Front cover of Abir Mukherjee's book.
Written by Samhita Chakraborty
Title: Death in the East
Author: Abir Mukherjee
Publication: Harvill Secker
Price: Rs 399
Abir Mukherjee's Wyndham and Banerjee series is set in the British Raj, in 1920s Kolkata, featuring a slightly broken English policeman, Detective Sam Wyndham, and his sidekick, Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee. Or “Surrender-not”, as the British folks tend to mutilate his name to.
Except, Banerjee is no ordinary sidekick, no mere chronicler of the quick wits of a maverick sleuth. He’s no Dr. Watson to Holmes or Topshe to Satyajit Ray’s Feluda. Banerjee is his own man, more than an Ajit to Wyndham’s Byomkesh, more like a Robin to Wyndham’s Cormoran Strike, JK Rowling’s detective created under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
It’s in the verbal jousting of Wyndham and Banerjee that Abir Mukherjee’s books really come alive, injecting not just boy banter but also adding context. If Wyndham is the good Englishman holding up the unfair colonial system, Banerjee is the modern Indian torn between his duty to his uniform and the tug of the swadeshi call.
While reading Death in the East, Mukherjee’s fourth book in the series, let down by the absence of Benerjee and bogged down by a long description of Wyndham’s opium rehab, I tweeted my disappointment to the writer.
“Patience! He’ll turn up!” Mukherjee tweeted right back.
Writer Abir Mukherjee
Turn up he does, three-quarters into the book. “Bloody hell, you’re a sight for sore eyes!” exclaims Wyndham upon seeing Banerjee, echoing the reader’s sentiment accurately.
Things liven up as soon as Banerjee arrives at Jatinga Club, an all-British club in Assam, where one half of this book is set. The other half harks back to 1905, when Wyndham was a rookie Detective Constable investigating a death in east London. Both feature a classic English murder scene — the locked-room mystery. A body is found in a room locked from the inside, with no other escape route. Who killed them and how did they get out?
In 1905, a young English woman is found dead in her own bed in Whitechapel in London’s East End, and the suspicion falls on a Jewish immigrant, with everyone from the police to the press to the public more than keen to blame it all on the “foreigners” — the newly arrived Jews fleeing persecution in Europe — who are altering the fabric of English society.
In 1922, an Englishman is found dead in his own bed in Assam with electrical burns on his chest in a place with no electricity for miles around. Both rooms are locked from the inside. And there’s a connection between the two deaths that keeps eluding Wyndham till the very end. The part where Banerjee and not Wyndham leads the Assam investigation is all kinds of fun, especially the pomposity of the outraged British suspects who call him everything from “coolie” to “darkie” to “Mahatma”.
In Death in the East, Mukherjee has tried something new, this juxtaposition of two deaths in two very different “Easts”, set 17 years apart. At the end, an Author’s Note explains how this wasn’t the novel he had set out to write, but “circumstances” left him with “little choice”.
“Like many people, I’ve been saddened by the condition in which Britain and much of the world, finds itself. From the United States to Europe and Asia, the rise of populism has seen the growth of anger, extremism, fear of the other, and the erosion of tolerance and decency,” says the Scottish-Bengali writer, who is based out of London.
Thus, it was important for him to remind his fellow Britishers, writes Mukherjee, that every time intolerance has raised its head in their country, “the good, decent majority of this country has taken a stand against it.”
And, so, the story has to travel back in time for Sam Wyndham to travel out of India, all the way to east London. This clever use of detective fiction to make a social, political or cultural argument is a very Scottish literary tradition — as seen in the works of Scottish crime writers like William McIlvanney, Ian Rankin or Val McDermid. Seen in that light, Death in the East becomes an important book of our times.
As an independent crime novel, it holds its own, though one does miss the pace and edginess of the other titles in the series, especially book three, Smoke and Ashes, which left me rather breathless as Wyndham and Banerjee dashed across Kolkata trying to stop a terror attack. This is a crime series to watch out for, and one can’t wait for the next volume to appear.
Samhita Chakraborty is a Kolkata-based reviewer