I love it when I discover a new series at its very beginning and enjoy it so much I read each book that follows as soon as it comes out. So it is with Abir Mukherjee’s mysteries set in Calcutta in the early 1920s. Featuring ex-pat British policeman, Capt. Sam Wyndham, the author throws you right into Calcutta during the British Raj era. Wyndham is still recovering (or not!) from his time in the trenches of WW1, and the loss of his much-loved wife during the flu epidemic, self-medicating with opium. It’s just as well he’s so smart, energetic and won’t let the rules get in the way of his investigations or he’d never catch the perpetrators.
In Smoke and Ashes, Wyndam investigates a brutal killing which he discovers quite by chance when he has to make a hasty retreat from an evening visit to an opium den. Of course, his career would be on the line if he was caught and what follows is a helter-skelter chase over rooftops and down alleyways, following a surprise raid by law enforcement. Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales is in India with a visit to Calcutta planned for Christmas. With Gandhi inspiring all kinds of non-violent disruption in the city, it is Sam’s job to help mitigate the trouble by negotiating with Gandhi’s man-on-the-spot, Chittaranjan Das, a family friend of Sam’s sidekick, Sergeant Banerjee. But he’s distracted by the death of a nurse in a nearby town who has been left with similar wounds to the body he discovered earlier. What could possibly connect them?
What I like about this series:
- Mukherjee recreates 1920s Calcutta in a way that makes you feel the heat, and smell the heady mix of spices and tropical flowers, and, well, other things. He’s very savvy about the political situation and creates lots of dramatic tension and even humour at the way the British authorities rub up against the Indian population.
- Sergeant Banerjee (who goes by the name of Surrender-Not because none of the Brits can pronounce his name) is one of the best side-kicks I have come across in literature. His relationship with Sam is constantly shifting – they are mates in way, but it’s hard to be mates with a difficult and complex character like Sam. Banerjee gives the reader valuable insight into the Indian perspective on the one hand, as well as what it might be like to be a well-educated Indian who decides to make a career in the Imperial police force. Not one to take the easy path through life then.
- The pace. These books are really mystery/thrillers – hence the Ripping Read label. Sam often takes a bullet, or a knife, gets in fights or is racing against the clock to avert disaster. The plot of Smoke and Ashes hammers away like this, building tension towards a thrilling ending in a most satisfying way. In the background, Calcutta throws all the obstacles you could imagine: sit-ins and other political demos; in a previous book there was a procession with elephants. You get the picture.
- A whack of research has gone in behind each mystery so that you come away both entertained and having learned a bit of history. You get a good picture of the levels of policing involved in keeping the locals in check: the Imperial force, the military, as well as military intelligence, who are often surprisingly at odds with each other.
- Mukherjee’s descriptions of the locale had me looking up a Calcutta cemetery where I discovered my own great-great-great grandfather was buried. Yay, the Internet!
- Best of all: the writing. Mukherjee is a witty, engaging writer and never misses an opportunity to have a bit of fun at the Raj’s expense. His prose is also crafted and smart. It isn’t surprising that he won a Dagger Award for his first book in the series, A Rising Man. There will be more awards to come, mark my words. Four 1/2 stars.