I thought I was through with early 20th c. British detectives in India, given Joe Sandilands' downward spiral. But along comes Sam Wyndham, and his adventures in Bengal, arriving by way of Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, a summer selection from the Mysterious Bookshop's British Crime Club. I'm happy to report that the sun has not quite yet set on this slender subgenre of crime fiction.
Sam is quite in the mold of Ian Rutledge, with just a dash of Joe S, set in the time, if not the locale of Indian Summers. He’s a Scotland Yard (Special Branch) and WW1 vet, whose new and beloved wife died of influenza while he was recovering from wounds incurred at the Second Marne. Sam’s war demons don’t haunt him as obviously as Rutledge’s, and he seems to function better in the world than that weary hero. Perhaps this is because they are harnessed by his opium addiction, a habit that accompanies him from England.
In A Rising Man, Sam has arrived in Bengal to take up a job with the police force, at the request of his mentor and former officer in Military Intelligence, Lord Taggart, now Commissioner of the Calcutta Police. A white man has been murdered, and it looks to be the work of Bengali nationalists, or terrorists, as they are called. The term is used almost quaintly here – how can the death of one or two individuals be deemed terror, when viewed from the perspective of the 21st c. where terror-sponsored deaths in the dozens are hundreds are our daily new – but of course the threat to British rule. He has two underlings: Digby, a what-what-old-boy Englishman who was passed over for Wyndham’s job and carries that chip openly, in addition to his long experience in Calcutta; and Surrender-Not Bannerjee, a young Bengali sergeant who sees the Imperial police force as a path to leadership in his own country. These three are tasked with solving the murder toot-sweet, and of course have adventures along the way, tying in other, seemingly-unrelated crimes and events, and uncovering surprises about the victim and his acquaintances and various suspects along the way.
Is there anything really new here, the splendidly-constructed setting of colonial Calcutta excepted? Not particularly. The characters feel a bit stock, if you’ve seen Indian Summers, and the damaged WW1 vet, while rich in plot-opportunities (plotportunities?), is someone we’ve seen before, in crime fiction and beyond. Digby really does say old boy about a hundred times too many, most of the British (Sam excepted, of course) are colonial twats, Surrender-Not is smarter than everyone else, and fans creak slowly in a losing battle against the oppressive heat. And there is that deeply annoying editorial tic of italicizing anything that is a foreign word being used by English speakers. “I sat up on the charpoy, my shirt drenched with perspiration.” (60) “Hardly a native in site, other than the durwans, of course . . . . “ (245) “She says they were speaking in the language of the firangi.” (290) And of course there are endless sahibs. I should note that this practices not as widespread – and therefore not as annoying – as in Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series.
Sam, of course, has a more enlightened view of the natives than the whites who’ve been out there forever, grounded, unsurprisingly in his personal decency and sharpened by his experience in the war. Well, we wouldn’t want too-grim a Hero, would we? So, he drinks whiskey instead of the expected gin, dates an Anglo-Indian girl, and thrillingly thwarts some nasty British intelligence types. If the note on the cover “Introducing Captain Sam Wyndham” hadn’t clued us in that this would be the first in a series, there are plenty of indications that we’ll be seeing more of some of these folks.
And that would not be a bad thing. The tale here is well-crafted, and the writing strong. The story ends satisfyingly, and with some surprises. The real star here is Mukherjee’s deeply detailed portrait of the city of Calcutta, now known, of course, as Kolkata. Did you know that it was a city built by the British, starting as an East India Company trading post? I didn’t. In fact, it was the British capital of India until just a few years before this story is set. Mukherjee offers a map at the beginning of the book, which is an excellent resource to support his detailed descriptions of the buildings, and streets, and neighborhoods of colonial Calcutta. He also has a good eye for the details that stand out and mark a foreign setting.
“I awoke to what’s euphemistically called birdsong. It was more of a bloody racket, nine parts screeching to one part singing. In England the dawn chorus is genteel and melodious and inspires poets to wax lyrical about sparrows and larks ascending. It’s blessedly short too. The poor creatures, so demoralized by the damp and cold, sing a few bars to prove they’re still alive then pack it in and get on with the day. Things are different in Calcutta. There are no larks here, just big fat greasy crows that start squawking at first light and go one for hours without a break. Nobody will ever write poetry about them.” (208)
Mukherjee effectively notes how India and Calcutta in particular, is a place where ordinary Brits can become extraordinarily wealthy. The city’s economy grew on jute and textiles and shipping, built by enterprising Brits and Scots who came out to India with little and ended up living lives of unparalleled luxury – unattainable to them back home. The character of James Buchan exemplifies this trajectory. “Mr. Buchan is one of our beloved merchant princes, one of the richest men in Calcutta. He’s a jute baron, and a Scot like McAuley [the victim]. His family have been jute and rubber traders for over a century, since the days of the East India Company.” (45) In case you missed it, the title of the story comes from a Rudyard Kipling quote at the very start: “Calcutta seems full of ‘rising men.’” Sam is obviously one, Buchan, the victim, and indeed most of the characters also, one way or another.
Alongside the British merchant imperative was a deeply grounded sense of “moral superiority.” Look at the good we’ve brought you in the form of Christianity, European lifestyles, civil government, the rule of law. Therefore we must be in charge because we’ve not only harnessed the resources and created vast wealth, but also because we are the only ones who can manage it sensibly, as evidenced by our amassing it in the first place! Bit of circular reasoning, that, but it follows easily that the British would do whatever was necessary to protect this source of wealth, particularly from those natives who might want to govern themselves.
By 1919, Calcutta is a soundly Imperial behemoth, grounded in Victorian values, and featuring miles of solid British buildings, but starting to be undermined by the forces of Bengali and Indian independence. Something called the Rowlett Acts has just been passed, which basically means that the British can imprison anyone they suspect of anything, and try political cases without juries. Everyone is a bit on edge, and Mukherjee does a nice job of situating the story within this increasingly tense atmosphere. The Massacre of Amristar, for example, while peripheral to the plot, is an actual historical event that exposes the increasingly violent British reaction to Indian ideas about dignity and self-rule.
I’m not going to attempt to write a history of the British in India here. Many billions of trees have been sacrificed to the topic, so I’m sure you can find something suitable to read about it if you are interested. The point is that the backdrop here is precisely calculated – the story only takes place over a few days – and works well to enhance both the dramatic tension and the overall atmosphere of the story.
Mukherjee is British, but clearly of South Asian descent. Bengali? I can’t say. Per the brief bio on the back flap, he “worked in finance for twenty years” prior to diving into crime fiction, and he lives in Scotland. Regardless of whether he’s spent significant time in Kolkata or just researched it (because, being British, the colonial records are bound to be excellent sources), he’s done a bang-up job. The verdict? Read it!
 The MB’s BCC has been a little erratic – I’ve got one I didn’t even start (a violent crime thriller - and after reading this review, I'm not sure I even want it next to the tub!) and another for which I had great hopes (spy) but about 10 pages in found unoriginal. Still, this is also the group that sent me the latest Mick Herron, so I’ll give them a go for a little longer.