India, 1921. Haunted by his memories of the Great War, Captain Sam Wyndham is battling a serious addiction to opium that he must keep secret from his superiors in the Calcutta police force.
When Sam is summoned to investigate a grisly murder, he is stunned at the sight of the body: he’s seen this before. Last night, in a drug addled haze, he stumbled across a corpse with the same ritualistic injuries. It seems like there’s a deranged killer on the loose. Unfortunately for Sam, the corpse was in an opium den and revealing his presence there could cost him his career.
With the aid of his quick-witted Indian Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, Sam must try to solve the two murders, all the while keeping his personal demons secret, before somebody else turns up dead…
First there was A Rising Man and then A Necessary Evil and akin to the sound of an angelic host the very words, “There’s a new Abir Mukherjee book out now” made my heart soar with an excitement rarely achieved, since I won a handwriting competition at the age of 10 on holiday on the Isle of Wight i.e very excited indeed. And so we are catapulted back to the inglorious days of the Raj, and to be honest, it would unwise to even countenance the thought that our dynamic duo would be experiencing anything like a straightforward investigation. There is some serious trouble afoot…
It is so gratifying to reach the third book in a series and for it to feel as fresh and vibrant as the first two. Partly, I would put this down to the developing working relationship, and growing friendship of our chalk and cheese partnership of Sam and Surrender-not, and the sheer level of engagement Mukherjee creates with the reader in how he presents the social and political unrest of this turbulent period of Indian history. With the former, I would say that each time we encounter these wonderful characters, there is always a little stretch of unchartered territory between them, little pieces of which Mukherjee brings to the narrative, giving us a different perspective of them as each investigation develops. This book is no different with Sam’s largely deniable opium habit leading to all manner of trouble, and becoming an increasingly large elephant in the room in his relationship with Surrender-Not. Equally, Surrender-not’s personal connection to some prominent political enemies of the Raj, reveals a whole new side to his character, and the very personal toll it has on him, trying to make his way in a career that puts him at odds with his family and fellow citizens. Mukherjee captures perfectly their points of similarity, as much as their points of difference, and how at the crux of their working relationship, these points of separation or conflict actually lead them to be an extremely effective working partnership. This unity of purpose becomes especially evident when pitted against other representatives of law, order and security, and some thorny encounters ensue, and, needless to say when violence comes a-knocking you can guarantee Sam will be in the way. Although, this investigation is markedly more emotive and darker in tone than the previous books, there is still time for the badinage, and affectionate leg pulling that Mukherjee affords his detecting double act, as well as to those they encounter along the way, which is, as always, entertaining.
With the war for Indian independence raging on, and the upcoming visit of the Prince of Wales, there is a tinderbox atmosphere in Calcutta, and Mukherjee completely immerses the reader in the stifling heat, social unrest, and the simmering violence that regularly explodes. Peppered with figures in the fight for independence, and their differing attitudes in how to achieve this aim of liberation from suffocating British rule, the book positively throbs with suppressed and overt rebellion, from the average citizen on the street, to those who would keep order, to those who seek to overturn the status quo, and the increasingly less confident smug satisfaction of the British themselves. All this tension and turbulence is delivered in a measured, informative and entertaining style, underscored by the sights and sounds of the city streets, and the building heat, both meteorological and political, sucking you in and ramping up the tension to the nth degree. Brilliant.
I think this just proves, if further proof were needed, that this is a remarkably good book in a remarkably good series, and I cannot find a bad word to say about it.
Which is lovely.
And why you should all seek out these books for yourselves.
Which would be lovely too.
(With thanks to Harvill Secker for the ARC)