Smoke and Ashes (Sam Wyndham 3) by Abir Mukherjee

Murder in the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Roused from a drug-addled stupor in an opium den in the backstreets of Calcutta, Sam Wyndham, Captain in the Calcutta police, discovers the place is being raided. Discovery of his addiction will finish his career so he flees, only to stumble across the body of a horribly mutilated Chinaman. Or did he? Next day, when no report of the murder comes in, Sam is left wondering if he hallucinated the whole thing. That is, until he is called out to another murder, where the body has been mutilated in exactly the same way…

This series goes from strength to strength with each new instalment. I thoroughly enjoyed the previous two, but really think this one is the best yet.

Set in the early 1920s, the dying days of the Raj when the Indian Independence movement was well under way, Mukherjee always manages to work the political situation into his stories without allowing it to overwhelm them or feeling like a history lesson. In this one, after months of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance movement, the city authorities are struggling to maintain order. Many Indians have resigned from Government positions, leaving the police short-staffed and with the extra problem that those Indians who have remained have divided loyalties. Britain has decided to send the Prince of Wales, Prince Edward (later briefly Edward VIII) over to steady the nerves and rally the loyalty of the populace to the Empire, but Gandhi’s local representative is planning a major demonstration to coincide with the Prince’s visit.

The murders look as if they may have something to do with the heightened political tensions, especially since Section H – the secret service – are involved. But Sam is determined he won’t be sidelined from the investigation, and along with his loyal Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, sets out to discover what links the victims…

Prince Edward’s visit to India in 1921 – he’s the small one in the middle who looks like he’s doing a Charlie Chaplin impersonation while wearing a lampshade…

I love Mukherjee’s depiction of Calcutta – it always feels entirely authentic to me. Mukherjee treats both sides with empathy – although he shows the evils of some aspects of the Raj as a form of government, he depicts his British characters largely as good people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances, and he manages to do this without making them feel anachronistic in their attitudes. Equally, while his sympathies might lie with the idea of independence, he doesn’t portray the Indians as uniformly saintly either. The Indian sergeant, Surrender-not (the nickname given to him by the Brits who can’t pronounce his real name, Surendranath), provides a kind of bridge that allows the reader to move between the two cultures, as we see him negotiate his often clashing duties to his family and his job.

The historical background too is always sound and Mukherjee brings real people into his stories in ways that feel accurate to their real lives. In this one, as well as Prince Edward, we meet Deshbandhu, a leader of the Independence movement in Bengal, and his young follower Subhas Chandra Bose, who would go on to be a major, if controversial, player in the events that finally led to the achievement of Independence.

As always, though, the plot is founded much more on human nature than on politics. I feel this is his strongest plot so far, which unfortunately I can say very little about for fear of spoilers. But it takes us into some dark episodes in the dealings between the Raj and their subjects – Mukherjee’s notes at the end show that, while he has fictionalised dates and people, the fundamental basis of the story comes from real events. There’s a good deal of moral ambiguity in there, and some excellently complex characterisation to carry it off. And it all builds to a first-rate, entirely credible thriller finale that I found fully satisfying.

I love the characters of Sam and Surrender-not, and the historical setting Mukherjee has chosen for the series. Top-quality historical crime fiction – highly recommended. But if you’re new to the series, do read them in order, starting with the excellent A Rising Man.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.

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36 thoughts on “Smoke and Ashes (Sam Wyndham 3) by Abir Mukherjee

    • I’ve loved all three of them so far. The author has a mixed British-Indian heritage and I always feel like that makes him able to be empathetic and critical of both sides without it feeling biased, if that makes any sense. The balance between history and plot in this one was particularly good. 🙂

  1. Very glad to hear that this one has lived up to the promise of the first two books, FictionFan. I couldn’t agree more with you that Mukharjee discusses the political and social issues of the day without overburdening the reader, and that’s one of his strengths, in my view. And I like that touch of ‘unreliable narrator’ as Sam wonders at first what he actually did or didn’t see. Intriguing…

    • Yes, I’m always afraid that my reviews make them sound as if they’re all politics and history, when actually they’re mostly about people just behaving in the way people always do! I’m hoping Sam’s addiction disappears soon, but that aspect worked well at the beginning of this one…

  2. This does sound fantastic and I love it when a writer weaves complex characters and morals together effectively. It doesn’t happen convincingly enough in fiction, but is of course so common in everyday life. I will have to give this series a try, I think. It sounds right up my street 🙂

    • Yes, he’s very good at keeping his stories credible even when they’re dealing with all the complexities of people and history – plus he writes very well! I think you’d enjoy him – and better to start now when there’s only three, than end up with a backlog of twenty to get through… 😉

  3. I’ve been waiting for your review before reading this one. I’ve loved the series so far, so I hope there will be more.

  4. This one sounds most interesting, FF. And thanks for the heads-up to read the series in order. Some series works are written so you can pick up any of the books in any order and be just fine; others are better read in sequence. How nice — you’re batting on the positive side this week so far!

    • Yes, each of these could be read on its own, but I think you get a better understanding of the recurring characters if you read them in order. A great series! Haha – I call them as I see them… 😉

    • I think you’d enjoy this series. He’s great at getting the balance between creating a believable setting but keeping the actual plot in the foreground so you don’t end up feeling bogged down… 😀

  5. I have heard such good things about this series and I believe at least the first book has been nominated for several mystery awards. Always a good sign. I think I need to check how many copies our library owns. It might work well for our mystery group.

    • Yes, I think the first one was nominated for the William McIlvanney Prize – Scotland’s major crime fiction prize (the author is Scottish though he now lives in England). It would be great for a group read, I think – loads to discuss!

  6. I’ve never thought about reading this series, but I’m definitely tempted after reading your review. It can be difficult to get the balance right in this sort of book, so I like the fact that you’ve said the author has empathy with both sides.

    • I think you might like them, Helen – he really creates the setting so well. And I love that he manages to show the people as basically well-meaning, whichever side of the political divide they might be on. Refreshing!

  7. I added A Rising Man to my TBR two years ago after your review. Thanks for the reminder again! This is something I’d really like to read. It’s great to have settings and circumstances outside the usual sphere of crime setting.

    • This is turning into a great series. I’m fascinated by the whole British Empire in India thing, so the setting is ideal for me, but he explains it so clearly it’s certainly not necessary to be overly familiar with the history. And the plots are always strong too, especially this one… 😀

  8. I believe there was a gap between you reading the first and second book, but you really got right into this one after you read the second one! I actually chortled when I read your comment about the prince lifting his Charlie Chaplin lightshade in the picture that you included. Is this a long-running series, or is the author still writing them and you’re waiting for them to come out?

  9. WHOA! I’m surprised the protagonist is addicted to drugs, that seems like quite the leap-is it hard to sympathize with this character because of it? Or was it common at that time?

    • Opium addiction was quite common – to do with the empire in some way I don’t fully understand. But also it was a bit like opioids now – people were prescribed it for pain and became addicted. Sam got addicted while recovering from injuries he got during WW1, so I sorta forgive him, but I’m still hoping he gets un-addicted soon!

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