From medieval England to Stalin-era Moscow, and apartheid South Africa to contemporary Shanghai, there is scarcely a place or time that has not served as a setting for crime fiction, but some promising areas have been underutilised. Such as Raj-era India, with its simmering tensions and sporadic violence as the freedom struggle picks up pace.
The Raj has spawned a considerable amount of literature, but not much of this is crime fiction or police procedurals incorporating the freedom struggle/the colonial government’s fight against ‘subversive’ activities, say of the sort mentioned in Peter Hopkirk’s “On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire” or “Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia”.
Though the first four in Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands series are set in post-World War I India, the settings are stereotypical – a cantonment, Simla, the Afghan borderlands, and a princely state. Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent LeFanu mysteries (three so far) in 1920s Madras are better but not easily available.
Filling the deficiency is London-born Abir Mukherjee with this deeply atmospheric, intricately plotted and abundantly thrilling debut, set in postwar Calcutta, where resentment against the Rowlatt Acts, which curb Indians’ political and legal rights, is growing along with the demand for ‘Home Rule’.
The protagonist is Captain Sam Wyndham (like Sandilands, a former soldier but unlike him, a policeman before too), invited to India to consider joining the Indian Police – and embroiled in a major case within a week of his arrival in April 1919.
A senior official is found brutally murdered in a dank, dark alley in the city’s native part, and a note in his mouth threatens all British to leave India or face a similar fate. Barely have Wyndham, his assistants Sub-Inspector Digby and native Sergeant Surendranath (anglicised to Surrender-Not) Banerjee, have taken over the high-profile case, they find military intelligence also butts in.
Even as they try to find what the victim, a senior aide to the Lt Governor of Bengal, was doing in the area – the last place he could be expected to go – and whether the high-class brothel run by a supremely self-composed madam nearby is connected, there are further complications.
A train is held-up by dacoits and searched but nothing is taken, there is information about a dangerous terrorist/freedom fighter being back in the city, military intelligence are playing their own game and a ham-handed but lethal crowd control measure by a general far away in the north (remember what happened in April 1919?) has its ramifications, including a sharp polarisation, between the ruler and the ruled.
Meanwhile, Wyndham, who came to India is battling with his own demons, seeking to understand the rules of the game, overt and covert, in the subcontinent, while the muggy weather takes much getting used to (The descriptions are realistic enough to make the reader sweat too).
Determining if the various strands before him connected or is he being manipulated, and whom can he trust as he tries his best to solve the crime is what propels this story, through twists and turns, to a tense finale.
Mukherjee, a LSE graduate who spent 20 years pursuing “a spectacularly dull career in finance”, before his entry was unanimously adjudged winner of Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Prize 2012 and resulted in this novel, paints a faithful and engaging picture of India as it was a century ago, in all its glory, contradictions and abuses.
Complementing the mystery is the backdrop of the unwritten but inviolable rules of class and race interactions, the undeclared struggle for the higher moral ground, the different approaches of intelligence and police, the debates among Indians on the way ahead and the methods, as well as the vivid descriptions and deft characterisations.
Mukherjee, who grew up in Glasgow, pays due tribute to the widespread Scots presence, as well the anomalous positions of the Anglo-Indians, while in Banerjee, he sketches a representative model of the new Indian with his aspirations.
Certain to interest both historical and crime fiction fans, Mukherjee’s work is further the first of a proposed series, promising a view of nostalgic but thrilling view of a bygone India.
By Vikas Datta