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.

Book Review: The Perveen Mistry series by Sujata Massey

I love a good crime novel and throw in the setting of India under British rule and I just can’t help myself. That’s probably why I love this new series by Sujata Massey. Her sleuth is Bombay solicitor, Perveen Mistry, the only female lawyer in town – this is the 1920s, after all. She works for her father, has put a terrible marriage behind her and just wants to get on with her career.

The first book, A Murder at Malabar Hill, sees Perveen get involved with three widows of a wealthy mill owner whose estate is being managed by an employee from the firm. Studying the documents which show the women have signed over their inheritance to a trust, Perveen smells a rat, and decides to talk to the widows in person. That’s the advantage of being a female lawyer – the women live in strict seclusion, a male lawyer would never be admitted. Tensions mount as Perveen learns more about the family, and then a murder takes place.

Perveen’s snooping is interrupted by fears for her safety when she thinks she recognises her estranged husband all the way from Calcutta. The story of her ill-fated marriage is woven through the main plot in flashbacks with some resonances with the main story, both revealing the difficulties for women living in very traditional family settings. It’s just as well Perveen’s own family – her parents, brother and sister-in-law, are more forward thinking and loving.

Along for the ride is Perveen’s old friend from her Oxford days, Alice Hobson-Jones, bored and restless to use her fierce mathematical brain now she’s back home with her well-healed parents. Her mother’s keen to see her daughter settle down with a suitable husband, as if that’s ever going to happen. Another woman eager to shape her destiny in a society that would rather she didn’t.

Massey recreates 1920s Bombay with lots of colour, some wonderful meal descriptions, and interesting characters. Perveen is feisty when she needs to be and also has a good memory when it comes to the law – the reader gets lots of insight into the relevant legislature without being too bogged down in details. You get the sense that the author has done her homework. I loved the minor characters: the Mistry’s general factotum, Mustafa who keeps Perveen up to speed with her father’s moods is a particular gem, as is Alice – tall and fair, she’s a head taller than Perveen but a brilliant friend.

This book won an Agatha Award and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, which is why I wanted to read it after having just devoured the second book in the series: The Satapur Moonstone. Yes, again I read the books in the wrong order, but at least now I’m all square. The second book sends Perveen to the remote state of Satapur, home to the widow of a maharaja and her mother-in-law, the dowager maharani. The two women are in dispute over the education of the young prince and future maharaja, and a lawyer is required to sort out an agreeable solution.

The women live in purdah, so no men are admitted and Perveen is requested by the British agent overseeing their kingdom. Perveen must travel by palanquin, a kind of sedan chair arrangement, through forests inhabited by tigers and other deadly animals to the palace. Here she finds a royal family living under a curse not long after the deaths of both the last maharaja of cholera, and his eldest son to a hunting tragedy.

We’re in monsoon country, transport is difficult and news travels slowly. The local villagers live a traditional and fairly impoverished existence, while up at the palace, we’ve got power plays, secrets and treachery while the uncomfortable political situation brought about by British rule rears its ugly head from time to time. Tension of various kinds build to a ripping ending. This a terrific addition to the series, and some unfinished business for Perveen makes me eager for Book 3.

Book Review: Motherland by William Nicholson

Does anyone write about the human condition with as much heart as William Nicholson? Reading his novels always gives me the impression that he loves his characters as if they were family. He brings us their stories, but also their frailties and dreams, as if he’s been through exactly what they’re going through himself. Often set against an interesting background of political or social upheaval.

In the case of Motherland we start off in the middle of World War II. It’s 1942, and three characters meet and fall in love. Unfortunately, both Larry and Ed fall for Kitty when they meet her in Sussex. She’s an ATS driver, a job she enjoys, while Ed’s a Royal Marine commando and Larry, who’d rather be painting, is a liaison officer with Combined Ops under Mountbatten. Ed and Larry both went to the same school and are each other’s oldest friends, which makes this love triangle even harder to navigate.

Kitty chooses Ed, who is dashing and exciting, but also has a darkness to his nature, probably a problem with depression. Meanwhile Mountbatten and his team are planning a raid on Dieppe, using the commandos and the Canadian Infantry stationed nearby. Larry begs to go, even though he doesn’t have to fight, and he and Ed are caught up in one of the worst military disasters of the war. Thousands of casualties, and while Ed is made a hero, an accolade he loathes, Larry has to come to terms with his lack of bravery in the heat of battle.

The effects of Dieppe on all three, but particularly Ed and Larry, resonate through the book, as each settles into life post-war. Ed struggles to find a vocation and Kitty has to give up work, expected to devote her life to husband and child. Larry tries to make a go of painting, at the risk of disappointing his father who wants him to join the family banana importing company, which had made their fortune.

Mostly the book seems to be Larry’s story. We are with him as he witnesses the effects of the partition of India in 1947 (he briefly joins Mountbatten’s lot again), and later, the exploitation of workers in Jamaican banana enterprises. We have a window into his heart and his abiding love for Kitty, but also onto some of the big events of the 1940s. There’s a collection of supporting characters who each are well-rounded and have their own issues: Kitty’s ATS friend Louise who has never had as much luck with men as Kitty and decides to marry the owner of the estate where the troops are stationed – ineffectual but kind-hearted George. There’re the women in Larry’s life who just aren’t Kitty. Each gives us a glimpse of the narrow roles men and women played in mid 20th century society, and the problems entailed in wanting something else.

Motherland has characters that appear in other books by Nicholson, such as Ed and Kitty’s daughter Pamela who is a protagonist in Reckless, set against a backdrop of 1960s London and the Profumo Affair, while news of the Cuban Missile Crisis has everyone on edge. Another great read and evidence that Williamson loves his characters enough to give them more books. I’m happy with that. Motherland is a three-and-a-half-out-of-five read from me.

Ripping Reads: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

9781911215158I 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. Continue reading “Ripping Reads: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee”