Death in the East

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Written by Abir Mukherjee — The acclaimed Wyndham and Banerjee historical crime series returns with a fourth instalment. Was it really in 2016 that The Rising Man introduced us to Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surrender-not Banerjee? Most recently Wyndham was caught in the angry turmoil of rebellion in India in Smoke and Ashes.

Author Abir Mukherjee gives us two story threads to savour in the new volume, Death in the East. Firstly, he takes us back to 1905 in East London where we meet the junior Constable Sam Wyndham under the care of the solid Sergeant Whitelaw. With whistles blowing, Wyndham is chasing suspects through the dark, narrow lanes of Whitechapel. Some thugs were setting about an old girlfriend, Bessie Drummond, but they escape in the darkness around Shoreditch station. The next day Bessie is found in her room, brutally and fatally assaulted. Inexplicably, it’s also apparent her room was locked from the inside. Scotland Yard soon settle on a Jewish person living upstairs as the main suspect. Wyndham isn’t so sure and is hellbent on finding the murderer, even if it means making unsavoury alliances with local gangsters and journalists with fewer scruples.

The other thread picks up 17 years later in 1922 India, as Captain Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force makes his way to the tiny outpost of Jatinga in Assam. En route, he starts to doubt his sanity when he catches a glimpse of the murderer from 1905 who Wyndham thought was gone forever. He arrives at an ashram, a Hindu spiritual hermitage, hoping to tackle his opium addiction. You might be tempted to sigh a little – it’s the flawed detective with the substance misuse habit again – but the novelty of the process and its historical context make amends this time. Wyndham mingles with the expats in Jatinga, hosted by the lovely Emma Carter, and soon the fateful meeting of Wyndham and possible murderer looms.

The book builds beautifully and the timelines are brought artfully together. However, as it builds to its conclusion, the story loses some of its impetus. Fortunately, Wyndham telegraphs Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, who manages to lift the story again and a second locked-room puzzle emerges. However, as is sometimes the case with this device, its solving is somewhat formulaic and the ultimate unravelling of the mystery relies on an ingenious Christie-like murder mechanism rather than stemming from the characters. It’s doesn’t fall to the clichéd depths of Death in Paradise but it feels pedestrian and perhaps a bit forced.

The historical sensibilities are, as before with this series, well handled. They are not over-sold and we know that the mountains of research most historical crime writers do can sometimes, if not frequently, paralyse the stories. The trick is knowing what’s essential to the narrative and what to leave out, and Mukherjee handles this with aplomb.

The writing is excellent. It’s impressively vivid but Mukherjee doesn’t get carried away with his own literary cleverness and stray into the gratuitously lyrical. He is very adept at hitting a sweet spot between functional and evocative that brings us, fully realised, into the early 20th century worlds of East End London and British India. Wyndham is likeable, perhaps unusually enlightened for a man of Empire, but that’s understandable as we’re going to struggle to identify with the prevailing 1920s attitudes towards native people. That said, Mukherjee still works in some trenchant cultural commentary from the dependable Sergeant Banerjee to redress the balance.

In Death in the East, Abir Mukherjee has delivered another rich historical crime thriller. It’s an immersive experience.

For more historical crime fiction set in 1920s India then check out Brian Stoddart. Death in Shangri-La is a contemporary thriller in India and Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh Agency series offers something more light-hearted.

Harvill Secker

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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