Calcutta, 1919. Captain Sam Wyndham, young widower, formerly of Scotland Yard and Special Branch and a veteran of the Great War, arrives in the city to take charge of a key role in the Imperial Police Force. Before he can fully acclimatise to the new world (but sufficient enough somehow to know the exact stench threshold of a Calcutta fish-monger), he is called to the scene of a gruesome murder.
A senior British official – “a pen pusher at Writers” – is found murdered in an alley in Black Town next to a brothel that caters to more than just natives. The murder is ostensibly the work of terrorists who were helpful enough to stick a note inside the mouth of the victim threatening that English blood would spill in the streets if the British did not quit India. (The victim in this case is Scottish but I suppose they are all the same to these nationalist terrorist types).
Having thus set up the crime and the place, Abir Mukherjee goes on to introduce an array of characters in his rollicking debut crime novel A Rising Man. In the police force, alongside the good Captain, we have:
- Sub-Inspector Digby, a ten year veteran of the police force, your typical arrogant, racist English bastard.
- Sergeant Surrender-Not (Surendranath) Banerjee, a new addition to the force who also happens to the first Indian to post in the top three in the entrance exams. More poet than policeman as per Wyndham. (Poet? Really? Whoddathunk it of Bengalis?)
- Commissioner Taggart, the man who recruited Wyndham, a sort of godfather figure but with limited powers.
Notable other dramatis personae include:
- James Buchan, a Scottish jute baron based in Serampore (“Dundee on the Hoogly”), and a friend of the victim.
- Ms Annie Grant, the victim's secretary and obligatory Anglo Indian who also serves as the Captain's love interest.
- Benoy Sen, a revolutionary turned Gandhi follower, prime suspect in the murder.
- Forty-three down, the Darjeeling Mail because when was the last time we had a book or a film set in British Raj times that did not have a train in a starring role?
- Jallianwala Bagh in a cameo, well, because this is 1919 after all.
- Mrs Bose, an upper-class madam and her many girls named after goddesses.
- The Lieutenant General himself.
- Assorted characters such as a Scottish missionary, good hearted Muslim rickshaw puller, victim's house help who all play key roles.
The obvious question is with so many stereotypes of the genre packed inside the claustrophobic streets of central Calcutta, does the book work? The short answer is that it does, for the most part. For a few reasons.
First, this is a truly atmospheric book in which colonial Calcutta is brought alive in almost a cinematic fashion (BBC, Channel 4: take note). The geography is more or less historically accurate, and the descriptions, told via Wyndham's wisecracks, strike the right balance between awe and irreverence. Here is the Captain speaking of Calcutta's classical buildings after being suitably awed by them:
It was the architecture of domination and it all seemed faintly absurd. The Palladian buildings with their columns and pediments, the toga-clad statues of Englishmen long deceased, and the Latin inscriptions on everything from palaces to public lavatories. Looking at it all, a stranger could be forgiven for thinking that Calcutta had been colonised by Italians rather than Englishmen.
Second, this may not be entirely intentional, but Wyndham is a rather endearing policeman. What he thinks of himself (or what he perhaps aspires to be) is to take after one of the dark, brooding, psychotic, troubled Chandleresque heroes or one of the many Scandinavian noir detectives but in reality, he comes across as a regular romantic idealist type who for some reason believes in fairness and justice and all that. He is avowedly apolitical, he says, and yet his feelings with respect to Benoy Sen and Surrender-Not say otherwise. Even his morphine / opium habit seems more like a put-on.
Third, the plot has a few holes and the characters are a bit of a stretch – like Mrs Bose, who holds forth on Bengali rabble-rousers and Rowlatt Acts to an English officer with impunity, or Ms Grant, who, seconds after shedding tears for her superior, is more than happy to inform the Captain how hateful a figure he really was – but they don't stray too much to be implausible (in crime fiction). It is also not too difficult to figure out the real murderer, but then Wyndham is no Hercule Poirot, and it is clearly not the effect that Mukherjee appears to be going for. The plot moves, and it moves quickly from the brothel in Maniktollah Lane to the offices of Lal Bazaar and Writers Building to Bengal Club and Serampore to Dum Dum but always back to Writers and throughout, keeps the reader engaged, interested, curious and asking for more.
There are a few jarring notes in the book, however, some of which could have been easily fixed with a round of editing. Occasionally, there is a sudden switch of tone and speech more suited to our times (such as the very management consulting term career limiting move). The love interest could have been dealt with some depth and feeling – as it stands, all we get is that the Captain is obsessed with “legs”.
And then there are the Scottish and Bengali stereotypes and the associated digs peppered throughout the narrative. Some of this is funny and true:
Once or twice a month, generally. I think it's got to do much with the climate and the Scottish temperament. If the mercury so much touches eighty-five, they all go half-mad, resort to drink and raise hell.
But it grates after a point. In the interest of full disclosure, I live in Scotland and am married to a Bengali, and so I say this as someone who is rather partial to these digs.
The one serious issue that I have with the book is to do with the underlying tone towards the colonial enterprise. The first person narrative can be blamed but that is a bit of a cop out. Despite the irreverent nature of the Captain's observations and the views of the native populace, there is this idea of romance in the colonial endeavour – it is seen as a good enterprise that was corrupted by time. (At one point, a character goes to the extent of comparing the Indians and the British to an old married couple.)
The protagonist, in this set up, has the role of pointing out to the reader that things aren’t quite as rosy and romantic as everyone assumes they were. This retrospective (and revisionist?) view of colonialism is a perspective common in certain British circles. For anyone looking at this from the other side, this is puzzling and preposterous, and is usually associated with the Niall Ferguson school of history.
But I hope the Captain's views and the tone of the narrative will evolve as Wyndham and Banerjee solve a few more cases in a time of increasing unrest. Because, make no mistake, this is not a one book endeavour – we are looking at a series that, going by the first book, has the potential to take us on a number of interesting adventures for several years.
A Rising Man, Abir Mukherjee, Harvill Secker.