A Rising Man is the first in a series of historical detective novels.

The weight of history began crashing down on the British Raj in World War I, as these exceptionally well executed historical detective novels make abundantly clear. Victoria’s “jewel in the crown” had sent more than one million soldiers to fight for God and country—England, not India—chiefly on the Western Front and in the Middle East. Like African-American soldiers returning home halfway around the world, they brought with them expectations and resentments that added to the rising demands for change.

A nation ripe for historical change

Mohandas Gandhi had risen to the leadership of the Indian National Congress and was building an increasingly powerful civil rights movement. The demand for independence would come later from Congress. But by the early 1920s no British official could overlook the rising sentiment for change. The resulting turmoil is the backdrop for Abir Mukherjee’s brilliant series of historical detective novels featuring Detective Inspector Captain Samuel (Sam) Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath (“Surrender-Not”) Banerjee of the Calcutta constabulary.

I’m reading the Wyndham and Banerjee novels as they appear and will update this post as I complete later entries in the series.

This series of historical detective novels is set in the years following the Amritsar Massacre.
379 unarmed Indians died at the hands of British soldiers in the 1919 Amritsar
Massacre. The event accelerated resistance to the British Raj.

In a series that consists (so far) of four historical detective novels (with a fifth scheduled for publication in July 2021), the bestselling Bengali-British author Abir Mukherjee explores the explosive setting of West Bengal a century ago under the Raj.

A Rising Man (A brilliant historical detective novel set in India following World War I)

A Rising Man introduces Wyndham and Banerjee. 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). Read the review.

A Necessary Evil (A royal murder in colonial India with hundreds of suspects)

For centuries the country we know as India today was a patchwork quilt of kingdoms and princely states. Even under the British Raj, more than 500 of them were scattered about the land. It was not until 1947 that the newly independent nation of India persuaded most of their rulers to cede sovereignty through brilliant negotiations, implicit threats, and expensive bribes.

Though the princely states of India are no more, royalty lives on there. Today, most descendants of the maharajas and princes have left their palaces and diamond-encrusted crowns behind, but a few live on in sybaritic splendor. Once they numbered some of the richest families in the world. (One ruler, the Nizam of Hyderabad, was widely recognized as the wealthiest man on the planet.) And one such family is the focus of Abir Mukherjee’s brilliant second entry in his historical mystery series, A Necessary Evil. Read the review.

Smoke and Ashes (A brilliantly constructed murder mystery set in colonial Calcutta)

The Indian independence movement was nearly a century in the making (1857-1947). By 1921, when thousands of Indian troops had returned from fighting for their king-emperor in World War I, the movement began shifting into high gear. Mohandas Gandhi‘s policies of nonviolence and civil disobedience were taking hold. In Calcutta, epicenter of the action, increasingly large crowds were gathering to resist British rule. And when the Prince of Wales (the former Edward VIII) was sent there on a goodwill tour, the clash between ruler and ruled heated up to the breaking point. That is the setting for Abir Mukherjee’s top-notch detective novel, Smoke and Ashes. The action plays out in the closing days of December 1921, when the Prince arrived in the city. Read the review.

Death in the East (A murder mystery in the British Raj)

In the far northeastern corner of India, on land near a border disputed by China, lies the tribal village of Jatinga. There, every year following the monsoon rains, thousands of birds dazed by high winds descend toward the village’s lights on foggy, dark nights. Local people, convinced they are spirits come to terrorize them, capture and kill the birds with bamboo poles. And that is a pivotal scene in the fourth book in Abir Mukherjee’s award-winning Wyndham and Banerjee series of historical mystery novels.

It’s 1922. Calcutta, and all India, is in turmoil because of the general strike called by Mohandas Gandhi. The British Raj is under attack, and anti-colonial sentiment is on the rise. Yet Captain Sam Wyndham has traveled to Assam to a Hindu ashram located near Jatinga to kick the opium habit he acquired while recovering from wounds he suffered in World War I. But no sooner has he arrived in the region than he spots the familiar face of a man he had long believed to be dead—a murderer Sam had pursued in London, early in his career with the police. The man had tried to kill him. Read the review.

The Shadows of Men (A superb historical mystery series set in 1920s India)

Indian society was in an uproar in the 1920s. Seething. Tumultuous. Explosive. All the usual adjectives apply. Relations between those of competing religions were at the breaking point. And they promised to set off an uncontrollable conflagration when, under pressure from Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian National Congress he led, the British called for municipal elections across the land. The slightest provocation could set off waves of murder, rape, and pillage directed from Hindus to Muslims, and Muslims to Hindus.

Against the backdrop of this tinderbox, Abir Mukherjee sets the fifth novel in his beautifully researched historical mystery series. One again, Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee of the Calcutta constabulary swing into action. Mukherjee conjures up a horrific picture of what happened in Calcutta when a respected Hindu theologian is murdered . . . possibly by a Muslim politician. But that’s not what police constables arriving at the scene think took place. They arrest Suren Banerjee, who is in the process of setting fire to the house where the murder occurred. Read the review.

About the author

Abir Mukherrjee is the author of this series of historical detective novels.

The bestselling British author Abir Mukherjee is of Bengali extraction. He grew up in Scotland and now lives in London with his wife and two sons. The first three of his Wyndham and Banerjee novels have all won awards, and the third, Smoke and Ashes, was chosen by the Sunday Times as one of the 100 Best Crime & Thriller Novels published since 1945.

For additional reading

Check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others) and Two dozen outstanding detective series from around the world. Also, see Good books about India, past and present and especially Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March (A brilliant debut novel based on an unsolved murder).

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