We begin with Captain Sam Wyndham, a cynical ex-Military Intelligence Scot recently transferred from Scotland Yard to head up a newly created CID unit in Calcutta. He's a likeable protagonist, even if he arrives with the requisite baggage, including a dead wife, of time served in the Great War and hints of opiate addiction. But he’s also compassionate and witty: when his landlady makes her disapproval about his visiting opium dens clear, he reflects on the how the Empire has made a handsome amount of money from selling the drug to the Chinese: “If you thought about it, that probably made Queen Victoria the greatest drug peddler in history.” When we first meet him standing over the body of a murdered civil servant, “his throat cut, limbs at unnatural angles”, it’s hardly an auspicious start to the detective’s new career. But this murder is only the tip of an iceberg of corruption and politically-charged deceit that will lead him into the underbelly of the British Raj. Soon enough, the plot has taken in a violent train robbery, terrorism, and corruption that reaches the highest levels of local Government.
No good detective works alone, of course, and two supporting characters represent very different aspects of 1920s India: Inspector Digby, the arrogant British police Inspector, filled with bluster and more than a touch of jingoism and the newly appointed Sergeant Bannerjee – known to his fellow officers as “Surrender-not”, a mangling of his real first name, “Surendranath” – the first Indian officer in CID. Surrender-Not becomes a brilliant foil for those who represent the British Empire. Young and optimistic about the future of India, he believes that he might be the first of many local police officers to join the force.
Later, we see some of this optimism falter as he struggles with his identity and place in the world, especially when relations between the British forces and the Indian people begin to strain. British educated but Indian born, he tries to ignore the political pressures both sides place on him. But he cannot remain neutral forever, and is soon forced to question where his loyalties lie; a dilemma explicitly brought up in a quite brilliant scene where a suspected terrorist is finally confronted by our detectives in an interview room. While the suspect is polite to Wyndham, his attitude towards the young Indian sergeant is markedly hostile: “He is an accessory to the enslavement of his own people.” The younger detective’s relationship with Wyndham has a warmth and humanity that echoes many classic detective partnerships - Morse and Lewis, or Holmes and Watson for example - one of several nods to the tropes of the crime genre that evoke a feeling of pleasing familiarity, contrasting nicely with the stranger aspects of early twentieth century Calcutta.
And so it’s a shame that the arrogant but seemingly capable Digby suffers as a consequence of Wyndham and Bannerjee’s undeniable chemistry. Reduced to the role of antagonist to his Indian sergeant, he teeters on the edge of the bigoted Imperial stereotype, refusing to grant agency to the native population. When the detectives are called to a train robbery, Wyndham and Bannerjee dissect the motives of the perpetrators and make a tenuous connection to their murdered official. Digby, however, swiftly dismisses any grand scheme, claiming that the Indian robbers just got lucky. “You’re probably used to cases in England where the criminals are a lot smarter than they are here.”
While both Wyndham and Bannerjee grow over the course of the novel, developing new insights into their personal situations, Digby remains stuck. A last minute and revelatory attempt to explain and maybe even add depth to his bluster feels tacked on, a rare instance in this novel of plot over-riding character.
Indeed, if there are any disappointments to be found, then they come in the climax of the novel, where the careful atmosphere and character work of the earlier chapters give way to a slightly-too-convenient tying up of loose ends.
But Mukherjee’s energetic voice and compassionate portraits of two of his leads bodes well for future installments in a series. A Rising Man won the 2014 Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition,and a confident first novel like this - fast-paced and peopled by an empathetic and entertaining cast - certainly has the ingredients to be a winner.
Russel D McLean 07/06/16