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Ragtime in Simla: The Second in the Detective Joe Sandilands Series    by Barbara Cleverly Amazon.com order for
Ragtime in Simla
by Barbara Cleverly
Order:  USA  Can
Dell, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Ragtime in Simla is even better than Barbara Cleverly's accomplished debut in The Last Kashmiri Rose. This series is set just after World War I, when India was still the jewel in the British Empire's crown. The unusual time period and location provide a breath of fresh air in the mystery field.

The first episode was set in a military outpost north of Calcutta, where visiting Scotland Yard detective Joe Sandilands was sent to consult on modern police techniques. Now Sandilands travels to the Himalayan foothills for a few weeks vacation before his return to England. Simla is a lively summer resort for the British, who head there to escape the excruciating heat of Bombay and Calcutta. The residents are an exotic blend of Muslim Pathans, local Hindus, British military personnel and civilians (some living on the edge of the law), and other Europeans seeking their fortunes in the far reaches of what they consider the civilized world. It is the jazz age and Simla has all the energy of the Ragtime era.

During the last leg of his trip, Joe is joined in the governor's car by visiting Russian opera singer Feodor Korsovsky, who is then shot dead as the car approaches Simla. Of course, Sandilands' detective instincts drive him to join the local police in investigating the murder. When he learns of a very similar death in the same spot the year before, Sandilands realizes that the seemingly 'no-strings attached' invitation of Sir George Jardine (the colonial governor of Bengal) to use his guest house had a hidden motive. With two murders to solve, he feels like 'Sir George's pet ferret'. Sandilands forms a good team with local police superintendent Charlie Carter. He and his wife Meg fill Joe in on the intricacies of Simla life, which is full of 'writhing layers of Indian intrigue'.

Cleverly peoples the book with a fascinating trio of ladies. Alice Conyers-Sharpe is a surprisingly competent young woman, and the sole survivor of a tragic train accident in France three years earlier, when she journeyed out to India to take up the family business. Sandilands has to fight his attraction to Alice, since she may be involved in the murders. The first victim was her brother - thought to have been killed in the war - who was traveling to Simla to reunite with her. And there is a mysterious connection with Korsovsky. Flora, the sexy French proprietor of the upscale Simla brothel and Minerva Freemantle, who conducts high class sťances, are also distractions for Sandilands. As he and Carter investigate they stumble on an amazing turn of events. This and subsequent plot turns keep readers on their toes.

Finally all is resolved and Joe is on his way back to England to resume his duties. It is hard to know what Cleverly will do next. While Joe would be a fascinating character in any location, sending him back to staid and boring England seems the wrong move. We can only hope that Sandilands' services will once again be required in India.

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