Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Reading. Kaye.

I think M. M. Kaye is best known for her epic novel The Far Pavilions (I thought of her as I read Indian Ink last night, as that story is set against the 19th century revolutionary struggle of India against England), which I have never read; it was her mysteries (all with titles that begin Death in...) that I first discovered some ten or twelve years ago, and now I think I have read them all. Kaye had been born and mostly raised in India; her husband was a British officer in India and after the Partition he joined the British army and was posted all around the world in the various far-flung locales that are the backdrop to the mysteries. There is a music to these places, Kashmir, Zanzibar, Kenya, Cyprus, Berlin, the Andaman Islands. (I believe Kashmir is where she met and married her husband).

They are all the same (like all mystery novels, and this is part of their appeal) - a young, virginal heroine (usually just 18 or 20 years old, perhaps a few years older - it is strange; when I first read these stories I was younger than the heroines, and now I am older), orphaned at a young age and raised by strict elderly relatives or sent to boarding schools, until now, of age and embarking on adventure, she stumbles across murder in a distant British colony or foreign place where Englishmen go and run to seed. An older man (at least thirty) comes into the story; at first she suspects him of being involved with the crime, or he suspects her, and by the end, they are in love. The murderer is nearly always someone whose bland fa├žade conceals a murderously insane mind, or someone who the heroine has always known and is pushed into murder out of greed. One murder always leads to another, perhaps another, out of fear of discovery, or blackmail.

I return to Death in Kashmir because Stoppard's words are still in my mind; Sarah has come back to Kashmir, "to see our Vanishing Empire before it vanished for keeps," and there she finds murder and intrigue in the Kashmiri mountains and on the shores of the lake near Srinagar. It is the year before the British are to leave India, the "end of an epoch - of an era - and something of this feeling...of farewell to familiar things" runs throughout the story. And beneath the circumstances which have led to murder is the unease of what will happen once the transfer of power from Britain to India takes place, what did happen once India gained its independence with all the struggle that was to come.

What I love in Kaye is that there is a sense of nostalgia to her stories; they are about a moment in time, a way of life that has passed. They were written (if I remember correctly) after she had left behind those faraway places where you could rent a houseboat on a lake in the shadow of high mountains in Kashmir or walk amongst sunburnt grasses and wind-twisted olive groves on Cyprus. It is like looking at faded photographs of lost gardens and monuments that have fallen into dust; there is a sense of an era that is long gone. There is nothing left of that time.

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