

Every other Sunday is our day for Guest Author Postings by mystery writers who base their stories in non-US settings.  We think it a great way of introducing our readership to new experiences and places.  We’re pleased to have with us today New Zealand-born Brian Stoddart.  During a university career that culminated in a term as President and Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, Brian wrote several non-fiction books on India and on sports culture, becoming a world authority in the process. Since leaving formal university life he has served as a higher education consultant in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, spending considerable time in Cambodia, Lao, Jordan and Syria. His e-book "A House in Damascus: Before the Fall," recounts his experiences living in an old Arabic house in the old city of Damascus immediately before the present troubles.Brian's debut crime novel with Crime Wave Press, "A Madras Miasma," introduces Superintendent Chris Le Fanu of the Indian Police Service in Madras after World War I.

Welcome, Brian.

As a few people have suggested recently, there is something of a gap between illusion and reality in the world of crime fiction. Put simply, in many national settings there is an inverse relationship between the number of murders committed and the number of novels written.

On the over-supply side, for example, Scandinavian noir rules the bookshelves: Sigurdardottir, Mankell, Nesbo, Indridason, Bates Yet in 2012, Iceland had just one murder, a rate of 0.3 per 100,000 of population. Sweden had 68 at 0.7 Denmark had 47 at 0.8, while Norway was rather more wild, 111 at 2.2.

While I haven’t done the full count there is a real chance that in 2012, there were more murders committed in novels written about those countries than there were on the ground, as it were. There is a psychology as well as a pathology here: what makes writers create mayhem where there is none?
Murder here?

In contrast, the USA had over 14,000 murders in 2012 at a rate of 4.7. Grist to the Block, you might say. The UK had 653 at a respectable enough 1.0. Plenty of writers there. About the only thing not discussed ahead of the Scottish independence vote was whether or not the tartan noir gang would be expelled from the CWA if the Yes vote got up.

Those reality patterns are reversed dramatically elsewhere around the world. Brazil, for example, racked up 50,000 murders that year, at a rate of 25.2. Leighton Gage was onto something. Nigeria had 33,000 at 20.0. Cue Adimchinma Ibe. Mexico had 26,000 at 21.5. Try Paco Ignacio Taibo II.
The world’s highest rates of murder are also instructive. Honduras had 7,172 deaths at a rate of 90.0 per 100,000. Venezuela had 16,000 at 53.7. The US Virgin Islands had just 56 murders, but at a rate of 52.6.  There are crime novels set in the USVI, but most are set in the British equivalent (two murders at 8.4). What does that mean?

I know you are dying to ask: what about Australia and New Zealand? Well, Australia had 254 murders at 1.1, New Zealand 41 at 0.9. That’s about right for novelists: Michael Robotham, Angela Savage, Garry Disher, Peter Temple in Australia; Paul Thomas, Vanda Symon and Paul Cleave in NZ. And, of course, Ngaio Marsh.

Actually, as a sidebar, the Australian case demonstrates the globalisation of crime fiction. This year’s prestigious Ned Kelly Award, given to be crime novel by the Australian Crime Writers Association, has just gone to Adrian McKinty: born in Ireland, university at Warwick and Oxford, sometime resident in the United States and now living in Victoria, Australia. He won for a book set in the “Troubles.”

Now the academic in me says “Yes, there is a case here, but these figures are misleading. What do you mean by murders? We know in places like Mexico a lot of those deaths are mixed up with drug trafficking and all the rest.”

Alright, caveat accepted. But there still remains a broad pattern, and only now are we starting to see crime fiction come out of some of the hotspots of actual crime. Some of my favourite reads in the past year or so (apart from the MIE crew) have been by Parker Bilal, the pen name for Jamal Mahjoub, a British-Sudanese writer whose protagonist lives on a houseboat on the Nile and works in Cairo. Then, there is much more now beginning to come out in translation as the appetite for crime grows globally.

All of which got me thinking about India. The country had a staggering 43,355 murders in 2012, about 119 per day. Take that, Iceland. The population is huge, of course, so the rate stands at 3.5, which makes it look less spectacular. (Over the border in Pakistan it is 7.7 on 13,846 murders).

As with “Indian writing in English” generally (think Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry), for example, there has been a crime strand since the nineteenth century when local versions of Sherlock Holmes appeared along with similar figures in the myriad of regional languages. Rudyard Kipling, in some guises, was a crime writer. And there was true crime, as well. The Agra Double Murder case of 1907 was a sensation. An Anglo-Indian doctor and his English lover decided to do away with their respective spouses. He hanged, she went to jail. That particular mixture of illusion and reality continued. H.R.F. (Harry) Keating, once President of the CWA, wrote a series of successful crime novels set in India, but never went there.

As Indian writers like Vikram Chandra and Anita Nair begin to edge into crime, prepare for a flood if only because there is so much to write about or be inspired by. And it is not just about the numbers.

Jayendra Saraswathi

Take, for example, the fabulous Kanchi Sankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi case. Roughly interpreted this is the case of Jayendra Saraswathi , head priest at a temple in Kanchi or Kancheepuram, known under the British as Conjeevaram, a famous silk sari centre just to the south of Chennai, once known as Madras. Got that?

On 3 September 2004 one A. Sankararaman, manager of the Varadaraja Perumal temple in Kanchi was confronted in the building by six men who stabbed him to death. Media photographs showed him lying in pools of blood. After a period, twenty four people were charged with his murder, including Jayendra Saraswathu.  

