Cromartie V. The God Shiva Acting Through The Government of India
ONE OF THE most overdone devices of mystery fiction, the stolen-art plot, offers easy suspense without ever escaping a certain basic formula: "Eghad Sir Walter! my statue was stolen by a villain." "Well, then enlist Nigel to find the blasted piece!" By this time the pilfered artifact has become a personification of Western greed; a chase ensues, a love affair enters the mix. The art itself is eventually either found or lost forever--that is until it reappears in a sequel. In an attempt to deviate from this mediocre standard, author Rumer Godden uses a historical court case as its foundation in Cromartie V. The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India, testing the cultural differences between colonial India and Britain in the process.
The piece of art in question is a statue of Nataraja Shiva, the Hindu God of destruction and reproduction, one incarnation of which is the phallus (oh my!). Stolen from a hotel in India, the statue has found its way into the hands of a Canadian with little class and a large bank roll--one Mr. Cromartie. The outraged government of India wants its God back, which Mr. Cromartie, with his capitalist-colonizer mentality, cannot abide. He hammers out his position with a group of London-based barristers, who eventually send their star leading junior barrister, Michael, to India to investigate the matter.
Godden, a veteran Indianist and the author of Black Narcissus, narrates this tale almost exclusively in dialogue, spinning tales within tales about a cast of slightly snobbish but eminently thorough lawyers. Through them we learn what kind of suits people wear, how well Michael fares with the ladies (just fine, thanks), and everything you didn't need to know about early-20th-century inter-office politics. Michael, as the author's main mouthpiece, is a fount of knowledge on all things Indian--you know, he used to live there--and his monologues do manage to give the uninformed reader the rudimentary cultural background necessary to understand what's at stake with the blasphemous Shiva-napping.
Ultimately, though, as the narrative travels to India, you realize you've seen this one before: It's The Maltese Falcon all over again, sans a charismatic Bogart at the helm and an inventive climax.