Smoke and Ashes is a top-notch historical crime novel, a page-turning mystery that reimagines a fascinating period of Indian history under the yoke of British colonialism. The combination of strong characters, an engaging plot and a beautifully observed setting make this an engaging read.
Smoke and Ashes is set in Calcutta in 1921, as the calls for independence grow louder Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force tackles a gruesome series of murders. This is the third novel in the series, after A Rising Man and A Necessary Evil, and It hits the ground running as Wyndham stumbles across a body as he is fleeing an opium den with vice offers on his tail. The pace never lets up after this gripping start. The setting is seductive; from the Chinese slums and grimy police stations to the grand courthouse.
The hunt for the killer is caught up in the turbulence created by the political situation in the city. Gandhi and the Congress Party have managed to swing popular support behind the move for independence. There is unrest in the streets and the police and military forces are in danger of being swamped if things become violent. Naturally, with typical arrogance, the authorities react to their fear of the non-violent protest movement by cracking down hard. As the volatile situation develops the city has to prepare for the visit of HRH the Prince of Wales.
Tangra, the Chinese district of Calcutta, 21st December, 1921. Captain Wyndham is awoken from an opium stupor, the police are raiding the den. He escapes through a mortuary only to trip over a body, a dead Chinese man, his eyes gouged out a short knife in his chest. The killer can’t be far but has no time to investigate as he hears boots approaching. Next day he pumps Callaghan of Vice about the raid. He tells Wyndham it was organised by the Commissioner on the advice on Military Intelligence, Section H. Apparently Vice were searching for a drug dealer from Shanghai, Fen Wang, but why would Section H be involved in a criminal matter? Callaghan makes no mention of a body and the site has been cleaned up. The Commissioner of the Bengal police, Lord Taggart, wants Wyndham to talk to C.R. Das, Gandhi’s chief “rabble rouser”, find out what he is planning during the visit of HRH. Wyndham isn’t keen on politics, fortunately, Sgt. Surendranath-da (Surrender-not) knows what’s what. Then the body of a woman is discovered, a Portuguese nurse, she has the same gouged out eyes. Wyndham can’t talk about the first body yet but the nurse worked at the military hospital in Barrackpore, so he starts his investigation there. Ruth Fernandes will not be the last victim. With Section H on his neck and the commissioner demanding he pay attention to the up coming royal visit Wyndham and Surrender-not have to conduct their investigation out surreptitiously. It soon becomes clear that some very dark secrets are being protected. The city and HRH are in great danger as the murders and the royal visit become linked…
Mukherjee has created a really interesting set of characters for this series. The relationship between hard-nosed Major Darwin of Section H and Wyndham is tense, Darwin wants Wyndham to close his investigation. Equally the dynamic between Wyndham and Surrender-not his sergeant is complex, sometimes funny but often demonstrating the difference in rank, status and attitudes between the British officer and the Indian subaltern. Sam Wyndham is a drug addict, the war has taken its toll, he is a product of his time, innately British, demonstrating a casual racism, and yet he is an intuitive and determined policeman. There is no doubt he has a lot of respect for Surrender-not.
The mix of the political element with the brutal murder mystery works very well. The plot and the setting not only capture the mood of the times but explore some very dirty deeds by the British. Mukherjee has style, he can inject a moment of humour or tragedy into the story to give it depth. Complex themes are explored with a light touch, this is entertaining first and foremost.
Paul Burke 5/4
Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee
Harvill Secker 9781911215141 hbk Jun 2018