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.
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 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)
Sam Wyndham and “Surrender-Not” Banerjee witness first-hand the assassination of the crown prince of Sambalpore. Although their bosses wish otherwise, they insert themselves into the thicket of deadly court politics. Did religious fanatics kill the prince, as it appears? Or are there darker motives behind the act, somehow rooted in the royal palace? Might his younger brother covet the throne? Or is the British company that buys the kingdom’s diamonds somehow involved? To investigate the murder, Sam defies their boss’s boss, the Viceroy of India, and travels with Surrender-Not to the fabulously wealthy kingdom. 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. Read the review.
About the author
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 28 good books about India, past and present.
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- Top 10 mystery and thriller series;
- 20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers;
- 5 top novels about private detectives; and
- Top 20 suspenseful detective novels (plus 200 more).
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