Friday, June 12, 2020

Some Book Reviews

Hello. Besides the literary books of 'weight' - fiction and non-fiction - I have distracted myself with some relatively lightweight reads.

Recommended by a bookshop owner friend I embarked into the detective genre. Abir Mukherjee is the son of immigrants from India and grew up in West Scotland and now lives in London. His debut novel A RISING MAN appeared in 2016. We meet Sam Wyndham, a World War I veteran and Scotland Yard refugee, who takes on a job offer in Calcutta in 1919. A rising man belonging to the British Raj ruled by Viceroy Lord Chelmsford is found murdered in a disreputable part of Black Town with a message stuffed in his mouth warning of the coming independence movement that is taking a path to revolution.

Sam Wyndham is placed in charge of the investigation by his superior, Lord Taggart, and is partnered by an arrogant British officer Inspector Digby and a British educated but Indian born Sargent Banerjee. He reveals himself as an invaluable local for interpreting and understanding the 'methods' and values of this great city, to lucidly assist his officer superior in the solving of the crime. In the novel he is called 'Surrender-not' as his British superiors can not - will not - pronounce his name Surendranath. This is the first of the racist tensions, unconscious and systemic, that colour the world of this book where the British population of all classes regard that they belong to a superior civilisation and despise the local peoples.

No-one in this novel, except, perhaps, Banerjee are without flaws. Our leading man Sam Wyndham is 'lost' in a PTSD depression, having survived the trenches of World War I and the loss of his young wife and has a naked cynicism to the values of the world. He balances his sanity with an addiction to opium (as does Sherlock Holmes) and has little trust for his British commanders and is dogged in the pursuit of unravelling the murder. We meet a very interesting range of characters, especially, an attractive anglo-indian secretary, Annie Grant, that provides a tantalizing possibility of a romantic interlude. The climax of the investigation comes with the background issue of the troubles/massacre of Amritsar. stirring with menace of things to come in the country's political future 

We find out truths but you must not expect justice. The novel is permeated with a cynicism that is very 'modern' and gives the work a contemporary resonance although it is set in a period of history a century ago. The writing rattles along at a galloping speed and leaves one breathless and keen to turn the page - it was an absorbing day long read. It was mostly fascinating, although, there are some too obvious clues to the suspicions of whodunnit that undercuts a fully committed surrender to the chase. However, A RISING MAN won the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition, and a CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger and the Eastern Eye ACTA Award for literature, and was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger.

I followed up a few weeks later with his second book in the Sam Wyndham/'Surrender-not' Banerjee series, A NECESSARY EVIL, published in 2017, and is set in 1920. The book is a continuation of Wyndham's career set in Calcutta as part of the Bengal Imperial Police and we meet characters we already know from the first book and observe the deepening relationships as well as a whole intriguing set of new principals in the solving of the assassination of the Maharaja of Sambalpore's eldest son - the heir apparent, Adir.

In the royal family, there are three wives and forty odd concubines with hundreds of children, living in the zenana. The Maharaja, Rajan Kumar Sai, the wives: the first elderly Maharani Shubhadrra, the third Maharini Devita,(the second Maharini has died); the heir apparent Adir, his younger brother Punit, and the very young Prince Alok, the third in-line for the kingdom. The novel of 370 pages begins on Friday 18 June and is over by Thursday 24 June - a mere six days. The story rockets along and is full of political twists and turns intriguingly bound in religious entanglements and beliefs. The suspects are numerous.

The guiding deity is Lord Jagganath (the origin of the English word juggernaut) and is the centre of the Maharini Subhadra's worship, supported by the mystic priest Dewan. The English representatives are Mr and Mrs Carmichael - professional diplomats bored to mundanity soaking in alcohol; Golding the practical, realist, efficient bookkeeper/accountant of the affairs of the Kingdom; Fitzmaurice, the corporate leader of the Anglo-Indian Diamond Company attempting to claim the kingdom's new money resources: coal, as the diamond mines dwindle as the money maker; Colonel Aroa, in charge of the Maharaja's police, he seems to have a foot in the present and the future - which side is he on?; a powerful eunuch of the harem, Sayed Ali; Miss Pemberley, a white British woman sought by the playboy Prince Punit; and the outspoken radical critic of the political structures, schoolteacher Shreya Bidika. All have motive. Even the British Government who wish to enforce the Kingdom of Sambalpore to become a member of the Chamber of Princes - an instrument that will maintain - ensure - British control: Viceroy Lord Chelmsford and police controller, Lord Taggart have much at stake with their career on government view, for whom Wyndham/Banerjee are the accidental tools of enforcement.

The corruption of the Kingdom is surrounded by the corruption of The British Raj and Mukherjee in his handling of the description of the places of the book, signalling the degradation of the British Empire, saturated in centuries of ambitious deceits. The genre is crime fiction but it is also a political critic of the affairs of history. Fortunately it is delivered without overbearing didacticism and seeps insidiously into the spine of the tale. for those of us who are 'awake'. 

There are now two new books in the series: SMOKE AND ASHES and DEATH IN THE EAST, and I am curious to see the developments of character. Of Wyndham's addiction - the dangers that its revelation will put his career in peril; of the growing relationship with his Indian partner, "Surrender-not' Banerjee, who one hopes becomes even more central to the unravelling history of Bengal, Pakistan and India.

A NECESSARY EVIL was a one day read. It was a page turner much like its predecessor. Recommended

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