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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.

A Rising Man, debut novel by Abir Mukherjee

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.

Impressive Debut

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.

Abir Mukherjee, author of A Rising Man

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.

Alis Hawkins and the reader’s machine gun test #Cwtch Corner

Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.

Cwtch-Corner

Alis Hawkins has been on a month-long tour of independent bookshops in Wales to promote her latest novel In Two Minds. It’s the second in her
Teifi Valley Coroner series – the third Those Who Can – is due out in May 2020.  I managed to catch up with her during a break from meeting local readers in Nickleby’s book shop in Llantwit Major. 

Alis Hawkins

Q. How would you describe In Two Minds in one sentence.

Two very different deaths teach acting coroner, Harry Probert-Lloyd, that, while post mortem examinations can tell you the mechanics of death, you have to dig deep into personal relationships to understand its causes.

Q. This is the second in your Teifi Valley Coroner Series. Some authors think their second novel was harder to write than the first. Was that your experience?

Yes and no. Whilst I didn’t have to do all the very basic historical research into the period that I’d had to do for None So Blind (I knew next to nothing about mid nineteenth century west Wales before beginning the series) I still had to research the specific background to the deaths which occur in In Two Minds. That meant familiarising myself with the nascent practice of autopsy in Britain, as well as getting to grips with Welsh emigration to the United States. And, though I love research, it takes time which can be an issue when you’re working to a deadline.

It was the same with the characters. While I now knew Harry and John to some extent, having spent a lot of time with them when writing None So Blind, they are both young men at the beginning of their careers and their opinions and actions are likely to change and be a bit unpredictable, so I couldn’t be confident that I knew how they’d react in the situations they would find themselves in. (Seeing how my characters react is one of the real joys of writing for me – I never know exactly what they’re going to do, say or think.)

And then there’s the particular kind of difficulty which comes with writing a series. Each book has to stand alone because bookshops tend to stock only the latest title in a series which makes it unlikely that people will have the luxury of reading them in the right order. (Kindle users are at a big advantage here as they can easily access books in sequence.) So you have to give readers who are new to the series enough of the background to allow them to understand where the characters are coming from, without boring people who’ve been with you from the beginning.

There was an added issue with In Two Minds as there’s a particular revelation in None So Blind that changes the way Harry sees many things and I didn’t want to give that away in In Two Minds lest it spoil the earlier book for people, so I’ve had to refer to it tangentially. And that proved a bit tricky!”

Q.There’s a risk when writing historical fiction that the narrative gets overloaded with historical information (many readers find this irritating). How do you try to get the right balance? 

I read a lot of historical fiction and I’m one of those readers who finds it irritating.

So, how do I avoid it?

I try to be light on detail and only put something in if it really earns its place. For the stuff of daily life – clothes, household stuff, food etc – I tend not to mention them unless flagging them up serves a purpose. If I wouldn’t mention something in a novel set in the present day, I don’t mention it in my books. So there are never gratuitous descriptions of what people are wearing, eating or using. (You’d never get Val McDermid going on about the material Karen Pirie’s clothes are made of, or where the buttons are.) But, if it serves to illustrate something about the character – eg how rich/poor/modest/vain they are, how greedy or abstemious, or some anomaly, then details earn their place. Details like that can tell you about the person being described, or about the person doing the describing – just why have they noticed that detail, what does it tell you about them?

For bigger, background stuff, I try to avoid exposition and just weave information in to the narrative for readers to pick up. I figure my readers are smart enough to aggregate these details into a whole without me painstakingly (or do I mean painfully?) laying it all out for them.

Then again, for some things – like the practice of autopsy in In Two Minds – it’s such a new thing that one character explaining stuff to another is entirely reasonable. But, even then, you’ve got to allow them do it in a way which adds to an understanding of their character rather than just putting a paragraph of explanation into their mouths and pretending it’s dialogue.”

Q.Have you ever written thousands of words for your novel or short story, only to throw most of them away? 

Yup. Thirty thousand words once. That’s half a book for some people. A bit less than a quarter of a normal length novel for me. I’d started the story in the wrong place and I couldn’t make it work. Ouch.

Mind you, that’s nothing compared to ditching half a book. When I was writing Testament, my first published novel, I had three goes at getting the contemporary strand in a split-time structure right.

But I’ve never had to do that for any of the Teifi Valley Coroner books.”

Q.Do you tend to give up on books or are you someone who feels that once you’ve started reading you should get to the end even if you’re not enjoying the book

Life’s far too short (and I’m too slow a reader) to persevere with a book I’m not enjoying. I used to say that, if I’d happily machine gun everybody in the book by page 60, I’d stop but I’ve modified that, slightly, in recent times. Now it’s page 30.

Q. Which authors have you changed your mind about over the years?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve always read a lot of crime fiction but before I started writing it myself, I tended to read the more nitty-gritty, examine-the-bodies end – Patricia Cornwell, Karen Slaughter, Kathy Reichs. Now, however, I find those a bit light on character development and too plot- and forensic detail-heavy and I’ve come to appreciate a better balance between narrative and the relationships that drive a book. Consequently, I tend not to read many of those forensic pathology novels any more.

Q. What book are you reading at the moment? 

“I always have two books on the go – one on my Kindle to read in bed so I don’t disturb my other half with reading lights, and a physical book for downstairs reading over breakfast and lunch.

My current Kindle book is by fellow Crime Cymru author Chris Lloyd and is the latest in his Catalan mystery series: City of Drowned Souls. I’ve read all three of the books in the series so far back-to-back – I’ve become addicted to them and now want to go to Girona where they’re set!

And my paperback of the moment is The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. It’s a wonderful historical novel, full of fantastic characters and entirely lacking – thank God! – in the kind of ‘everybody’s dirty and miserable’ trope that you so often find in historical fiction. Her characters leap off the page as real people and she paints the world in which they live and all the social realities of the day with a brilliantly light touch. I’m loving it.”


Alis Hawkins

Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley where her Harry Probert-Lloyd series is set). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.

None So Blind was published in 2017. In Two Minds was published by Dome Press in May 2019. She is now working on the third title in The Teifi Valley Coroner series, Those Who Can

She is a founder member of Crime Cymru, a collective of crime writers in Wales. 

You can learn more about her books at www.AlisHawkins.co.uk

She is also on Facebook at AlisHawkinsAuthor and on Twitter  @Alis_Hawkins

My review of None So Blind is here 

 

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