Smoke and Ashes (2018) by Abir Mukherjee

Today’s read is set 4 days before Christmas in 1921 and in this, the third book in the series, Captain Sam Wyndham’s opium addiction, (a consequence of WW1 injuries and loss), seriously begins to damage his life.

In keeping with the other two books in the series, the opening lines immediately grab your attention:

‘It’s not unusual to find a corpse in a funeral parlour. It’s just rare for them to walk in the door under their own steam.’

Page 1 of the story also gives the first example of Sam’s addiction getting him into a whole lot of bother. A routine visit to an opium den, at the back of a funeral parlour ends in a police raid, and since Sam does not want his superiors to find out about his problem, he makes his escape. That is when he encounters the corpse: two knife wounds to the chest from a sickle-like blade and his eyes gouged out. Against the odds Sam successfully makes his getaway but suffice to say Sam mentally and physically keeps returning to the body and scene of the crime as the book progresses.

Calcutta is a tense place to be in 1921, with Gandhi having launched his non-violent, non-cooperation approach to fighting for Indian independence. Many native workers have consequently resigned from their jobs, leaving the civil service, the military and the police; all of whom are struggling to maintain order and to keep functioning. The strain between Sam and his junior police officer and friend, Sergeant Banerjee has also increased, not least because of Sam’s unspoken of addiction problem.

On Christmas Day the Prince of Wales is due to arrive in Calcutta, which no one in authority is looking forward to, it is simply asking for trouble, and Gandhi’s movement, aided by the Congress Volunteers and an advocate named Chitta-Ranjan Das are unlikely to take the day off. The need to find out what the opposition is going to do and to see if they can be curtailed is one of the many demands placed upon Sam’s shoulders.

Whilst trying to achieve the impossible Sam can’t forget the body he saw, especially when it appears that the military police and Section H are involved in covering it up. This narrative thread seems to be going nowhere when not one murder, but two extra murders crop up – all with the same MO and distinctive wounds – though the victims are from very different walks of life. What joins them together? The answer to that question reveals a far from pleasant truth and the increasing fear that the killer may have something planned for the day of the Prince’s visit means Sam and his cohorts are racing against time to stop them.

Overall Thoughts

The historical time period to Mukherjee’s books is never used as a simple colourful backdrop; the issues of the time are very much interwoven into the plots and character relationships. I also think this author has used his white protagonist effectively as a lens on the societal shifts and tensions. Through Sam we see one Englishman’s contemporary views on Gandhi and his political agenda. The previous books in the series shows that Sam is not entirely comfortable with the way the British are acting in India. But importantly Mukherjee does not give him anachronistic attitudes. Sam oscillates from thinking that India will never oust Britain from its land, to resigning himself to that ending. Whilst he does not agree with what he sees as the opposition, in particular an opposition which is making his day job a lot harder, this disagreement does not equate to generalised hatred. An example of this is seen in his opinion of Das, who causes him a great deal of difficulty, yet Sam says he cannot hate a man who ‘opposed you by appealing to your own moral compass.’

In keeping with the first book, the reader is given a body on page one, but this time the story takes a while to get going. There are several narrative threads, which only fully emerge a third of the way into the book, giving the first 100 or so pages a background filling feel to them, with Sam doing little more than being rather ineffectual and passing messages to and from the opposition.

Sam’s drug addiction is used in an interesting way in this book as it has the potential to compromise his investigation and leave him vulnerable to attack from the military police. Once the third victim is revealed, you can anticipate the motive for the crime ahead of Sam, as the reader has the benefit of historical hindsight. The motive is a good one, in its moral complexity and its engagement with the time period. It also ties into the specific injuries the victims are given, which was interesting and meant that the violence was not senseless and gratuitous.

My issue with this book is that its historical period, whilst really interesting on the one hand, on the other ties the hands of the investigating character. Sam’s investigations, since book 2, seem to be unable to avoid running into the thriller vein. Consequently, this means the pacing is not great for the first third as its too slow and the final third mainly just involves Sam’s running about trying to do damage control. Given the time period very little of this can be done, and there is an increasing sense in this series of Sam not necessarily solving his cases, but somewhat running into his solutions. The threat raised in the finale is less convincing as a basic knowledge of 20th century history means that the reader knows that the threat never happened. As this series has progressed I feel the plotting has become somewhat looser, but the characters are nevertheless engaging.

Rating: 4/5

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