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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A Necessary Evil (Sam Wyndham 2) by Abir Mukherjee

Royal shenanigans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the son and heir of the Maharaja of Sambalpore is assassinated in front of him, Calcutta police captain Sam Wyndham quickly manages to catch the assassin, but unfortunately the man dies before he can be questioned. Although the authorities and even the Maharaja are willing to let the matter rest as the work of a fanatic, Sam isn’t so sure, so he manages to get himself and his sergeant, Surrender-not Bannerjee, invited to the prince’s funeral so he can do a bit of investigating. Soon they are both sucked into the skulduggery going on beneath the glittering surface in this fabulously wealthy kingdom…

This is another excellent historical crime novel following on from Mukherjee’s début, A Rising Man, which was one of my top books from last year. The year is 1920, the power of the Raj is in decline and the British need the support of the Maharajas to give a veneer of Indian participation in the rule of the country, so Sam has to handle things sensitively so as not to ruffle any political feathers.

Within Sambalpore, the Maharaja is still the ultimate power – the British police hold no official sway there. But the Maharaja is old and it’s rumoured that he may be dying, so his family and subjects are beginning to look to the future and to jostle for positions of power when the kingdom passes to the next in line. And with three wives, vast numbers of concubines and hundreds of children, there’s plenty of scope for trouble just in the Maharaja’s family alone. Throw in some dodgy politicians, a couple of princes who insist on falling in love with unsuitable women, some diamond mines and an avaricious businessman or two and it’s no wonder I didn’t have a clue what was going on for the bulk of the book! But happily, neither did Sam, and once he finally worked it out it all made sense in the end.

The book is narrated by Sam in the past tense and he’s a likeable character. He has a strong desire to get to the truth and, more than that, to see that justice is done. But, though he may not always like it, he understands that sometimes politics will get in the way. He relies on Surrender-not for knowledge of local customs and religious practices. Surrender-not is more than just a guide though – he comes from a wealthy, high caste family and was educated in England, so he’s often as much of a partner as a subordinate.

Lord Jagganath Chariot Parade, Puri

There’s not quite so much about the politics of the Raj in this one. Instead, Mukherjee gives a picture of what life was like in one of the many small kingdoms that still existed within the country at this time – a curious mix of modernity and tradition. The royals are opulently, ostentatiously wealthy and are revered as godlike by their people. The royal wives and concubines live in seclusion in the zenana – the women’s quarters – but Mukherjee suggests that they had plenty of power to influence things within the kingdom, and the wives, at least, had their own roles to play in the many traditions surrounding the court. Mukherjee also shows some of the religious rituals of the Hindus, especially the cult of the deity Lord Jagganath, all of which adds to the interest.

Abir Mukherjee

For me, this book had a couple of slight weaknesses. In the first book, Sam occasionally indulged in opium – in this book, that seems to have become an addiction, and I got a little tired of being told about his withdrawal symptoms and then about how wonderful he felt whenever he had a hit. I find all the many addicted detectives of current crime fiction tedious, whether their addiction is to drugs or alcohol, so I’m seriously hoping Sam can get himself clean soon. I also felt that there were occasional anachronisms, not in the history or setting, but in the language. Would anyone from that period really talk about someone being “hands on”? Were paper cups so commonplace they would be used as part of a simile? These anomalies weren’t frequent or major enough to spoil the book but they did tend to throw me out of the story for a few moments each time, and a more careful revision and edit could have easily got rid of them.

Overall, though, an excellent second book that assures this series its continued place among my must-reads. It could be read as a standalone, but to understand the relationships among the characters, I’d recommend reading in order.

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

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A Rising Man (Sam Wyndham 1) by Abir Mukherjee

Murder in the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

a rising manThe corpse of a white man is discovered in an alleyway in an unsavoury part of Calcutta, and Inspector Sam Wyndham is assigned to investigate. It is 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in India after recovering from injuries he received during the war, so he will have to depend for local knowledge on his two colleagues – Sergeant Digby, an Englishman with all the worst attitudes of imperial superiority and a grudge against Wyndham for getting the job he felt should be his own; and an Oxford educated Indian from a well-to-do family, Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, so called because Digby finds his real name too difficult to pronounce. Back in England, Wyndham had worked in the CID and Special Branch, and had been recruited into the intelligence service during the war. It is his wartime boss, now posted to Calcutta, who has persuaded Wyndham to come to work for him there.

It is soon discovered that the victim is Alexander MacAuley, one of the many Scots working in the Colonial government. His eminent position there means that it is likely the murder was a political act, carried out by the terrorists seeking to achieve independence for India. Wyndham agrees this is the most probable motive but, being a conscientious officer, he is also determined to keep other options open and to look into MacAuley’s personal life. But this isn’t the only case on Wyndham’s plate – a train has been held up by a gang of men, again probably terrorists, who killed one of the guards. When it appears an infamous terrorist leader is back in Calcutta, Wyndham has to ask himself if the two events could be related.

According to the brief author’s bio on Amazon, Abir Mukherjee, I assume of Indian heritage, was born in London and grew up in the West of Scotland. I was intrigued to see how these different influences would play out in a book about India under the Raj, especially given the huge Scottish involvement in colonial India. The answer is brilliantly! Mukherjee knows his stuff for sure, and the picture he paints of Calcutta and the Indian political situation of the time positively reeks of authenticity. His British characters are equally believable and there are many references to Scottish culture that again have the ring of total truthfulness, and are often very funny. The dialects of the Scottish characters are excellent – they give a real flavour of regional Scottish speech patterns without being in any way hard for non-Scots to understand.

Abir Mukherjee
Abir Mukherjee

In truth, I feared in advance that the book might turn out to be something of a fashionable anti-Empire rant, but actually he keeps it very well balanced, steering a careful course between showing the iniquities of the colonial system without being too condemnatory of the individuals operating within it. Through the terrorist aspect of the plot, we hear about the rise of Gandhi and the Congress Party, and the move towards non-violent resistance. Wyndham is an enlightened man, but not anachronistically so. He is aware of the relatively tiny number of Brits in India, meaning that the co-operation of Indians at all levels is essential to the maintenance of the colonial system. So to him, fair play and even-handed justice are more than just desirable for their own sake, they are necessary tools in the struggle to maintain Indian support for the colonial government. Surrender-Not gives the educated Indian perspective. He is ambivalent about the question of independence but believes it will inevitably come, and that it is therefore the duty of Indians to prepare themselves so that they are ready to run their own country when that day comes.

But, lest this make it all sound like a heavy political snorefest, let me hastily say that all the historical and political stuff is done subtly, never feeling that it’s wandering into info-dump territory or veering towards the polemical. Mukherjee uses it to provide an authentic background, but the focus of the book is on the investigation and the development of the characters of Wyndham and Banerjee. The excellence of the writing means that the tone is light and the story entertaining, even though it touches on some dark aspects of life. And the personal outweighs the political – in the end, as with all the best detective novels, the motives lie in the murky depths of the human heart.

A great novel – hard to believe it’s a début. And I’m delighted that it’s apparently the first book in a series. I will be queuing up for the next instalment in Wyndham and Banerjee’s adventures – Mukherjee has leapt straight onto my must-read list!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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