The setting is Calcutta, 1919 and Mukherjee wastes no time in delivering a corpse in the opening lines:
‘At least he was well dressed. Black tie, tux, the works. If you’re going to get yourself killed, you may as well look your best.’
The story is narrated by Captain Sam Wyndham, who is in charge of the case into the murder of Alexander MacAuley. His throat has been cut and inside his mouth was blood stained note; a feature which causes Sam to comment that ‘when you think you’ve seen it all, it’s nice to find that a killer can still surprise you.’ The note seemingly adds a political tone to the investigation: ‘No more warnings. English blood will run in the streets. Quit India!’ Despite the crime scene being in a poor district, the victim was anything but, working as a civil servant and as an important aide or fixer for the Lieutenant Governor. Given the social standing of MacAuley Sam has to tread lightly, which is not an easy task when you’re not just new to the area, but new to the country, having only recently arrived from the UK. Sam also has to deal with the military police, who’s approach to crime solving is of a more heavy-handed nature. This is a case which makes Sam confront his own moral compass, as well as that of the empire he serves. When an easy answer comes their way, Sam has to decide whether to give in to it or to pursue the truth, regardless of where it goes and who it implicates, though knowledge and the ability to execute justice from it are necessarily both within Sam’s grasp…
Sam’s newly arrived status means he is in something of an outsider position. Yet this is ideal for the reader, as it gives a freshness to the perspective on India as a setting and as a culture. In particular Sam has not had time to become so entrenched that he is dull to the conflicting issues that arise. Sam is a very matter of fact narrator, from the corpse, his own addiction to morphine, to the crime scene: ‘death smells worse in the tropics. Most things do.’
The reader is very quickly made aware of the pressure building up between the British and Indian communities. British response to the talk of Home Rule is somewhat antagonistic and the Rowlatt Act is mentioned several times. This piece of legislation provides an interesting discussion point as whilst Sam is no ardent revolutionary, he can also see why it would upset those it controls. I find this is a text which sets up a dialogue between those in favour of Home Rule and Imperialists who want nothing to change. Yet this dialogue is one which is naturalistically weaved into the narrative, generating an unsettling and uncomfortable atmosphere for Sam, who finds his entry into a new culture makes him confront things inside and outside of himself that he would probably rather turn a blind eye to. It is also interesting to see Sam’s WW1 experiences influence this feeling of inner confliction.
Other than Sam there are two other central police investigators, who provide the arena for some of the discussion on the political situation. There is Digby who is British and sees the revolutionaries and political activists as being terribly ungrateful for all the benefits the British Empire has meant to have given them. Then there is Sergeant Surrender-Not, (mispronunciation from Digby), Banerjee. Like Sam he too holds a conflicting position. On the one hand he sees Home Rule as a good thing, yet he has been educated in England, with Sam saying that ‘he replied in an accent straight off a Surrey golf course. He sounded more English than I did.’ His decision to enter the police force is questioned by his work colleagues, as well as his family. He does not want to fully disengage with existing ruling structures, seeing it as a way of gaining the skills required to help in a future independent India. Nevertheless, this decision is not one which doesn’t come without costs, as he is pained by the injustices that the governing powers inflict yet seems unhappy to remove himself from them. Whilst he is a subordinate to both Sam and Digby, his role is an essential one and his voice is important, as he provides a contrasting perspective on how things are and how they should be, as well as providing specialist knowledge.
Sam, unsurprisingly, is the figure who holds the middle ground. He is conflicted and troubled, yet the author hasn’t forced unrealistic anachronistic attitudes. The tension this middle ground takes is an intriguing part of the book and still allows you to engage with Sam, without feeling repelled. Regardless of which side a character is on, Mukherjee provides a nuanced portrayal of each stance. A variety of reasons are held by those who don’t agree with Indian independence and equally there are those who support the opposing side, but for monetary reasons, as opposed to idealistic ones.
The series romance element is brought in quite promptly, maybe a little too swiftly, though I think the author complicates this area of the book. Nor does this component overwhelm or derail the plot and I can see readers being interested in how and if this relationship progresses. The central murder case is developed more by including in further crimes, in particular those involving robbery. This component is by no means straight forward and it takes some time for Sam to see its proper place in the scheme of things. Sam is certainly not an infallible sleuth and the reader will probably predict some of the threads which go into the final solution. Although given how intricate a web the solution is, this is no bad thing.
So, all in all this is a very enjoyable opening novel to a series I hope to return to soon. Not least because the friend who lent me this title, also loaned me the sequel! Though the choice of historical time period also appeals to me as well.
See also: The Puzzle Doctor has also reviewed this title here.