Book Review: Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee

The Wyndham and Banerjee series is quite possibly my favourite series of thriller/mysteries. It has all the key ingredients of brilliant crime fiction. To begin with there’s an engaging if troubled main character. Captain Sam Wyndam has survived WWI, but lost his wife to the Spanish flu not long afterwards. Self-medicating on opium to keep his various demons at bay, he rolls on up in Calcutta to take his place in the Imperial police force in the early 1920s. Calcutta offers both a change of scene and an available supply of his drug of choice.

Then there’s the side-kick. Surendranath Banerjee is Sam’s 2IC in rank, but often proves his usefulness in seeing through situations Sam is blind to, particularly when an attractive woman is involved. He’s a conundrum being an Indian officer in the British system, from a family of lawyers who don’t understand his career choice. The two have a strong friendship that isn’t without it’s moments of friction.

Apart from these two terrific characters the next best thing about the series is the setting. I love historical fiction set in India and here we’ve got an interesting political period with the rise of Gandhi and increasing pressure on British rule. Throw in some very smart writing, moments of edge-of-your-seat danger and some twisty plotting and the series is nigh perfect.

In Death in the East, Sam is on his way to the remote ashram in the hills where he is hoping to finally fix his opium habit, when he catches of glimpse of a man from his past. A total nasty in fact. A man who is the Moriarty to his Sherlock Holmes. The story flips back to the early years of Sam’s policing in the East End of London, Sam just a bobby in uniform, and again there’s a lady involved.

Bessie is a smart, streetwise woman married to a thug. She’s the main breadwinner, collecting rents for a local businessman who’s none too straight. When she’s found dying in her flat with her head bashed in, Sam is one of the first on the scene. Obviously, the husband is in the frame, but he has an alibi. So perhaps Bessie picked up a secret or two as well as the rent money she collected. The press and the powers that be are keen to ascribe the killing to one of the Jewish people who also had rooms in her house. The crime is also complicated by the fact that Sam once had feelings for Bessie.

Slowly the scene on the train at the start of the book and the back story from 1905 converge, but not before another death occurs at the ashram. The settings for the two are dramatically different – the chill of an East End November, over crowding and dark alleys contrasting with the leafy hillsides of Assam where strange things can happen, such as starlings falling en masse out of the sky.

Meanwhile Sam, coming out of his opium dependency, is fragile to say the least. Another beautiful woman, Mrs Carter, wife of an empire builder, inveigles her way into his thoughts. She’s not just a wealthy man’s consort though, with her war work in the WAAC and now she’s rebuilding an old Bugatti that has been left to rot in a storage shed. All this makes her more than averagely interesting. Just as well Surendranath turns up in the last chunk of the book to help sort out the crime and keep Sam on track.

Death in the East is another terrific read in a series I can’t get enough of. My only quibble is I did sort of miss the snappy dialogue between Sam and his sidekick for much of the book. This was compensated to a degree by an interesting case going back to Sam’s early days on the beat and which helps round him out as a character. As usual there’s plenty of food for thought about injustice and the way people use power to assert their own ends. A four and a half star read from me.

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