Much more than a genre novel, this historical whodunnit is the fifth outing for Abir Mukherjee’s pair of mismatched detectives and another opportunity for the award-winning author to breathe fresh air into the British-in-India literary canon.
Set in the evocatively steamy environs of Calcutta in 1923, then controlled by the British Raj, British policeman Captain Sam Wyndham and his Indian sergeant, Surendranath Banerjee, have been tasked with leaning on a Hindu hoodlum in a bid to stall nascent gang wars ahead of the local elections. As Wyndham tells us, normally the British would be happy to let the native thugs decimate each other. However, in this instance, the gangs are not just from different neighbourhoods but are also of different faiths. Both Wyndham and his boss, Lord Taggart, the Commissioner of Police, know to their cost that a few killings could escalate a low-level feud into “the general mass slaughter of Hindu and Muslim”.
The strategy collapses when Banerjee fails to show at the meet. Unknown to Wyndham, Banerjee was sent by Lord Taggart to tail Farid Gulmohamed, a Bombay financier and prominent Muslim politician, and find out his reasons for visiting Calcutta. Banerjee follows Gulmohamed to an unlikely address in a slum. Waiting to see if his target enters the house, Banerjee is knocked unconscious. When he wakes, Gulmohamed has disappeared but the entrance to the house is open to reveal the body of Prashant Mukherjee, a notable Hindu academic. Fearing that the news of such a crime—that a Hindu was killed by a Muslim—would provoke carnage across the city, Banerjee makes an impetuous decision. He sets fire to the house to make it seem that Mukherjee had died accidentally by dropping a lighted cigarette on the sofa. Unluckily for Banerjee, the local police arrive before the evidence is burned and he is charged with murder. To make matters worse, the only person who can corroborate his story, Lord Taggart, is the target of an assassination attack and is taken to hospital in a coma.
Banerjee escapes and a marvelous adventure to Bombay and back ensues as he and Wyndham, now under the direction of Colonel Dawson of Section H, the British military’s shadowy intelligence wing, attempt to uncover the culprit. Like hidden vegetables in a child’s spaghetti sauce, author Mukherjee mixes historical fact, travel guide and cultural detail so skillfully into his page-turning story that the reader absorbs a great wealth of information without realizing the exposition.
There are also some fascinating characters to meet along the way who help with the investigation, most notably two glamorous ladies, Englishwoman Annie Grant (who may or may not be in love with Wyndham) and her Parsee contact in Bombay, Ooravis Colah. The tension mounts until, in somewhat of a James Bond finale, Wyndham and Banerjee foil a dangerous plot and identify the real villain.
After four previous books, the characters are well established. Wyndham, now approaching middle age, is hardened and embittered by his experiences fighting in the trenches of World War I and his subsequent travails as an opium addict. He epitomizes the attitude of “stiff upper lip” or an emotionally numb response to tragedy, a historically British characteristic celebrated in the past as noble but less in practice today. Banerjee, on the other hand, is in his mid-twenties and a Hindu Brahmin, in tune with his feelings and driven by his impulses.
These two opposites meet in their dissatisfaction with the regime and how it governs the city they both consider their home. Even though they recognize the corruption and hypocrisy, and question their part in it, neither detective will relinquish their position while there is work to be done to save the city from itself.
This dual perspective is the real magic of the book and allows a far more nuanced picture of the British Raj than that of merely colonizer and colonized. In Mukherjee’s presentation, the British are less than desirable as rulers but the Indian nation does not escape criticism either. Mukherjee points to the antipathy between its religious groups as a weakness which the British manipulate to stay in power and as justification for not allowing India independence. This opinion is voiced by several characters including Banerjee’s father. Mukherjee writes:
“Divide and rule. It has always been the British way. That is how they first enslaved us and that is how they even now keep us in our servitude. Yet should we blame them or ourselves? They only exploit our stupidity and prejudices.”
Mukherjee offers some hope by beginning the novel with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi declaring his belief that Hindu-Muslim unity in India is possible. By the end of the story, however, Mukherjee has undermined this sentiment with a conversation between Wyndham and the leader of a Hindu political party, Dr Nagpaul, who tells Wyndham:
“Your days in this country are numbered. Make no mistake of that. The writing is on the wall and everyone sees it. When you British do finally tuck your tail between your legs and set sail, we shall still be left with the threat of the Muslims. Rest assured, we will be ready for it.”
Thus Mukherjee leaves the reader with an opening to a further adventure for his detectives and also the sobering thought that, some one hundred years from when the novel is set, India is still a long way from achieving Gandhi’s theory.