Fiji in 1914 would appear to be a perfect island paradise. For constable Akal Singh, it is at is best a purgatory, hopefully a temporary one. Far from the turmoil of the Great War, far from the desperately poor regions of the British Empire, for Singh, it is just far from everything; far from his family in the Punjab, far from his beloved billeting in Hong Kong. But one thing that is uncomfortably close is racial prejudice, particularly as Fiji is an island divided. At the top sits the small British elite, owners of the sugar cane plantations that forms the colony’s economic backbone. The native Fijians are barred by their leaders from working those fields, leaving the work to indentured workers imported from the lowest of India’s castes, toiling for seven years in the hope of surviving the harsh conditions long enough to earn a small holding of their own. When an Indian woman vanishes from her plantation at the same time that an Indian delegation arrives on the island to investigate working conditions, Singh is tapped to find a satisfying explanation. But in Nilima Rao’s debut mystery, A Disappearance in Fiji, few on the island can avoid the minefield of race.
Singh understands that the authorities want him to conclude that Kunti ran away from the farm by her own free will. But as he investigates, he discovers the woman had little incentive to flee, with a loving family and a living situation marginally better than most indentured servants. That her disappearance coincides with the departure of the plantation’s overseer suggests a possible love affair, but Singh is suspicious when those in power seem uninterested in Singh’s conclusions and overly hostile to the fact that he’s even attempting a full investigation. His efforts aren’t helped by the fact that both the English planters and the Indian indentured servants treat him with suspicion—the English for the mere effrontery of an Indian questioning them, the Indians for his role representing colonial law. Singh has quite a task discovering the truth behind Kunti’s fate—a fate that many want to keep hidden at any cost.
There’s no shortage of mysteries set around the time of the Great War or those that plum the realities of British colonialism through history, but Rao’s take on early twentieth century Fiji is pretty singular—there isn’t a lot of fiction that probes the history of Pacific islands, and fewer that are mysteries. Rao writes from the historical record—there really was an indentured woman named Kunti who came to grief on Fiji’s plantations, and a contingent of Sikh police officers, such as Singh, were dispatched out of Hong Kong to help fill out Fiji’s police ranks. She also writes from a personal perspective. Rao was born on Fiji, the descendent of Indians who had worked the sugar cane fields before settling permanently on the island. The strong sense of historical place and a well-clued mystery makes for a promising debut. And with a compelling lead in Constable Singh, the possibility of a continuing series is strong. A Disappearance in Fiji is a good choice for historical mystery fans that like settings out of the ordinary or featuring stories with a minimum of violence.