FORGOTTEN THRILLERS: THE BENGALI INHERITANCE By Owen Sela
Owen Sela is now largely unknown to modern spy fiction readers, although there is a small group who remember his World War II assassination thriller, An Exchange Of Eagles, quite fondly.
Sela burst onto the British thriller scene in the early 1970s with three enjoyable novels about adventurer and occasional spy Nick Maasten, and was seen as being a fresh, younger voice on the espionage fiction scene. He then followed them up with a terrific, but often overlooked novel, about a Chinese Police Detective in Hong Kong, The Bengali Inheritance, and a pair of exceeding good historical thrillers, including An Exchange Of Eagles. By the mid-1980s, after a brief hiatus, Sela had ventured into the arena of bulkier international thrillers set predominantly in the United States and Russia. They all seemed to be variations on the same theme of Russian sleeper agents and attempts to influence election outcomes. The KGB Candidate was the last of these and I found it to be quite enjoyable when I re-read it a few years back: https://murdermayhemandlongdogs.com/throwback-thursday-the-kgb-candidate-by-owen-sela-fontana-1988/ He also did a financial thriller, Midas, under the name Piers Kelaart, which used to be available on Kindle, but has now dropped off.
I greatly enjoyed the Nick Maasten books, especially the pure spy one The Kirov Tapes, but always thought that The Bengali Inheritance (1976) was a better book, and upon re-reading found that it has held up really well.
Synopsis: Hong Kong Chinese police detective Inspector Richard Chan is annoyed and intrigued when the body of Indian tourist is found shot in the back of a taxi. It seems like a simple robbery, but as Chan investigates he becomes convinced that it is somehow linked back to World War II and the disappearance of a plane carrying a load of gold. The case is further complicated by student riots, the pending arrival in Hong Kong of a revolutionary Indian figure and the activities of the former head of the Japanese 82nd Bureau who is collecting the remains of his fallen comrades in Hong Kong. There is also the matter of Chan’s British colleague who has possibly gotten in too deep with the wrong crowd.
Things That I Liked: the story is clever and intricate, and unfolds at a good pace. The local Hong Kong colour is well described and interesting, and Chan is a very engaging character. Although it would be considered ‘cultural appropriation’ now, Sela’s portrayal of Chan is very convincing and sympathetic. Chan is not perfect, but he is a lot smarter than his British ex-pat superiors, and he makes for a good central character.
The former British soldier and policeman, Inspector Pete Winston, is also well sketched. He initially appears arrogant and thoughtless, he routinely calls Chan ‘Charlie’, but over the course of the book Sela gradually fleshes him out and makes him a more interesting character.
The Bengali Inheritance is primarily a crime story, but there are good spy overtones throughout, especially around the student riots. Like with most British thrillers of the time, Sela is able to convey a relatively complex story with well rounded characters and some good twists in a fraction over 200 pages.
Things That I Did Not Like: I did not dislike anything about The Bengali Inheritance, but felt that a couple of scenes towards the end involving Chan and the villains were a bit unlikely. The final shoot-out, however, was really well done. If it was written now, more context would have been provided around the internal tensions in Hong Kong at the time, but it was easy enough to follow.
Things That Surprised Me: I do not know how much time, if any, Sela spent in Hong Kong (he was born in Sri Lanka), but he was very skilled in bringing the city alive and giving the scenes a convincing patina of authenticity. It would have been a brave choice in 1976 to make Chan the main character, rather than a British member of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, but Sela carries it off very well and it gives an extra dimension to the story.
Overall: I really enjoyed it. The story and the characters were interesting and it is enjoyably different from other crime/spy novels of the time.
Side information: according to the esteemed Mike Ripley, Owen Sela started out as Len Deighton’s accountant before getting the writing bug. Len generously later provided a nice blurb for Sela’s World War II thriller An Exchange of Eagles: “A magnificent action-packed thriller … places Sela with Innes and Maclean.”
The Bengali Inheritance may prove a little difficult to track down these days, but it is well worth the effort.