Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Published by Soho Crime on June 6, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
A charming and atmospheric debut mystery featuring a 25-year-old Indian police sergeant investigating a missing persons case in colonial Fiji
1914, Fiji: Akal Singh would rather be anywhere but this tropical paradise—or, as he calls it, “this godforsaken island.” After a promising start to his police career in his native India and Hong Kong, Akal has been sent to Fiji as punishment for a humiliating professional mistake. Lonely and grumpy, Akal plods through his work and dreams of getting back to Hong Kong.
When an indentured Indian woman goes missing from a sugarcane plantation and Fiji’s newspapers scream “kidnapping,” the inspector-general reluctantly assigns Akal the case, giving him strict instructions to view this investigation as nothing more than cursory. Akal, eager to achieve redemption, agrees—but soon finds himself far more invested than he could have expected.
Now not only is he investigating a disappearance, but also confronting the brutal realities of the indentured workers’ existence and the racism of the British colonizers in Fiji—along with his own thorny notions of personhood and caste. Early interrogations of the white plantation owners, Indian indentured laborers, and native Fijians yield only one conclusion: there is far more to this case than meets the eye.
Nilima Rao’s sparkling debut mystery offers an unflinching look at the evils of colonialism, even as it brims with wit, vibrant characters, and fascinating historical detail.
If, as Shakespeare put it, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” does it then follow that an injustice by any other name would smell every bit as foul?
From a certain perspective, that’s the dilemma before Sergeant Akal Singh, a Sikh police officer posted more or less in exile in Fiji after a humiliating professional mistake – a mistake made all that much more heinous by the racial and caste barriers imposed by the British Raj. Even though the Great War that will bring the Raj crashing down has already begun.
Everyone in the police service knows just how Akal screwed up his trusted and cushy posting in Hong Kong. He let himself be led astray by a white British woman who only befriended him in order to get inside information on the security arrangements of the rich and famous in the Crown Colony. While nothing more than conversation EVER happened, simply talking with a white woman was enough to get Akal censured if not fired. That the conversation resulted in several successful burglaries before he finally got wise nearly put paid to his entire career.
But exile in Fiji proved to be a bitter sentence for Akal. His new superior neither trusts him nor wants him, so Akal gets the worst cases, the ones that are both trivial and unsolvable. Which only makes the situation worse as then the officer can claim that he is ineffective as well. (Anyone who has not faced this type of downward spiral in a job is to be envied, but Akal, alone, far from home and already beating himself up over just how easily he was taken advantage of, is in a particularly bad place.)
Then it gets worse. As the only Indian officer in Fiji, Akal is pressed into appearing at a reception for a visiting group of officials who are looking into the working and living conditions of Indian indentured laborers on the sugarcane fields of Fiji. His supervisor orders him to pacify his fellow countrymen on a subject that no one should be pacified about.
Unsurprisingly, he fails, and gets himself ordered to travel to the sugarcane plantations to investigate a possible kidnapping on one of the most remote plantations. Again, he’s supposed to quite literally whitewash any accusations of kidnapping and put the kibosh on any further investigations of the terrible conditions at the plantations.
Conditions that everyone knows about but that no one wants to disrupt. The money the plantations bring to the island is everyone’s economic lifeblood. And no one cares about a few lazy, complaining workers, not when the alternative is cutting off the money spigot that flows into seemingly everyone’s pocket in one way or another.
Akal knows that if he carries out his orders, he’ll be well on his way to ending his exile in Fiji. But once he’s seen the conditions on the plantation – he can’t unsee. And he can’t unknow that the whitewashed report he’s been ordered to write is an injustice that will spread its stink all over him for the rest of his life.
Escape Rating A: This story has three threads to pull – or perhaps that should be three threads that absolutely do pull at the reader. Or at least this reader, because I was certainly hooked from the very beginning and only got further woven in as the story went along.
First, and the reason I picked this up in the first place, is that it is a historical mystery, set in a time period well before the internet or cell phones or, most particularly in this instance, even late 20th century forensics. Akal is on his own with this case, all he has to go by are his wits, his knowledge of human nature, and his willingness to stick his neck out because he can’t stand to see the guilty go unpunished.
Which is very much where that second thread comes in, as this mystery is deeply interwoven in historical fiction. Not just because A Disappearance in Fiji takes place in 1914, just after the opening salvos in World War I have been fired, but because it takes place in a time and place and from a perspective on that history that Western readers will not be familiar with. But which frequently sounds all too familiar in its details AND its depravity.
What brings that history to life is the point of view of Akal Singh himself, as he is both forced to see the terrible conditions under which people just like him – or at least just like him as far as the white plantation owners and overseers view him – live and work. It’s both a view that he has tried his best to ignore – as many people have and do – as well as a reckoning with the notion of what the words “my people” means to him far away from home and in the midst of a society to which he can never truly belong.
Which leads directly to the third thread of this tapestry, that Akal Singh must decide not merely between obedience to his superiors vs. a measure of justice for his people and against the people who have virtually enslaved them – a justice that he already knows no one will allow him to truly bring. But also the question of doing what is right vs. doing what is easy.
It would be easy to sweep the crimes that he has discovered under a very large and bloody rug. It’s an act that would even profit him in the long run, make his career path much smoother and possibly lead him back to cosmopolitan Hong Kong. His mother might even approve!
But the right thing to do will have costs that he already knows he will pay for the rest of his life. Even if it is the act that his father will approve of, although it will most certainly continue his exile.
Staying in Fiji is the least of the price he will have to pay. But if it leads to more mysteries featuring this thoughtful, conflicted and fascinating detective, this reader, at least, is all for it!