The fifth Wyndham and Banerjee mystery is a delight to read because author Abir Mukherjee is such a wonderful storyteller. It’s a narrative that’s easy to get lost in. The 1920s colonial India setting is rich and colourful but also ripe with all the best ingredients for a crime novel – injustice, intrigue, conflict and murder. As well as a feel for the streets of Kolkata, we also get a sense of the religious and political tensions at play, which two decades later tore India apart. This reimagining of India, her people, troubles and burgeoning independence, is about so much more than British colonialism, though it does cast a shadow over everything.
In fact, The Shadows of Men is very much Surendranath Banerjee’s story although, as he points out, Sam Wyndham is apt to muscle in. There you have it, a subtle shift in perspective and perception of empire that eschews the Boys’ Own Adventure approach. Sam knows this is Banerjee’s story and it’s part of the wider story that the British usually assume is their own, never understanding they are the interlopers, increasingly unwelcome and the cause of much of the trouble. That’s as political as Mukherjee gets because more than anything this is a clever top notch mystery and the most fun you can have with murder and mayhem afoot.
If you’re familiar with Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee of the Indian Police Service you will know that they’ve had a tempestuous time of it so far. And this time things get very personal for Banerjee. Surendranath has a theory that men can be measured by the shadow they leave in their wake; most of us aren’t destined to leave much of an impression at all. But when he gets into hot water he feels the stain of the shame he brings on his family, something Wyndham will never understand. It matters more to him than the thought that the British might actually hang him.
Banerjee’s troubles start with an order from the top. The Sergeant is summoned to the office of Lord Taggart, Commissioner of Police. Suren, as he’s now known, has visions of being handed his first solo assignment but does not anticipate a mission fraught with danger. Farid Gulmohamed, a Bombay financier and leader of the Union of Islam, is in Calcutta and Suren is tasked with monitoring him. Taggart wants to know who he meets and why – is he here to spread dissent? Naturally, it doesn’t occur to the English that Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims are not the same, yet it’s something the British exploit when it suits them. It’s not easy for Suren to blend into a Muslim crowd. Taggart says Wyndham should be kept it of the loop. Despite an ominous feeling Suren accepts the job… what choice does he have?
Meanwhile Captain Sam Wyndham, Suren’s day-to-day boss, is with Uddam Singh, a man who controls half the narcotics trade in the city. Suren arrested Singh’s surviving son, while the eldest was killed a few weeks ago as leverage to make Singh compliant in keeping the peace, reducing tensions between Hindu and Muslim communities. The city is close to a violent meltdown, Singh is angry and issues threats against Suren. Nothing is resolved.
Woken in the middle of the night Sam is told Suren is in gaol for murder and arson. When Sam arrives he readily admits the arson but vehemently denies the murder. However, Suren won’t explain without talking to the Commissioner. Sam, convinced this is a mistake fetches Taggart.
Suren had followed Gulmohamed to a house in Budge Budge, a place ‘as picturesque as a frontline trench’. He is struck on the head only to wake beside the body of Prashant Mukherjee, a prize ass admittedly, but nonetheless a high caste and influential Hindu nationalist. Suren assumes Gulmohamed attacked him and killed Mukherjee. The city would explode if that became known.
Taggart and the two detectives need to keep a lid on this murder while they find out exactly what happened. But things are thrown into further turmoil by another assassination attempt and this one puts Suren’s neck firmly back in the noose.
Surendranath Banerjee and Sam Wyndham are a great pairing and the story fizzes with humour, intrigue and authenticity while the plot is intricate and twisting. Even if you read very little historical crime fiction, this is one of the best and highly recommended.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars