“At least he was well dressed. Black tie, tux, the works. If you’re going to get yourself killed, you may as well look your best.”
Calcutta, April 1919, and Captain Sam Wyndham arrives in the city to head up the police force. Wyndham has come to leave his past – and the War – behind him, but never suspects what awaits him in India. With the Raj in full swing, tensions are running high between the natives and the British occupiers, so when a British official is found dead outside a brothel, with a note in his mouth telling the British to leave India, the situation comes close to breaking point.
Determined to do the right thing, whatever that may be, Wyndham, his second in command Digby and his Indian sergeant Bannerjee, need to find the killer quickly. But when a train robbery takes place – although nothing is stolen – it seems that a terrorist incident is imminent. But were terrorists to blame for the murder? And if so, which terrorists? And when the shadow of an incident in Amritsar falls over the proceedings, things look very dark indeed…
Now who was it who reviewed this one and brought it to my attention? I thought it was one of my many blogging buddies, but I can’t find the review now. Whoever it was, let me start off this review by thanking you. Because if it wasn’t for you, I never would have read this gem.
I’d started to shy away from between the wars historicals, to be honest. They’re perfectly enjoyable – and in the case of Kate Ellis’ A High Mortality of Doves, sometimes outstanding – but to me, they don’t feel historical enough. The world, despite its many traumas, seems too familiar to me and I like my historicals to take me to a different place. India, 1919. That’s a different place.
Abir Mukherjee does an outstanding job combining the necessary parts for a great historical mystery. The setting is compelling. The Raj was hardly our finest hour, yet Mukherjee does a good job of presenting the majority of British opinions as clearly wrong but almost understandable in the context. The inherent suspicion of the native Indians seems to mostly come from a fear that they will rise up and (rightly) reclaim their land so some actions, while clearly wrong, do make sense in the context of the story.
The characters are strong too. Wyndham is understandably damaged, although not fatally so, and not what could be a “Brit standing up for the natives” character – although to make him an acceptable protagonist, he does do quite a bit of that. Digby is suitably “British” and generally has the hump that Wyndham was promoted over him. Bannerjee again avoids the stereotype of the friendly native – in fact, I felt he was the most important character in the tale. The situation of Wyndham’s half-Indian love interest was convincing too.
So, setting, tick. Characters, tick. What’s left? Plot, of course, and first and foremost, this is a murder mystery. It’s reasonably clued, although there’s a bit of guesswork for the reader in places – the jump from some hints to the person in question being a murderer were a bit of a hop, step and a jump – but it’s a satisfying tale, a suitable murderer and smart conclusion.
This is the first in a series and quite rightly one the 2017 Historical Dagger – the second, A Necessary Evil (maybe that was the one I saw reviewed) and the third, Smoke and Ashes, are out now. You can rest assured that I’ll be checking out the next two when I get the chance, but in the meantime, this one is Highly Recommended.