Source: Review copy
Publication: 11 November 2021 from Vintage Books
My thanks to Abir Mukherjee and Vintage Books for an advance copy for review
Calcutta, 1923. When a Hindu theologian is found murdered in his home, the city is on the brink of all-out religious war. Can officers of the Imperial Police Force, Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee track down those responsible in time to stop a bloodbath?
Set at a time of heightened political tension, beginning in atmospheric Calcutta and taking the detectives all the way to bustling Bombay, the latest instalment in this ‘unmissable’ (The Times) series presents Wyndham and Banerjee with an unprecedented challenge. Will this be the case that finally drives them apart?
I have loved each and every one of the Wyndham/Banerjee books, and The Shadows of Men is no exception to that. What I especially love about them is that they are both illuminating and entertaining. Abir Mukherjee writes well; his books have an excellent flow with tension, drama and atmosphere, but most of all shine with such vivid characterisation.
But..let’s come back to the atmosphere for a second. Mukherjee draws you in to this India. A place of strife, conflict and so many contradictions. A place where 5,00O rupees is not enough but 5 rupees is too many. A place where the British domination of the Raj is a colonial disgrace, robbing the country of its riches all the while claiming to be the bringers of ‘civilisation’ all while their knowledge of Indian culture – such as that typified by the Bengali poet and philosopher Tagore – the first non-European winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 – was non-existent.
The Shadows of Men is set in 1923 and the edges of colonial rule are crumbling. Ghandi is in prison. Protest is growing, insurrection is fermenting and the streets are alive with protest. It is for the Imperial Police Force to try and keep order, even as the streets erupt in a fury of dissent and riots are never far away. In Mukherjee’s Calcutta, you can feel the tension rising and you know that the position of Sam Wyndham’s colleague and right hand man, Surendranath Banerjee is going to be tested more than ever before.
One of the delights of this series is that you can see Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee growing in confidence, alongside the growing confidence of Mukherjee’s writing which is now very skilled indeed. Embedded in his fascinating storytelling, his pitch perfect descriptions of the times and various factions in Indian politics, there is also a delightful, wicked humour.
In a departure from previous books, The Shadows of Men is told from the perspectives of both Wyndham and Banerjee and what a fascinating insight that delivers! Sam has come to appreciate and trust Surendranath like a brother, but it has been a slow won progress and the rest of the British have no more time for Surendranath and his Indian colleagues than to use them for their own ends.
So when Surendranath is given a secret commission to follow Gulmohamed by Lord Charles Taggart, Police Commissioner – a commission that is both dangerous and ignores the difficulties Banerjee must face in carrying out this task – it’s not surprising that it does not end well.
Banerjee is arrested for murder and arson and knowing that his days are numbered unless he can clear his name, he absconds and reaches out to Sam for help.
Together Surendranath and Sam set out to discover who is behind the murder of a Hindu theologian and religious leader, Prashant Mukherjee and what has become of the man Surendranath Banerjee was tasked with following.
Sam relies on his good friend Annie Grant to offer help and the trail leads them into rural territory and finally to Bombay where it becomes all too clear that someone is hell bent on stirring up religious factionalism. But to what ends?
The contrast between the bubbling cauldron of poverty and the opulent wealth on display is beautifully explored in the differences between the various areas and peoples they visit. In Bombay, staying at the behest of Annie Grant’s friend, the beautiful and wealthy Parsee Ooravis Colah, they attend the races where they meet the businessman Cyrus Irani, who is not the only one who is not who he appears to be. Abir Mukherjee does a fantastic job of reminding us that India is a country of more than one religion and that there are upper and lower castes and all of this plays into a multi-layered and fascinating plot that is truly both edge- of -the- seat gripping and fantastically brought to life.
But the star of this book is Surendranath Banerjee. Not only do you get to hear his perspective directly, you are also treated to his inner monologues and become privy to his thoughts about everything he is facing. Surendranath Banerjee, in the top three in his class, well-educated but always under-estimated has had an affectionate and mutually appreciative relationship with Sam Wyndham. They have become comrades in arms, but the struggles that Surendranath has seen Sam through have given heft to their relationship and perhaps for the first time you see very clearly that Surendranath is the stronger one in this partnership.
Verdict: Abir Mukherjee has reached a critical point in India’s history seen through the eyes of this pair and I am on tenterhooks to see where he will take us next. This is top class historical fiction with beautifully detailed oil painting- rich characterisation and atmosphere so thick you could drown in it. I learn a lot from these books too which is a genuine delight for me. Buy it. READ THE SERIES. Highly, highly recommended.
Abir Mukherjee is the Times bestselling author of the Wyndham & Banerjee series of crime novels set in Raj-era India which have sold over 250,000 copies and been translated into 15 languages. His books have won numerous awards including the CWA Dagger for best Historical Novel, the Prix du Polar Européen, the Wilbur Smith Award for Adventure Writing and the Amazon Publishing Readers Award for E-book for the Year. Alongside fellow author, Vaseem Khan, he also hosts the popular Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, where every fortnight, joined by special guests from the media and literature, he takes a wry look at the world of books, writing, and the creative arts, tackling everything from bestsellers to pop culture.