Abir Mukherjee- The Shadows Of Men @radiomukhers @harvillsecker

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, their latest investigation presents Wyndham and Banerjee with an unprecedented challenge. Will this be the case that finally drives them apart?

In these troubled times, reading is the ultimate balm to soothe the soul, and allows your mind to be transported to other countries, other lives and different worlds. This series by Abir Mukherjee is a constant delight, and one of the few where I genuinely wait in anticipation for the next instalment. Set in 1920s India before the end of British empirical rule, and featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and his trusty Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, Mukherjee once again immerses us in a vivid and captivating tale of murder, social unrest and derring-do, and this one has more than a few additional surprises in store…

It is so intrinsically important when reading historical books, whatever genre they are based in, to truly transport the reader to the time, setting and atmosphere of the particular period and location of the book. Mukherjee consistently achieves this with his portrayal of Calcutta, and later in the book Bombay, in a time of racial tension, religious conflict, and the unbridgeable gap between the richest and poorest in society. These societies are literally powder kegs of tension and frustration, as the conflict between Hindu and Muslim intensifies, compounded by the underlying resentment and exploitation of British rule. Rioting, violence and protest erupts, the city burns and the casualties are many, with the British having little clue how to control this situation, and meeting violence with violence.

“Then came the religious riots, in towns and cities up and down the country. We, for our part, gave it a name: communalism, which was a nice, polite term for the indiscriminate butchery of people who happened to worship a different god.” 

Against this backdrop, Wyndham and Banerjee become immersed in a murderous conspiracy that can only lead to an even more severe escalation of tension, and an investigation that will have dangerous ramifications for them both.

I really enjoyed the way that Mukherjee put more of the spotlight on Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee in this book, and although we are aware of his more intuitive and compassionate characteristics from previous instalments, this book really allows him to demonstrate not only the more gullible side of his character but also his fortitude and ingenuity in extracting himself from some incredibly tricky predicaments. As a consequence of this Wyndham assumes more of the role of bagman, continuing at times to be “an irritating arse” as one character comments, and it was good to see the shift in influence as the book progresses, as each then have to form a united front again to avert the dangerous consequences of the investigation they are immersed in. It should be noted though that in times of extreme peril for them both, a couple of steadfast and resilient female characters help ease the path of their investigation- art mirroring life once again, and adding another frisson to the unfolding story. I have a huge affection for Wyndham and Banerjee, with the complexities of their professional and personal relationship, and the honesty and gentle joshing that exists between them, which cements their unquestioning loyalty and trust in each other. Bear this in mind as the closing chapters hit home…

For anyone who has tuned into Abir Mukherjee/Vaseem Khan’s podcast-The Red Hot Chilli Writers– you will no doubt be aware that Mukherjee is a wee bit of a comedian, and once again there are some wonderful little moments of self-deprecating humour within the book. The casual observance that any social event will attract writers, especially thriller writers, if there is free drink involved, and the sheer tedium experienced by women who chose to marry accountants- “well, who doesn’t marry an accountant and end up regretting it?” Wyndham’s laconic wit is once again in evidence throughout this one, and the spiky humorous retorts of Banerjee are always a pleasure with their perfect comic timing.

The Shadows Of Men may have been a long time coming with a publication delay, but so worth waiting a couple of years for. Vivid, atmospheric, packed with historical detail and bolstered further by superb characterisation and sharp injections of wit, this really was a perfect read. As ever highly recommended, and desperate to know what will happen next in this consistently excellent series.

Abir Mukherjee is the bestselling author of the award-winning Wyndham & Banerjee series of crime novels set in 1920s Colonial India. He is a two-time winner of the CWA Historical Dagger and has won the Wilbur Smith Award for Adventure Writing. His books have also been shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger and the HWA Gold Crown. His novels, A Rising Man and Smoke and Ashes were both selected as Waterstones Thriller of the Month. Smoke and Ashes was also chosen as one of The Times’ Best Crime and Thriller novels since 1945. 

(With thanks to Harvill Secker for the ARC)

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