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HPPR Arts, Culture & History

A British Cop in Calcutta

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This is Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, with another HPPR Book Byte. Today I’d like to tell you about one of my favorite fictional sleuths, Sam Wyndham. Sam Wyndham is a British cop stationed in Calcutta in 1919, right when the British Raj is beginning to lose its grip on India for the last time.

Despite his brilliant detective mind, Sam’s personal life is a bit of a mess. He’s an embittered widower; the tragedy of his wife’s death hs chased him all the way to India.

On top of that, Wyndham is a wounded war vet who left his service with a morphine addiction that’s transformed into an unsavory opium habit. On top of all that, India is a powder keg of politics, with the British (aka Sam’s bosses) trying to maintain control and the locals chafing under colonial rule.

Into this powder keg emerges Sam’s first case, which we see in the opening pages of Abir Mukherjee’s fantastic new series. The first book, A Rising Man, opens as many murder mysteries do: with a corpse. This one is a mid-level British official, which in 1919 Calcutta is shocking enough. But stuffed into the corpse’s mouth is a handwritten note that in no uncertain terms calls for the British to vacate India ASAP. Grieving, opium-addled Sam is called upon to solve the murder.

His assistant is a Bengali known as Surrender-not because none of his English peers can properly pronounce his name. Surrender-not is also a terrific character: he’s torn between a sense of duty to his work and the desire for liberation that’s animating his home country to an increasing extent. Further, none of his own family is thrilled that he’s working as a cop for the colonial powers. He also can’t talk to women because he’s so nervous. The chemistry between Wyndam and Surrender-not is delightful, and they make a memorable team. It’s touching to watch how they grow to depend on each other throughout the series.

Historical Fiction can be tricky, and it’s admittedly not one of my favorite genres. Too often, historical fiction feels to me like an author flexing their research muscles. Scene-setting and historical information can feel thrilling when you’re doing the research, but when a reader expects to be pulled along by an exciting plot, the research stuff can get in the way. This is assuredly not the case in Mukherjee’s Sam Wyndham series. Throughout, Calcutta is a living character that’s essential to the story’s action. As the tension rises in Wyndham’s efforts to solve the British official’s murder, the political tension rises in Calcutta.

This escalation of political intrigue continues across Mukherjee’s series, through the second book A Necessary Evil, and into the third, Smoke and Ashes where it takes on new urgency through the appearance of a certain bald, bespectacled charismatic nonviolent leader. Mukherjee’s depiction of Calcutta is wonderful—sweaty, intense, and dangerous. Displaced, grieving, addicted Sam Wyndham is the perfect sleuth for this setting. He and Surrender-not are in the middle, torn between India and Britain, trying to solve the crimes that happen at the Faultline between the two.

The other question I always have about historical fiction is how relevant it is to now. Why read about different, past worlds when there’s so much going on today? Yet Mukherjee’s ability to take the pulse of political unrest resonates in today’s unsettled politics as well. And his characters are human enough to be recognizable. Wyndham and Surrender-not may be torn between the British Empire and colonial India, two entities that don’t exist in the same form today. But the feeling of trying to do the right thing when it’s not clear what the right thing is should be recognizable to anyone.