Impressive Crime Series Rises As Empire Falls [book review]
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
A Rising Man is the tremendously absorbing book that opens Abir Mukherjee’s vivid crime series set in colonial era India.
Mukherjee astutely delivers all the features you expect in a crime novel; (the carefully constructed plot, multiple false leads and dramatic incidents. But it’s the strong political and historical dimension that makes this murder mystery a highly entertaining read.
A Rising Man is set in 1919; a time when the splendour of the British Empire is beginning to fade in India. Political dissent is rising, the Quit India movement is gaining ground and a Hindu lawyer called Gandhi is advocating mass disobedience against new, more repressive British laws.
In the midst of this political maelstrom Captain Sam Wyndham arrives to take up a new position with the Imperial Police Force. It’s meant to be a fresh start for the former Scotland Yard detective. He survived the trenches of World War 1 but his hopes of a happy life were destroyed when his wife of only a few weeks, died from influenza.. Now the only way he can get through life is with a dose of morphine or opium.
Almost immediately on arrival in Calcutta he is plunged into an investigation into the brutal murder of a British burra sahib. It appears to be a politically motivated crime. For stuffed into the mouth of the dead man is a note: “No more warnings. English blood will run in the streets. Quit India!”
The Conflict Of A Good Man
As his investigation proceeds, Wyndham, described as “a good man upholding a corrupt system”, is forced to make a choice between the necessity of maintaining law and order and his belief in the primacy of justice.
This is a man who is thoroughly disillusioned with the Empire and its assumption of moral superiority. What he sees in India is how the assumption enables third-rate business men and pen pushers to become wealthy and powerful while ignoring the poverty and filth of local inhabitants. “[T]he days were empty,” Wyndham says at the beginning of A Rising Man, “and the nights populated by the cries of the dead, which nothing could extinguish.
His second in command, Digby, is typical of the attitudes Wyndham encounters among fellow guests at his lodging house or in the military intelligence community. Digby has no qualms about the right of the British to rule and has nothing but disdain for the Indians. He is dismissive of the third member of the team – Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee – as “apparently one of the finest new additions to His Majesty’s Imperial Police Force … God help us.”
Fresh Take On Fictional Detective Team
The relationship between Wyndham and “Surrender-Not” is one of the reasons A Rising Man is such a delight to read. They are an odd pair. Wyndham is a somewhat jaundiced, hard drinking man of action while Banerjee is a shy, earnest man who looks “more poet than policeman”. But they are united in their discomfort about the Empire and its future in India.
Through these two individuals Abir Mukerjee explores the complex dynamics of colonial Anglo-Indian relationships and the interaction between the oppressor and the oppressed. Surrender-Not forces Wyndham to realise that no matter how much he tries to shake off the British sense of superiority, he still falls short. After Surrender-Not saves his life he reflects:
I felt embarrassed. I was indebted to him, but somehow found it hard to say “thank you.” That was the thing about India. It’s difficult for an Englishman to thank an Indian. Of course, it’s easy enough to thank them when they do something menial, like fetch a drink or clean your boots, but when it comes to more important matters, such as when one of them saves your life, it’s different. The thought left a bitter taste in my mouth.
The relationship between Mukerjee and his assistant is a clever spin on the usual cop and side-kick formula. By the end of the novel they have moved into an apartment together (an arrangement that will surely raise eyebrows among the British) but you still sense that clashes of opinions lie ahead.
A Rising Man is an impressive first novel. Mukerjee’s colonial world is very well drawn contrasting the silver domed splendour of Government House and impressive buildings of Calcutta’s White Town with the open sewers and crowded alley ways of its Black Town district.
This vivid portrayal of a city combined with the fascinating historical background and some enticing flesh and blood characters, made this a completely absorbing book. I’m really looking forward to the next in the series.
A Rising Man: Fast Facts
Abir Mukherjee grew up in the west of Scotland. His love of crime fiction began when a friend introduced him to Gorky Park.
His debut novel, A Rising Man , was inspired by his desire to learn more about the India of his family. It won the Harvill Secker / Daily Telegraph crime writing competition in 2014. Since its publication, Abir Mukherjee has gone on to publish three more novels in the Wyndham and Banerjee series.
A Necessary Evil, set in 1920. It won the Wilbur Smith Prize for Adventure Writing in 2018. You can read part of the opening chapter here
Smoke and Ashes published in 2019 was chosen by the Sunday Times as one of the 100 Best Crime & Thriller Novels since 1945. Read the opening here
Death In The East will be published on November 14, 2019. It takes Captain Wyndham to Assam where he hopes time at an ashram will cure his opium addiction. He encounters a face from the past, a man he thought was long dead. Wyndham believes his life is in danger.