Abir Mukherjee- Smoke and Ashes

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)

 

 

Abir Mukherjee- A Necessary Evil

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India, 1920. Captain Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee of the Calcutta Police Force investigate the dramatic assassination of a Maharajah’s son.

The fabulously wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore is home to tigers, elephants, diamond mines and the beautiful Palace of the Sun. But when the heir to the throne is assassinated in the presence of Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant ‘Surrender-Not’ Banerjee, they discover a kingdom riven with suppressed conflict. Prince Adhir was a moderniser whose attitudes – and romantic relationship – may have upset the more religious elements of his country, while his brother – now in line to the throne – appears to be a feckless playboy.

As Wyndham and Banerjee desperately try to unravel the mystery behind the assassination, they become entangled in a dangerous world where those in power live by their own rules and those who cross their paths pay with their lives. They must find a murderer, before the murderer finds them…

Following the inclusion of Abir Mukherjee’s debut A Rising Man in my Top 5 of 2016, obviously I was as keen as mustard to read A Necessary Evil,  the next in the series. This time our indomitable duo of Englishman Captain Sam Wyndham, and his right hand man Sergeant Surrender-not Banerjee of the Calcutta police are transported from their usual locale to the opulent kingdom of Sambalpore, following the assassination of its crowned prince. And be sure that there is more trickery afoot…

Instantly, I was drawn back into the lives of Wyndham and Banerjee, with their affectionate and mutually respectful relationship, and their sense of comradeship and camaraderie fully intact. Wyndham is still struggling with his own personal demons, and also still proving woefully inept in matters of the heart, which adds a lightness of touch to this particularly testing case. Banerjee also grows in stature throughout the book, becoming less of a foil for Wyndham’s character, and becoming much more equal in terms of their professional relationship. He also has some blistering moments of insight, along with the intuitive and studied air that he displays in the course of the investigation. I love the openness and amicability of their friendship, which makes you very comfortable as a reader, and how Mukherjee affords them equal importance, with Wyndham being the more emotionally scarred of the two, but Banerjee subtly adjusting to, and caring about Wyndham’s mental and physical health. I think as well that there is enough scope for both these characters to anchor a long and successful series. While in the realm of characterisation, I would also draw your attention to Mukherjee’s depiction of his female characters, which I think is incredibly good. I like the way that he mirrors men’s general mystification at the workings of the female mind, and his women are strong, independent, and always slightly at a remove of the understanding of his male characters throughout the book. Wyndham is once again bemused by the wonderfully strident and prismatic Annie Grant, and as the plot progresses we meet a parade of incredibly strong, sometimes scheming, women to thwart and confuse the investigation, and outwit our floundering male protagonists.

Once again, Mukherjee is pitch perfect in his representation of the period detail, during the uneasy era of the rule of the British in India. There is a sense of parity throughout where the author is equally stoical and objective of the good and bad that pervades both sides of society, and the interesting contrasts he draws between the human melting pot of poverty in Calcutta, and the ostentatious wealth of Sambalpore, accrued from diamond mining. The sumptuous lavishness of the Maharajah’s palace, and its surrounds, is meticulously brought to life, immersing the reader in opulence, grandeur and the daily routines and traditions of palace life. There are tiger hunts, fancy cars, eunuchs, myriad wives and concubines, but perhaps most importantly for our enjoyment as crime readers, jealousies, plots and murder in abundance. I also like the way that Mukherjee includes little factual vignettes throughout his books, that obviously in the course of his research had piqued his curiosity like ‘death by elephant’…who knew?

So to sum up, Abir Mukherjee has returned in some style, and I thoroughly enjoyed the further adventures of Wyndham and Banerjee in A Necessary Evil. Colourful, dangerous, exciting, and enjoyably educational, this is, once again, a highly recommended read. Add it to your wish list!

(With thanks to Harvill Secker for the ARC)

Abir Mukherjee- A Rising Man

 

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.

#ARisingMan Blog Tour- Abir Mukherjee- Guest Post- 5 Books That Inspired Me + Review

Abir Mukherjee c_ Nick Tucker MAIN PHOTOA RISING MANDelighted to be taking part in a special blog tour marking the release of Abir Mukherjee’s masterly Calcutta set debut A Rising Man, the writing of which led to him winning the Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Competition. Here’s Abir on the 5 books that have inspired him as a writer, and influenced him to put pen to paper…

 

1Doors Open – Ian Rankin

I’m a huge fan of Ian Rankin and have read all of the Rebus books. However it’s one of his stand-alone books, Doors Open, which is one of the novels that inspired me to write. It tells of how a gang of ordinary guys (albeit one of them is a millionaire) set out to steal a number of paintings. The plot is inspired and the twist in the tale is fantastic. In many ways, it’s the perfect crime. I rather hoped Mr Rankin would write a sequel to it, but he hasn’t yet.

 

11A Quiet Flame – Philip Kerr

As with Ian Rankin’s work, I will read pretty much everything Philip Kerr produces. I think his character, Bernie Gunther, an investigator in Nazi Germany and in the post war period, is a brilliant creation. I love novels with an ambiguous, conflicted protagonist, and for me, Bernie Gunther is the gold standard. All of the Gunther novels are excellent and I’ve been hooked since I picked up his Berlin Noir Trilogy about ten years ago. My favourite to date, though, has been A Quiet Flame, in which Bernie finds himself in post war Argentina, alongside a bunch of unsavoury characters including Adolf Eichmann. Bernie is tasked with hunting down a serial killer targeting young girls in a method very similar to another crime he investigated back in Berlin.

 

111Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith

To me this book is a classic. It is the first of Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, and still my favourite. Set in the late Cold War period, Renko is chief investigator for the Moscow Militsiya, who is assigned to a case involving three corpses found in Gorky Park, who have had their faces and fingertips cut off by the murderer to prevent identification. I first read this book when I was still at school and I thought it was brilliant. It’s the novel that first piqued my interest in the sub-genre of good detectives upholding a corrupt system, and it’s one of the few books I’ve read several times.

 

1111The Byomkesh Bakshi stories – Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay

Not so much any one book, but a whole series of stories this time. Byomkesh Bakshi is an Indian detective created in the 1930s by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. Byomkesh is India’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, though he prefers the term ‘Seeker of Truth’ to ‘detective’. The stories are set in Calcutta and have been Indian favourites for generations.

 

11111Killing Floor – Lee Child

More than anyone else, it was Lee Child who inspired me to write. I was running late one morning and caught an interview with Lee Child on breakfast TV. He recounted how, having never really written before, he’d started writing at the age of forty. I’d never read any of his work till then, but I went out that day and bought a copy of his first book, Killing Floor, and devoured it within forty-eight hours. I was amazed at how simply written and well plotted it was. I’d recently had an idea for a story centred on a British detective who travels to India after the First World War, and reading Killing Floor gave me the motivation to put pen to paper.


Raven’s Review

A RISING MAN“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 strong contender for my top 5 of the year, and a completely absorbing, and thoroughly enjoyable debut. Highly recommended.

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee is published by Harvill Secker on 5 May 2016 (priced £12.99)

Catch up with or follow the tour at these excellent sites…

Tour poster A RISING MAN- use this one