This historical detective novel set in India highlights life in the subcontinent shortly after World War I.
India was the first major nation to gain its independence from Great Britain in the years following World War II when, in 1947, Viceroy Lord Mountbatten partitioned the subcontinent into two countries. But the nation’s independence had been a long time coming. The Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, led the movement for separation from Britain for six decades. Although Mohandas Gandhi is typically credited with leading that movement and achieving his goal through non-violence, in fact he didn’t return to India from South Africa until 1915, twenty years after the Congress Party was established and didn’t attain its leadership until six years later.
Meanwhile, others were lashing out against the Raj in more traditional ways, with violence. Revolutionary groups sprang up all across the subcontinent. And in A Rising Man, the first of Abir Mukherjee’s three historical detective novels set in India, we find ourselves deeply embroiled in the fractious mood of the Indian people in the wake of World War I, just as Gandhi was moving into the leadership of the Congress.
A Rising Man (Wyndham and Banerjee #1) by Abir Mukherjee (2017) 390 pages
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Mukherjee sets the story in April 1919, and deliberately so. On the thirteenth day of that month Brigadier General Reginald Dyer (1864-1927) ordered his troops to fire without warning on a huge crowd of unarmed civilians in a northeastern town that’s now located on the India-Pakistan border. The event became known as the Amritsar Massacre. Nearly four hundred died, and more than a thousand were wounded. The story in A Rising Man revolves around that event, even though all the action takes place nearly two thousand kilometers away in and around Calcutta (now Kolkata).
A brilliant historical detective novel set in India
A Rising Man introduces Detective Inspector Captain Samuel (Sam) Wyndham, Sergeant Surendranath (“Surrender-Not”) Banerjee of the Calcutta constabulary, and Annie Grant.
- Sam had served in the British Army on the Western Front for three years until he was badly wounded and mustered out; he had gained a morphine habit in the process of recuperating from the experience. He recently arrived in town from England, summoned by Commissioner Lord Charles Taggart, who had been his superior officer in military intelligence in the war.
- Banerjee, son of one of Calcutta’s wealthiest families, had enlisted in the police in defiance of his family. He holds a degree from Cambridge University.
- Annie Grant is Anglo-Indian, a beautiful young woman who promises to become Sam’s love interest. She is the secretary to Alexander MacAuley, a senior official in the office of the Lieutenant-Governor. (Oddly, in the conventions of the Raj, the Lieutenant-Governor was the senior-most official in Bengal and reported directly to the Viceroy in Delhi.)
A shocking murder, a train robbery gone bad, and terrorists
Soon after Sam’s arrival in Calcutta, he and Surrender-Not are assigned to investigate MacAuley’s shocking murder near a brothel in “Black Town” (the native quarter). A veteran detective named Digby rounds out their team. Together, the three struggle to turn up clues, competing all the while with the ruthless forces of military intelligence, which have unaccountably taken a close interest in the case. Soon, the three are detailed to investigate a train robbery gone bad in which a guard has died. And what had at first seemed a singular murder quickly comes to seem part of an anti-British terrorist plot involving both investigations. In the course of sifting through the conflicting evidence that comes to light, Sam will face death more than once — and Surrender-Not will prove he is anything but the useless addition to the force that most of his colleagues believe him to be.
About the author
Every one of the three Wyndham and Banerjee novels published to date has won at least one major literary award. When Abir Mukherjee was fifteen, a friend asked him to read Gorky Park; he’s been a fan of crime fiction ever since. He was the son of immigrants from India and turned to writing this series of Raj-era historical novels as a way to learn more about his heritage. He grew up in Scotland but now lives in London with his wife and two sons.
For additional reading
I’ve also reviewed the second, third, and fourth novels in the Wyndham and Banerjee series:
- A Necessary Evil (A royal murder in colonial India with hundreds of suspects)
- Smoke and Ashes (A brilliantly constructed murder mystery set in colonial Calcutta)
- Death in the East (A murder mystery in the British Raj)
This is one of the Good books about India, past and present that I’ve reviewed on this site.
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