Meet Captain Sam Wyndham and Sgt. Surrender-Not Banerjee, of the Imperial Police. [Surrender-Not, of course, is not his real name but the Sahib Log officers cannot pronounce Surendranath]. They will become as familiar to you as Inspector Rebus and Jack Parlabane if there is any justice.
The story is set in Calcutta [and I use the spelling chosen by the author because that is the spelling used in the period concerned] and it is set just after the First World War. Sam Wyndham has come out to India, having worked in Scotland Yard before the war, because he has nothing left and is looking for a new start. Surrender-Not is a Bengali, and a law graduate for Cambridge seeking an honourable career.
They are brought together because a sahib, a very high ranking civil servant, is murdered outside a brothel in a very insalubrious part of town. His throat has been cut and he has been stabbed in the chest, and there is a note with a very clear message in Bengali stuffed into his mouth. And so we are introduced to the bloody underbelly of the British Ray at a point between “Plain Tales from the Hills” ,”The Raj Quartet” and “A Passage to India”. It is a time of when an Anglo-Indian woman can be excluded from a restaurant because of her parentage. There are echoes of “Bhowani Junction” here. It is a time when a Mrs Tebbit (I wonder if that name was chosen deliberately), the landlady of Captain Wyndham’s boarding house, can refer to “darkies” without a shadow of embarrassment. It is a time of casual racism.
Abir Mukherjee presents all this as part of the fabric of everyday life. These people are not villainous, apart from the murderer. And there are some wonderful characters. Mrs Bose and Mrs Hauksbee would have understood each other very well. The two central characters are people that you will like, with their foibles and weaknesses supported by their determination to do the right thing.
The book has an acerbic wit, with one-liners that will make you laugh out loud. It is written in a way that makes you want to know what happens next. It does not avoid the major political events, such as the Amritsar Massacre which plays an important part in the story. Abir Mukherjee weaves these events into his story with a deftness that is to be envied. He is obviously a writer to watch. This is his first novel, and he has set the bar very high. I am looking forward to the subsequent adventures of Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not Banerjee.