This was huge news. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the temple is among the holiest in India, and a major pilgrimage site. It dates to at least the eleventh century, among its treasures a necklace donated by Robert Clive, the great “Clive of India” who figures so prominently in the British India story.
Jayendra Saraswathi himself was and remains one of the leading Hindu religious figures in India, if a controversial one. Moreover, he was long associated with Jayalaalitha, the current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Up until before his arrest, in fact, he was her guru. The former film actress herself was and remains a long time bitter opponent of M.Karunanidhi, former screen writer turned politician who was Chief Minister when I first went to India in 1972. Just to tease out this strand a little more: one of Karunanidhi’s politician sons is the wonderfully named. M.K. Stalin who has been arrested several times; a daughter, Kanimozh, is an India-level politician recently charged with corruption over the allocation of telephony licenses.

The story in Kanchi was that Sankararaman was unhappy with some business practices he observed at the temple so, using a pen name, wrote a series of letters on the subject to influential people. He alleged financial wrong doing and the misuse of temple funds. Sankararaman also suggested that Jayendra Saraswathi and his junior assistants spent an unusually long amount of non-spiritual time alone with certain women.

During tortuous court proceedings, 189 witnesses were called and 83 of them were declared hostile. In the end, Jayendra Saraswathi and others were found guilty, but on appeal were cleared late in 2013.

However, priest is still awaiting trial for having allegedly hired a gang of thugs in 2002 to beat up a temple auditor who suggested 80 kilograms of temple gold had disappeared mysteriously. This, of course, links directly to the concerns raised by the late Sankararaman.

Jayendra Saraswathi fields other problems, too. In 2004 (he had a rough time around then) a Tamil writer named Anuradha Raman took him to court alleging he demanded sexual favours of her. That case lapsed at her death in 2010, but another one remains.

Swami Nithyandra

In 2012 a Tamil actress named Ranjitha also laid charges against him, for linking her immorally to one of his sometime notorious associates, a charismatic God-man named Swami Nithyananda. A television channel released a tape allegedly showing Nithyananda having sex with the actress, and a series of charges followed with, as ever, complicated court proceedings. The use of drugs emerged, along with the suggestion that the swami is impotent which has also become the subject of court testing. Anyone see a plot line here?

Several incidents followed involving Nithyananda, and Jayendra Saraswathi upset many followers by still associating with the swami. The Ranjitha case against Jayendra Saraswathi is still pending.
Now this is surely the stuff of crime fiction. Murder mixed with drugs, sex, and money: perfect. It is worth probing that last ingredient a little further to get the full flavour because some of you may be thinking, “Well, that’s all fine, but in the end it’s just a religious thing.” Time for further evidence.

See Padmanabhaswamy Temple

Further to the south stands the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, in the state of Kerala, for a long time one of the few world states to have an elected Marxist government. It is located in the capital city which has created one of the truly great name changes: what was Trivandrum is now Thiruvananthapuram. Incidentally, the city provides the national parliamentary seat for Shashi Tharoor, a former high flying United Nations figure now the centre of several controversies including the death of his wife, but that is another story.

Back to the temple. Last year, as a result of strenuous court actions over who should manage temple affairs, a couple of things emerged. First, the current estimated wealth of the temple is around $US 25 billion. Yes, you read that right: about $5 billion in gold and coins and associated items, and $20 billion in monuments. But second, there is an unopened vault. Some surveys are suggesting that the unopened vault alone may have treasures valued up to, $US1 trillion. H. Rider Haggard, eat your heart out.

The deity at the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple

The point will have been made. Not far to the north of Chennai once Madras, about 130 kilometres or so, stands another of the Hindu great pilgrimage sites, the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple at Tirupati which was the richest shrine until the Padmanabhaswamy revelations. Tirupati receives about 30-40 million devotees a year, and it is common for them to leave gifts. Yearly revenue is probably around $US 200 million. One wonderful marker of the wealth has the temple receiving 80-100 kilograms of gold as gifts, per month.

In 2009, Gali Jannardhan Reddy donated a statue valued at $US8.8 million. He was then state Tourism Minister for nearby Karnataka, and an immensely wealthy iron ore baron. These days he stands charged with corruption. Among other things, he and his brothers arranged for boundary markers between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to be shifted physically, and without authority, in order to extend their mining leases.

Pilgrims at Tirumala Venkateswara Temple

Most of these temples are run by highly efficient management committees but, as we know, crime sometimes pays. The Varadaraja Perumal Temple in Kanchi is in the top flight of these pilgrimage centres and is estimated to have reserves of around $US500 million, although you will understand these figures are flexible. Let’s just say a lot of money is involved. There’s your motive. And it gives a context to the Jayendra Saraswathi tale.

The scope for crime and the writing of it abounds in India, then, both in its contemporary and historical settings. That is especially so when you consider the India diaspora and all the scope that provides. One of the currently popular crime series set in India is Tarquin Hall’s featuring the comical private eye, Vish Puri. The books capture something of Indian life, but do not begin to mine the seams identified here. It is time, as they say in India, “to do the necessary.”

Guest Blogger Brian Stoddary--Sunday


  1. Brian, thanks for posting a primer on the multitude of India crime themes I expect to be seeing under your byline!

  2. Brian, Holy Moly! Bun intended. Or maybe I should say Holy Money? My mind boggled at the first 80 kilos of gold. It reeled by the time you got to the end. Do the monks even bother to try to rationalize this staggering accumulation of worth?

  3. Welcome, Brian! As they say, if you want to REALLY get rich quick, the business to get into is religion.

    AmA: "Bun intended." Is that a nested pun? Or is it like a double-negative, where the second pun cancels out the first?

  4. An extremely interesting blog. I can see Indian myseries accumulating an international audience. I have to admit that my experience is limited to Inspector Ghote and what stands out in my mind is his hilarious attempt to learn how to play golf and also the way he wonders how Agatha Christie would perceive the motive for a crime.