Calcutta, 1919, and the city is full of rising men. There are the colonials making fortunes in commodities like rubber and jute, or grafting in the administration in ways they never could back in the UK. There are cloth merchants and bankers. There are the Indians, some of whom are benefiting from imperial trade and others rising up against exploitation. Then there’s Sam Wyndham, a veteran of World War I and once of Scotland Yard, who’s arrived in Calcutta full of promise. Maybe he’ll rise through the ranks of the colonial police force as a detective.
No sooner has he mopped the sweat from his brow than there’s a savage killing in an alley next to a brothel. Alexander MacAuley, before his throat was slit – not to mention a carrion crow making off with one of his eyes – was the man who signed off any big expenditure by the government of Bengal. There’s a note stuffed in the man’s mouth, which is interpreted for Wyndham by Digby, his number two: “No more warnings. English blood will run in the streets. Quit India!”
It looks like a political killing, and when Wyndham is ordered to investigate a train robbery he’s keen to connect the two cases. The train robbers were an organised gang, looking for money – money that could be spent on arms and explosives to be used against the British. They killed a guard on the train. The search begins for an Indian nationalist called Sen, who’s been hiding out for four years following his last attempt to damage the empire.
While Digby – a straight-up bigot with nothing but disdain for the Indians – is all too happy with the terrorist plot theory, this interpretation doesn’t sit well with Wyndham. His Indian sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee (the Brits can’t or won’t pronounce his first name properly) also doubts Sen’s guilt. The Bengali used in the note, he points out, is extremely formal – the kind taught and not the vernacular. As Sen and his band are largely well-educated and can speak English, why would they not render their warning in English?
There’s lots more to it. MacAuley’s friend Buchan, a jute millionaire, seems to be hiding something. So is the owner of the brothel, Mrs Bose. The man next in line for MacAuley’s job disliked his boss intensely, and has some business interests that will benefit with MacAuley out of the way. When Wyndham, Digby and Banerjee finally catch up with Sen, they find he’s renounced violence.
But nobody in the colonial administration – from the secret police in Section H through to its Lieutenant Governor – wants that story. Throughout the book Abir Mukherjee explores the moral legitimacy of the colonial administration – or lack thereof. As well as Christianity and education, the British claim to have brought a fair system of justice to India. However, with the threat of an uprising, justice is twisted towards the maintenance of British power. Not everyone in British India will get British justice.
Like most good mysteries, the plot is complex with plenty of twists and turns, a peppering of action, and there is the political intrigue particularly when Section H gets involved. What elevates A Rising Man, however, is how important the victim’s backstory becomes. MacAuley isn’t just dead meat in this story. And it’s not just who he was and what he did that’s important. What MacAuley was really like makes the difference. Wyndham’s investigation of the man’s friendship with a Scottish reverend called Gunn, working at an orphanage outside Calcutta, not only breaks the case but gives it human depth to run alongside the political machinations.
Abir Mukherjee paints a picture of Calcutta at the height of its colonial glory with its segregated living, enormous palaces, humid heat and gargantuan river. There are times when you’ll wonder whether a man like Wyndham would really be as enlightened towards the Indians as he seems. At one point he refers to the fish that attend a shark as it swims and I’m not sure underwater photography was advanced enough in 1919 for many people to be aware of pilot fish. However, the smattering of Indian words that are part of the colonial vernacular – like pukka, wallah and sahib – plus an Anglo-Indian love interest for our hero make it feel real enough. There’s even a map of 1919 Calcutta in the early pages for you to follow.
Will Wyndham find MacAuley’s real killer, despite the fact that his chief suspects and the secret police seem to be two steps ahead of his every move? Read A Rising Man and find out.
If you like the sound of this, you might also like a novel by Brian Stoddart whose series is also set in India. And, you can read about how Abir Mukherjee won a Daily Telegraph/Harvill Secker writing competition to have this book published, here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars