My New Favorite Dynamic Duo: Captain Sam Wyndham & Sgt. “Surrender-Not” Banerjee Uncover the Truth in 1920s Calcutta
A Rising Man (2017) & A Necessary Evil (2018)
by Abir Mukherjee
Pegasus Books (US publisher)
A historical whodunit series you'll want read: well written, atmospheric and intelligent
*An advanced reader ebook copy of A Necessary Evil was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*
I first heard about Abir Mukherjee's A Rising Man on Book Riot's "All the Books!" Friday podcast called "All the Backlist!", where Liberty Hardy discusses older books typically based around a theme. I really appreciate this short addendum to the new release podcast episodes that are aired on Tuesdays. During an episode in January I heard about these books and quickly checked my local library catalog for the title. I was in luck! They had the book and it was a available! For kicks, I also checked NetGalley to see if any other books by the author were listed for request. Again, I was in luck! The second book A Necessary Evil had recently been listed for request via Pegasus Books. This is reader and reviewer bliss. I quickly picked up the first book from the library and crossed by fingers that I'd receive the egalley as well.
Before delving into the book, can we just talk about Mukherjee's inspiring road to publishing? Abir Mukherjee grew up in the West of Scotland. The child of immigrants from India, A Rising Man, his debut novel, was inspired by a desire to learn more about this crucial period in Anglo-Indian history that seems to have been almost forgotten. It won the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition. He spent 20 years pursuing “a spectacularly dull career in finance” before actively pursuing his dream of writing a novel.
In an interview with The Asian Writer, Mukherjee said " I’d always wanted to write a book but never had the confidence. Then one morning I saw an interview with Lee Child where he talked about how, at the age of forty, he started writing, and I thought why not? I’d never read any of his books till then, but I went out that day and bought a copy of his first book, Killing Floor, and devoured it within forty-eight hours. I was amazed at how simply written and well plotted it was. I’d recently had an idea for a story centered on a British detective who travels to India after the First World War, and reading Killing Floor gave me the motivation to put pen to paper.
Nevertheless, I’d have probably given up after about ten thousand words if it weren’t for a piece of good fortune. I’d been doing some research online and came across details of the Telegraph-Harvill Secker Crime Writing Competition, looking for new and unpublished crime writers. The entry requirements were simple: the first five thousand words of a novel, together with a two-page synopsis of the rest of the book. There was only one stipulation – that the entry contained some international element. I tidied up the first chapter, wrote the synopsis and sent them away.
Having never submitted anything before, I didn’t expect to win, so it was a complete surprise when, a few months later, I was contacted by Alison Hennessey, the organizer of the competition, and told that my book was going to be published. The problem was at that point I didn’t have a book, just half a first draft of fifty thousand words that didn’t always fit together. Thankfully Alison and the whole team at Harvill Secker took me under their wing and helped me turn those fifty thousand words into a fully-fledged novel."
Seriously, how awesome is that?! I love that Mukherjee was inspired to write at an older age after pursuing a different career. It goes to show that there's no time constraint on creativity and achieving your dreams.
Okay, on to the first book. A Rising Man opens with our protagonist Captain Sam Wyndham, formerly of Scotland Yard and a veteran of the Great War. Reeling from the devastation of war and his beloved wife's death during the influenza epidemic, Wyndham arrives in Calcutta at the request of a colleague. His experience as an investigator lands him in the British Imperial Police Force in Bengal with a opium addiction and barely time to adjust to the onslaught of sensory overland that is Calcutta. Wyndham is quickly assigned a high-profile murder case; Alexander MacAuley, a top aide to the lieutenant governor, has been found in an alley with his throat slit, some fingers cut off, and a bloodstained scrap of paper placed in his mouth on which is written: “English blood will run in the streets.” This would indicate that the culprits are Indian terrorists committed to ending British oppression by any means necessary. But is this a open-and-shut case? With this assistance of an Indian sergeant known as 'Surrender-not' Banerjee, because the English can’t pronounce his first name correctly, Wyndham must crack the case before tempers ignite on either side.
From this description above, I hope you're interested. On top of this, however, Mukherjee deftly weaves historical nuances into the story. "Described as 'a good man upholding a corrupt system'", Wyndham is assisted by the equally conflicted Sgt Bannerjee, who is torn between his belief in British justice and the Empire’s repression of his own people." (Jon Stock, "Abir Mukherjee is a worthy winner"). Thus, both of our leading men have complicated relationships to colonialism. Throughout the book Wyndham has a strong sense of gallows humor as he sees the contradictions of the British Empire. Wyndham contemplates how he could fight in the Great War for "freedom" in the trenches of France only to oppress Indians in their own land. Moreover, the love interest Miss Annie Grant is a 'Anglo-Indian' or 'half-caste' - a beautiful and intelligent woman dealing with not being English enough but also not being Indian enough. Mukherjee addresses politics, religion, race, class, and gender in a way that would have made me think he was originally a historian rather than a man of finance.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first book and I was ecstatic when Pegasus Books approved my NetGalley request. The second book in the series, A Necessary Evil, was released in April in the US. The book picks up a year after the events in A Rising Man.
The novel opens with Wyndham and Banerjee discussing cryptic notes with Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai, of the small kingdom of Sambalpore, and traveling back to the prince’s Calcutta hotel after a conference. Prince Adhir, who attended boarding school with Surrender-Not, wants his advice about notes that were left for him in his rooms warning him about threats to his life. Before Wyndham and Banergee can discuss the matter in-depth with the prince, an assassin attacks their vehicle and murders the royal. Sam and Surrender-Not’s failure to apprehend the killer only makes things worse, and, though they eventually track the man down, he takes his own life, leaving the investigators still in the dark about his motives. Despite the Viceroy and Imperial Police's desire to close the case after the suspects suicide, the partners travel to Sambalpore where the warning notes and murderer originated. There they encounter court intrigue; Prince Adhir was a modernizer whose attitudes—and romantic relationships—may have upset the more religious elements of his country, while his brother—now in line to the throne—appears to be a feckless playboy. Can Sam and Surrender-Not find the killer before it's too late?
Mukherjee’s ability to conjure a vivid picture of 1920s British India is truly masterful, in my opinion. In this second book, Mukherjee builds on his early themes of race, gender, class, and religion plus the addition of reformers versus traditionalists. Also, there seemed to be less biting critiques of the British Empire. However, that's due to the setting being moved from Calcutta to Sambalpore. This allows for a look at an Indian court that deals with the British but was not directly ruled by the British. I particularly appreciate the details about purdah and the court zenana. Western culture and western feminists have typically decried the practice of female seclusion. However, as Mukherjee points out, this is a limited view from a western perspective and discounts the possibility of empowerment and female solidarity. I think what I love most about Mukherjee's historical fiction is the nuances. All aspects are given multiple viewpoints creating a grey area rather than black-and-white answers.
The next book Smoke and Ashes is set to be released in the UK in early June! I just may need to place an order through a UK bookseller so I don't have to wait for the US release!