Today marked yet another attempt to bring some order to the chaos of my book collection. Thanks to a mini cull I can see some space on the bookshelves which is just as well because the piles on the floor are in danger of toppling.
Every time I do this exercise I make a discovery about my stock of “owned but unread” books. Today’s discovery was that I own a load more crime fiction novels than I expected.
It’s a surprise because, though I’m partial to a little crime fiction from time to time, I’ve never considered myself a huge fan.
I view them as entertaining, something I enjoy at the time, but not the kind of book that makes me think or that lingers in my mind long after I’ve got to the final page. Most of them are so forgettable that, were you to ask me to describe a particular book, I’d be in difficulties.
Those I do recall are memorable because the characterisation is sharp, the setting evocative and the narrative deals with interesting issues. Hence why I enjoy Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series so much.
Given all this, how have I ended up owning 22 crime fiction books?
Fortunately I can turn to the spreadsheet where I record all my purchases and acquisitions (gifts, donations, ARCs etc) to find some answers.
Completing A Series
A few are parts of a series I’ve been following. That accounts for my copies of Nature Of The Beast and Bury Your Dead which are part of the series by Louise Penny I mentioned earlier.
It also accounts for In Two Minds by Alis Hawkins. It’s the second in her Teifi Valley Coroner series and I enjoyed the first None So Blind so much I had to get the follow up. I do need to read this soon however because there is a third book Those Who Can due out in May 2020.
Earlier this year I started reading a series by Abir Mukherjeeset in India at the time of the Raj. I must have been convinced this would be good because even before I read book one, A Rising Man, I had already bought books 2 and 3 and have an ARC of the fourth.
Who Can Resist A Bargain?
I can’t, at least not when it comes to books.
I volunteer at a National Trust property which runs a second hand bookshop as a way of raising funds. So of course every time I report for duty I just have to have a peek at the most recent donations.
The prices are ridiculously low – just £1 will get you a paperback in good condition (the volunteers who run the shop vet everything before it goes on the shelves). So hard to resist…..
Which is how I acquired two books by Jane Harper: The Dry and The Lost Man, both of which a friend had highly recommended.
A “two for the price of one” offer at The Works brought me Stasi Child, a debut novel by David Young which has won several awards. What attracted my interest was that it is set in the former East Germany during the time of the Cold War. I also bought the follow up Stasi Wolf.
I have a set of three books by Alexander Wilson that came as a discounted bundle from The Book People. Wilson was one of the pen names of Alexander Joseph Patrick “Alec” Wilson, an English spy and MI6 officer. I’ve no idea about the quality of the books; maybe their plots won’t be as interesting as the real life story of the author. After his death in 1963 he was discovered to have been a serial bigamist but then questions began about the true nature of his intelligence work.
There are some books I bought purely on the strength of reviews from other bloggers, mentions in social media and the occasional newspaper review. Unfortunately I failed to record the exact source of the recommendation – something I shall try to remedy with any future purchases.
Into this category falls Sixty Four by Hideo Yokoyama which revolves around the disappearance of two teenage girls 14 years apart. It was published with considerable buzz in 2018. It’s a massively chunky book , which is probably why I haven’t tackled it yet.
I also have Lewis Man by Peter May which is clearly a mistake because it’s book number one in a trilogy and I don’t have book one. So now I have to decide whether to go back to the beginning and add yet another title to my shelves…..
It’s going to take me a few years to work my way through all of these because I’ll space them out among other genres. If you’re a crime fiction expert maybe you can help me decide which of these to read first? And if there are any titles here that I could maybe give away…..
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.
Reading Horizons: October 2019
What I’m reading now
Abir Mukherjee is about to publish the fourth book in his crime series set in 1920s Calcutta. Death In the East comes out on November 14 in the UK. I have a copy to review. But before plunging in this far into the series I thought I should get familiar with the main character and the setting by reading the first in the series: A Rising Man.
This novel introduces us to Captain Sam Wyndham, formerly a Scotland Yard detective, who arrives in India hoping to make a new start after his experiences in the trenches of World War 1. He has barely got his feet under the table in his new role with the Indian police when he’s called in to solve the murder of a senior British official.
So far this is proving an enjoyable read. I love the detail about Calcutta and the tense relationships between the British governing class and the Indian population. I can see why this book won the Crime Writers’ Association Endeavour Dagger for best historical crime novel in 2017 and was the Sunday Times crime novel of the month in May 2017.
By contrast I’m listening to Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. I have the print version of this and have dipped into sections of it over the past few months. Hearing her narrate the book gives it extra impact I think.
It’s a mystery why I haven’t read more of Penelope Lively’s work. I loved Moon Tiger which won the Booker Prize in 1987 but I’ve never gone on to read anything else by her, despite having three of her books on my shelves.
Reading How It All Began was a chance to put that right. And what a wonderful experience this turned out to be. It’s a cleverly plotted tale of seven people whose lives are derailed because one elderly person is mugged on a warm April day.
Via Twitter and comments on my review I’ve now added to the list of other Penelope Lively books I definitely want to read. The Photograph seems to be the one most highly recommended.
What I’ll read next
Now usually this is a tough question because I don’t like to overly plan my reading (I’m realising that challenges which involve making a list are not my thing). But for once I know what I’m going to read next because there are some books that have deadlines attached to them.
First in the queue is The Dutch House by Ann Patchett which I just collected from the library. There’s a very long queue of library members who all want this book so I know there will be no chance of renewing it and I’ll have to finish it before the return date.
Then there’s the new Abir Mukherjee novel I mentioned earlier, Death In the East which I need to read and review by November 18.
Also coming up soon is Love Is Blind which is the book club choice for November. I’m ambivalent about this one. I used to love William Boyd (Brazzaville Beach was my favourite) but in recent years I’ve been less than enthused by his work. Have any of you read Love Is Blind and can tell me whether its so-so or Boyd at his best?
That should keep me busy for a while.
Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks?
This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.