Source: Review copy
Publication: 14 November 2019 from Harvill Secker
Calcutta police detective Captain Sam Wyndham and his quick-witted Indian Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, are back for another rip-roaring adventure set in 1920s India.
1905, London. As a young constable, Sam Wyndham is on his usual East London beat when he comes across an old flame, Bessie Drummond, attacked in the streets. The next day, when Bessie is found brutally beaten in her own room, locked from the inside, Wyndham promises to get to the bottom of her murder. But the case will cost the young constable more than he ever imagined.
1922, India. Leaving Calcutta, Captain Sam Wyndham heads for the hills of Assam, to the ashram of a sainted monk where he hopes to conquer his opium addiction. But when he arrives, he sees a ghost from his life in London – a man thought to be long dead, a man Wyndham hoped he would never see again.
Wyndham knows he must call his friend and colleague Sergeant Banerjee for help. He is certain this figure from his past isn’t here by coincidence. He is here for revenge . . .
Abir Mukherjee’s Sam Wyndham/ Surendranath Banerjee series is one of the best crime series around and I am delighted to report that Death in the East is another sure fire hit.
Mukherjee’s writing has grown throughout this series and here he shows confidence in his characters by giving Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee lead status in the locked room mystery that poses a real conundrum for our two investigators.
The case this time has its origins in Sam Wyndham’s past. As a young Police Constable, Wyndham came up against a rich and vicious thug whom he suspects of being behind the death of Bessie Drummond, a young woman whom Sam had once had feelings for. The narrative switches between the young P.C. in 1905 where he is stationed in the heart of London’s deeply impoverished East End and 1922, where a seriously opium addicted Wyndham is determined once and for all to throw off his addiction. He travels to Assam for treatment from a Hindu holy man who treats addictions through a strict regime which brooks no recidivism.
Wyndham is travelling when he sees someone that he thought long gone; a foe he will never forget. That sighting brings alive all his memories of Bessie Drummond and her murder in a locked room that Sam knows was wrongly attributed to someone else. So when that man whom Sam knows to be the murderer is found dead, also in a locked room, it is clear that Sam cannot be an impartial investigator. Fortunately, he has already called on Sergeant Banerjee for assistance.
Mukherjee draws attention to the decades of prejudice and ill treatment meted out to those who arrive in Britain as immigrants; poor and in need of refuge. In 1905 it is the Jews who are the brunt of prejudice and racism; in later decades it will be the Bengalis and then the Serbs and Romanians. Britain’s history is one of deeply ingrained prejudice against those who seek asylum and to make their living in our country and Mukherjee shows us how deeply ingrained it is in out psyche when he portrays the relationship between Sam and Surendranath. Because Sam is not a bad man, but he is simply unable to get over his own sense of cultural superiority and ingrained racism to Surendranath, a man whose name he has never bothered to learn to pronounce, despite calling him a friend.
But this book is set predominantly in 1922 and in India things are changing and changing rapidly. The move towards self-rule is gaining pace thanks to the adoption of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s policy of non-violence and civil disobedience, and the days of the Raj, while by no means over are beginning to look at least numbered.
This is reflected in the way that Surendranath and Sam interact in this book. Sam, because of his previous experience with the dead man, is deemed inappropriate to lead on the case, and so Surendranath finds himself in the position of being the lead police investigator in the death of a rich Englishman, working from a member’s club in Jatinga which would never allow any Indian to be a member.
It was terrific to see Surendranath taking more of a centre stage, albeit towards the end of the book. His relationship with Sam is changing, just as India’s relationship with the British is changing. The British see no irony at all in being incomers to India and yet asserting their (self-perceived) authority, while simultaneously doing all they can to suppress immigrants to Britain’s shores.
Mukherjee is beginning to assert Sergeant Banerjee’s character more now and as the Sergeant gains confidence so we should see the relationship between Sam and Surendranath shift to one which is more based on equals than the previous ‘enlightened colonialism’.
Oh, and the locked room mystery is a good one, which is solved neatly and with style. But this book is about so much more and Mukherjee’s characters grow in depth and complexity with every book. I think this is the best one yet and can’t wait for more.
Verdict: An elegant double locked room mystery layered with complex characterisation, atmospheric descriptions and conveying messages which resonate from 1905 through to the present day. This is top class storytelling of importance in a series not to be missed.
Abir Mukherjee grew up in the west of Scotland. At the age of fifteen, his best friend made him read Gorky Park and he’s been a fan of crime fiction ever since. The child of immigrants from India, A Rising Man, his debut novel, was inspired by a desire to learn more about a crucial period in Anglo-Indian history that seems to have been almost forgotten. A Rising Man won the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition and became the first in a series starring Captain Sam Wyndham and ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee. It went on to win the CWA Historical Dagger and was shortlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. Abir lives in Surrey with his wife and two sons.