Cover image of "The Shadows of Men," the fifth entry in a brilliant historical mystery series

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.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

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.

A fraught, three-way relationship involving British and Indians

The confusing events that transpire in that house in a Muslim slum in Calcutta open a window onto the complex three-way relationship among India’s Hindus and Muslims and the British officials and military officers who command the Raj. With Sam Wyndham’s sergeant and roommate in prison for murder, he sets off on a dangerous course that involves a Calcutta gang leader, the leadership of the Congress Party, a famous Muslim politician, the Commissioner of Police in Calcutta, and the British military intelligence officers who serve as the country’s secret police. And the story carries Sam across the width of India from Calcutta to Bombay while Sam, released from prison through Sam’s influence, becomes a fugitive.

The Shadows of Men (Wyndham and Banerjee #5) by Abir Mukherjee (2021) 349 pages ★★★★☆

Image of a religious riot in India, like those that erupt in this latest addition to Abir Mukherjee's historical mystery series
Throughout much of the past century, India’s towns and cities were wracked by religious riots like this one. Their ferocity escalated in the 1920s as agitation for independence gathered steam and people of competing religions jockeyed for leadership in the movement. Image: Sputnik News

Extraordinary lead characters

Sam Wyndham and Suren Banerjee are both complex, fully realized realized personalities. Sam had left London under a cloud and quickly proceeded to become addicted to opium after arriving in Calcutta. We witnessed his protracted and painful withdrawal from the drug in an earlier entry in the series. Suren is the black sheep in a prominent and wealthy Brahmin family who support the Congress. His father has virtually disowned him, both for taking a job with the police instead of the family business and for helping the hated British.

Neither of the two is loved by their colleagues on the force—Sam, because he’s so good at the job that he makes others look bad, and Suren simply because he’s a native. And the relationship between the two, although close, is strained by Suren’s knowledge of Sam’s weakness for opium and Sam’s lack of understanding of what drives Suren. As the sergeant muses, “he is still just an Englishman and could never understand a concept such as izzat, or the shame I have brought down upon my family” by his arrest for murder.

Other major characters

Other major characters are equally interesting. For example, there’s Uddam Singh, Uddam the Lion, “kingpin of an underworld gang that controlled almost half the city’s trade in narcotics, prostitution and a few other illicit activities besides.” We also meet:

  • Lord Taggart, Commissioner of Police, a frequent target of assassination attempts
  • Farid Gulmohamed, “a Bombay financier and a prominent politician—a leading light in the Union of Islam”
  • Colonel Dawson, “spymaster of the army’s intelligence department, Section H” in Calcutta
  • Subhash Bose, a real-world leader of the Congress
  • and Lady Annie Grant, a wealthy British expat and Sam’s love interest, who is a recurring character in the series.

An outstanding historical mystery series

The Shadows of Men is a compelling novel of suspense and a worthy addition to this superb historical mystery series.

Both Sam and Suren are intensely aware of the historical reality in which they live. For instance, Sam reflects, “Placing oneself in a position of semi-permanent hypocrisy, that’s what it meant to be an Englishman in India, and I certainly wasn’t the only one who felt that way. God knows there were enough embittered, broken colonial men and women of good conscience, driven to drink and ruin by the irreconcilable absurdity at the heart of it all: the claim that we were here for the betterment of the land, when all the time we merely sucked it dry.”

But musings such as this don’t weigh down the story. The dialog is artfully written. For example, in a conversation with Sam, Suren says “I shall never understand the British . . . You wear your ignorance of others almost as a badge of honour.”

“Well, it’s important to be good at something,” Sam says.

About the author

Image of Abir Mukherjee, author of a historical mystery series set in 1920s India

Abir Mukherjee’s author website notes that he “is the [London] Times bestselling author of the Wyndham & Banerjee series of crime novels set in Raj-era India which have sold over 250,000 copies and been translated into 15 languages. His books have won numerous awards including the CWA Dagger for Best Historical Novel, the Prix du Polar Européen, the Wilbur Smith Award for Adventure Writing and the Amazon Publishing Readers Award for E-book for the Year.”

Google Books adds that Mukherjee was born in London in 1974. He grew up in the west of Scotland. At the age of fifteen, his best friend made him read Gorky Park, and he’s been a fan of crime fiction ever since.”

Reading Mukherjee’s work, any fan of historical mystery series will likely hunger for more, as I do.

For reviews of the other Wyndham and Banerjee books, see Historical detective novels set in colonial India. And for similar titles, see The best Indian detective novels.

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