I actually bought this book a few months ago and it’s been in my TBR pile ever since, shifted to the top after being longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize. This is the first in a series of books featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and set in early twentieth century India, still under British rule. Here’s the blurb:
Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective, is a new arrival to Calcutta.
Desperately seeking a fresh start after his experiences during the Great War, Wyndham has been recruited to head up a new post in the police force. But with barely a moment to acclimatise to his new life or to deal with the ghosts which still haunt him, Wyndham is caught up in a murder investigation that will take him into the dark underbelly of the British Raj.
A senior official has been murdered, and a note left in his mouth warns the British to quit India: or else. With rising political dissent and the stability of the Raj under threat, Wyndham and his two new colleagues – arrogant Inspector Digby and British-educated, but Indian-born Sergeant Banerjee, one of the few Indians to be recruited into the new CID – embark on an investigation that will take them from the luxurious parlours of wealthy British traders to the seedy opium dens of the city.
This is your typical police procedural with a twist. The old trope of the damaged alcoholic detective has been transformed into a widower with an opium addiction, but there is more to this book than reinventing the wheel in a new location. There are plenty of twists and turns and red herrings in the plotting to prevent me from guessing the culprit until the end, and yet it didn’t seem impossible for Wyndham to have reached his conclusion, his reasoning explained in a couple of sentences that made me go ‘Oh…of course.’
A highlight of this book for me was the wit of Wyndham. Written in first person, the reader gets his perspective of being transplanted from London to Calcutta, from his landlady’s awful cooking to the constant suffering with heat. Mukherjee writes Wyndham with a dark sense of humour and there were several paragraphs that made me smile. Below is one of my favourites:
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, demoralised 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 on for hours without a break. Nobody will ever write poetry about them.
In terms of historical crime, crime overall in fact, I think this book is up there. The plot is there, the writing is sublime at times, never overwrought but not too pared back. Mukherjee brings us new characters, a historical setting that is unfamiliar to most readers but is well constructed and easily visualised through Wyndham’s eyes, and hits the nail with a satisfying investigation. I look forward to the next book in the series, and have great hopes for the rest of the Jhalak longlist.