Friday, March 8, 2019

Review of Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee (2018, Harvill Secker)

Calcutta, 1921. Police officer Captain Sam Wyndham has a serious opium habit which he feeds by visiting dens in the early hours. When members of the vice squad raid one of his haunts he escapes up onto the roofs and hides. En route he encounters a body, his eyes cut out and stab wounds to his chest. A couple of days later he is assigned to investigate the death of a nurse who exhibits the same wounds. Unable to formally link the two murders, he and his trusted India sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee start to dig for answers, despite the fact that military intelligence would clearly like them to stop. To add to Wyndham’s woes he’s also charged with persuading the local Indian nationalist leader, Chitta Ranjan Das, to drop his non-violent campaign given the impending visit of Prince Edward to the city. With tension rising, a murderer on the loose and the local population being whipped up into a frenzy ahead of the state visit, Wyndham finds himself at the centre of a potential explosive situation.

Smoke and Ashes is the third book in the Wyndham and Banerjee series set in Calcutta in the years after the First World War. In this outing the pair find themselves trying to solve a series of brutal murders, while also trying to suppress the activities of Indian nationalists campaigning for independence. They are under pressure to fulfil both duties before the visit of Prince Edward, the heir to the British crown, on Christmas Eve. To complicate matters, Wyndham’s opium habit is exposed and military intelligence would prefer it if he drops his snooping with regards to the murders. Mukherjee tells the tale utilising real historical events and a couple of real-life characters. While it is an interesting story, it is held together by some coincidence plot devices, such as Wyndham happening to be in an opium den that is raided, and Banerjee being a close family friend of the Indian nationalist leading the local demonstrations. Moreover, while the story does build to some tension points, it is more linear than the previous two outings, and felt more staged. That said, it’s still an engaging and entertaining tale.

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