And lo, with wings raised aloft, the Raven cheered that at last there is a thriller of the month that can actually be talked and enthused about with a genuine passion, for an entire month! A Rising Man more than deserved a place in my Top 5 reads of last year, and I would implore you to pop into your local Waterstones (other book retailers are available) and seek this one out! Here’s my review…
“1919. Calcutta. Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective, is a new arrival to Calcutta. Desperately seeking a fresh start after his experiences during the Great War, Wyndham has been recruited to head up a new post in the police force. But with barely a moment to acclimatize to his new life or to deal with the ghosts which still haunt him, Wyndham is caught up in a murder investigation that will take him into the dark underbelly of the British Raj. A senior official has been murdered, and a note left in his mouth warns the British to quit India: or else. With rising political dissent and the stability of the Raj under threat, Wyndham and his two new colleagues – arrogant Inspector Digby and British-educated, but Indian-born Sergeant Banerjee, one of the few Indians to be recruited into the new CID – embark on an investigation that will take them from the luxurious parlours of wealthy British traders to the seedy opium dens of the city.”
From the very beginning with its wonderfully Chandler-esque opening line, “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,” I was totally in the thrall of this book from start to finish. Not only is the writing whip smart and intuitive with a clever and engaging plot, but the depth of the historical research to so vividly portray the teeming life of this beautiful, yet socially and racially torn, outpost of the former British Empire sings from every page. I always think that historically drawn fiction treads a difficult line between force feeding the reader too much factual detail, or being too sketchy on how well it integrates the historical aspect which then doesn’t draw the reader into the reality of the period. Not only does Mukherjee present Calcutta and its social and political tensions with such clarity of detail, and the heinous crimes perpetrated by the British at Amritsar, but he also weaves into the story the echoing resonance of the trauma of WWI in the characterisation of his main protagonist Captain Sam Wyndham.
I liked the way that these momentous moments in history were brought centre stage at times, but then also cleverly just playing out in the background against the murder investigation adding a sense of the ebb and flow to the story and keeping the reader’s interest throughout. I also enjoyed the way that the interactions between the main characters and their responses to one another added another dimension to the difference in their societal position or racial status again reflecting the tensions of the time. This is very much in evidence by not only Wyndham’s experience as an ‘incomer’ to India, and the barriers to his investigation that he experiences, but also in his own interactions with his fellow Englishman, the prickly Inspector Digby, and the delightful Sergeant Banerjee. The interplay between these three incredibly disparate men was a source of pleasure throughout the book, and the development of their differing relationships, both personally and professionally, gave a further emotional pull on the reader’s empathy to these characters. Wyndham is a particularly complex man with previous trauma, and the loss of the love of his life, placing its own unique strain on his psyche. However, despite his insomnia and wavering dependence on chemical pick-me-ups, what Mukherjee so assuredly shows is Wyndham’s singular integrity as a man, his open mindedness, and his ability to place himself apart from his compatriots in order to fully investigate this case, finding his way in an alien and corrupt society.
So, A Rising Man, bulging with beautifully controlled historical detail, the atmospheric backdrop of Calcutta, a twisting and dangerous murder investigation, and a wonderfully drawn cast of characters, did not disappoint in the slightest. A deserved place in my top 5 of the year, and a completely absorbing, and thoroughly enjoyable debut. Highly recommended.