A bit of a departure for this series, in good ways. Set in Calcutta in the 1920s, the main character has always been Captain Sam Wyndham – cynical, war-scarred, maverick English detective reassigned from Scotland Yard – assisted by the diligent but timid young Sergeant Bannerjee of the Calcutta Police. In this instalment, Bannerjee has his own voice and is a joint protagonist, each narrating alternating chapters. A Cambridge-educated, Gandhi-supporting Brahmin, Bannerjee is consistently demeaned by the British despite his social status, and is increasingly conflicted by his role in a police service in which Indians cannot expect justice. So it was good to have ‘Surrender-not’ being given more agency and character this time.
Previous books in the series opened with bang of one sort or another, but this has a slow and more meditative start. The other big change is that Wyndham is no longer in thrall to the opium den, although far from being a reformed character, but off the O at least. And also no longer obsessing over his dead wife, both of which free up space in the narrative for Bannerjee to develop as a character, front of stage instead of trailing behind Wyndham. The dual narrative works in this regard but is a bit jerky and repetitive, where his previous novels have bowled along at pace. But it was an important change to strengthen the social commentary and give a stronger Indian voice. Also the action moves outside Calcutta, to Bombay. So kudos to the author for letting go of those strands which had gone as far as they could, and for doing something new within his winning formula.
Mukherjee is great on setting and never fails to evoke a vivid sense of place, from the open sewers and rickety shacks of steaming Calcutta to the breeze-kissed manicured lawns of Bombay mansions, dreary police stations and even drearier boarding houses, via teeming streets, gullies, and railway stations. He is equally good on characters in all levels of society, from the self-appointed governors of India in the British top-brass and Indian political class, to the servants, prostitutes, taxi-drivers and lowly police staff, and the Anglo-Indians, who belong in neither end of the hierarchy. All of which highlights the inequality and division that the British created and exploited, and indeed the story centres on a plot to set Muslims and Hindus at each others’ throats, with subtle but unmistakable comment thereon.
A great fifth instalment in this series, although I’m not sure how it would work as a stand-alone – it will be a richer read from having read the previous novels, which I certainly recommend (I speak as someone who has little interest in historical crime fiction, but read these as my mum recommended them – thanks mum).
Advance review copy courtesy of netgalley.co.uk