by Abir Mukherjee
Newly arrived in Calcutta, Capt. Sam Wyndham, formerly of Scotland Yard, is called to his first case: the murder of a high-ranking British civil servant in a dark, deadend alley near a brothel.
The victim, Alexander MacAuley, was an aide and “fixer” for the lieutenant governor. He was wearing evening clothes and found with his throat cut and a wad of expensive paper stuffed into his mouth. Written on the paper was a message warning the British to leave India.
Despite his experience as a police investigator, Wyndham is out of his element in Calcutta. He arrived a little more than a week earlier at the invitation of Lord Charles Taggart, Commissioner of the Imperial Police Force in Bengal, to work for him in India.
It offered an escape from his dark memories of World War I, lost comrades and the death of his beautiful young wife of influenza.
He finds himself in a country trembling on the edge of revolution. While the British control India and congratulate themselves on their moral superiority, they take rights away from the Indians, stoking the drive for independence.
Wyndham, with a modest boarding school education, supervises a Cambridge-educated sergeant. His name is Surendranath Banerjee, but when his British colleagues can’t pronounce his name correctly, they nickname him “Surrender-not.”
As Wyndham investigates, he finds his activities are reported to the lieutenant-governor almost as quickly as he decides them. Wyndham discovers that the British military operates an intelligence division, Section H, that is stepping on his investigation at every turn. As he searches for facts, other agents in the British government have already reached conclusions and are set on a politically acceptable resolution.
One of the interesting dimensions of this novel is Wyndham’s struggle with his own patriotic and cultural parochialism and his commitment to law and order. To pursue his case as he would have in London is to commit political suicide in Calcutta.
The paths he finds to accept his situation while continuing to work for law and order are as interesting as the solving of the case.
Author Abir Mukherjee has done an excellent job of presenting the historical background without overwhelming the story. Some characters such as Lord Taggart, Wyndham’s superior and mentor, are real people who had a degree of empathy for the Indian struggle for freedom. Others clearly were inspired by real people.
- A NECESSARY EVIL (2017), which won the Wilbur Smith Award for Adventure Writing. Wyndham and Banerjee must solve the assassination of the Maharaja of Sambalpore’s eldest son.
- SMOKE AND ASHES, which was chosen by the Sunday Times as one of the 100 Best Crime & Thriller Novels since 1945. Wyndham is battling an addiction to opium, a legacy of his injuries in World War I. When he’s summoned to investigate a grisly murder, he realizes that he has seen another body in a drug-addled haze. He and Banerjee must solve the murders without Wyndham revealing his addiction to his superiors.
- DEATH IN THE EAST (2020), was a Book of the Month in the Sunday Times and Book of the Year in the Telegraph, Guardian, Mail on Sunday, Mail, Express and FT. In June 2020, it was nominated for a Golden Dagger Award and a Sapere Books Historical Dagger. In 1922, Wyndham has left Calcutta for the hills of Assam and the ashram of a monk he hopes will help him overcome his addiction. There he sees a man from his work as a policeman in London whom he believed to be long dead. Wyndham is convinced his appearance is no coincidence. This novel was nominated for a 2020 Gold Dagger for best crime novel and a Sapere Books Historical Dagger for best historical crime novel.