Smoke And Ashes by Abir Mukherjee
**From the winner of the 2017 CWA Historical Dagger Award**
India, 1921. Haunted by his memories of the Great War, Captain Sam Wyndham is battling a serious addiction to opium that he must keep secret from his superiors in the Calcutta police force.
When Sam is summoned to investigate a grisly murder, he is stunned at the sight of the body: he’s seen this before. Last night, in a drug addled haze, he stumbled across a corpse with the same ritualistic injuries. It seems like there’s a deranged killer on the loose. Unfortunately for Sam, the corpse was in an opium den and revealing his presence there could cost him his career.
With the aid of his quick-witted Indian Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, Sam must try to solve the two murders, all the while keeping his personal demons secret, before somebody else turns up dead.
Set against the backdrop of the fervent fight for Indian independence, and rich with the atmosphere of 1920s Calcutta, Smoke and Ashes is the brilliant new historical mystery in this award-winning series.
I am a huge fan of this series and If you haven’t read A Rising Man or A Necessary Evil, then you need to add them to your wish list asap. The series is phenomenal and historical crime fiction at its finest. It was my 126th read of the year so far and the 13th edition to the 5* Genius list. The era, characters and location that Abir Mukherjee has created within the series is sheer brilliance.
*I am a shameless fangirl*
The series is set post ww1 in Calcutta, India. The main characters are British Captain Sam Wyndham and Indian Sgt (Surrender-not) Banerjee. The novels are historical fiction, but there is always a grisly crime to be unearthed in the British Raj. I must admit that with this novel, I really felt the historical aspect of the novel had stepped up its game. The depth of historical detail really added to the story. India’s social and political climate is described in a fantastic method, letting the characters lead the scenes.
This is not a history lesson; the author simply invites you into 1921 Calcutta.
The novel opens with Sam fleeing the Imperial police force, blade in hand and covered in blood. He is fleeing a Tangra opium den and is certainly feeling the effects, shall we say. I began to wonder how bad is Sam’s opium addiction?
Is Sam going to be the murderer in this case?
‘Calcutta opium is best smoked ten feet below the corpses of half a dozen dead men’
Despite the police in pursuit, after the raid on the opium den, Sam manages to escape. But he can’t get out of his mind the dead body of the Chinese man he found. Why was the body so disfigured? Was this an opium ‘pipe dream’? Why was Commanding Officer Callaghan of Vice division raiding the den? Sam has so many questions as he falls asleep in a drug induced haze.
‘Calcutta was as flawed and dysfunctional as I was’ – Sam
When he awakes, late, as usual for Sam now. He finds Surrender-not has already left for work. He lights a cigarette and ponders his next course of action, over the body he found.
‘The Chinese were a law unto themselves. What they did to each other was none of my business’
In the background of the novel is the political protests of Mahatma Gandhi. It would appear the natives have tired of British rule and long for independence. Tempers are frayed, and the jails are full. With an impending visit from H.R.H Prince Edward scheduled for Christmas Day. Sam and surrender-not must ensure the streets are free from protestors.
Which will be no easy task, at all.
Lord Taggart, commissioner of the police for Bengal summons Sam to his office. He orders Sam and Surrender-not to deliver a message to Gandhi’s ‘chief rabble rouser’ – C.R Das that the organisation of congress volunteers is now banned. There are clear and spiteful threats issued, the natives must obey their British masters.
The theme of the British Raj and colonisation in general, makes this novel perfect for book groups. There are so many elements to debate. It is also easy to look back with the wisdom of hindsight. I spend many summer days at Osbourne House the summer home of Queen Victoria. It has an Indian room and there is evidence of Indian artefacts throughout. Queen Victoria was clearly impressed and inspired by Indian culture. I find it surprising that a culture for which she found so fascinating, she never visited. . .
Back to the novel and Sam. Not only is Sam battling his emotional past, with the loss of his wife Sarah. Annie makes a reappearance and he has an out of control opiate addiction. He eventually agrees to see a doctor and deal with his opiate addiction once and for all.
‘I preferred not to be reminded of the ghosts of Christmas past’ – Sam
With Das refusing to give in to Taggart’s demands. Sam is placed in the awkward position of delivering messages he no longer believes in or agrees with. . .
‘Tell him that I’ve no issue with arresting him, his family and every one of his supporters’ – Taggart
The British are in the difficult position of wanting to coerce the opposition via threats and intimidation and not wanting to make martyrs of them.
There will be no easy solution in British India.
Sam and Surrender-not are called to a crime scene at Shant-da’s medical clinic. Where they find the body of a young nurse Ruth Fernandez. Ruth’s corpse has the identical injuries as the Chinese victim at the opium den. But what links the murders? Ruth is a native from Goa but holds the role of military nurse. She openly practises her Christian faith. Are these murders political?
Has the non-violent protest suddenly turned to murder?
With the new murder and political tensions at an all time high, the British issue a military enforced curfew of 6pm. At times it felt that they did everything they could, to ignite the flames of riots.
Leaving Sam battling his personal opinions and professional responsibilities.
‘Maybe my penance was a life sentence’ – Sam
When another murder occurs, it is clear Calcutta has a serial killer on its hands and only one man knows the truth. Sam.
As said above the historical aspects are beautifully written and there is so much detail. Each political event, is broken down to be shown from both sides of the governmental powers. I wondered how the author would tackle the character of Gandhi and his political stance. What you discover is that Gandhi was a highly intelligent man, with a strategic mind. He meticulously planned his protests and lived by his convictions.
But I love the way Sam summarises the situation (and some of the finest writing might I add) . . .
‘To see a man as your enemy, you needed to hate him, and while it was easy to hate a man who fought you with bullets and bombs, it was bloody difficult to hate a man who opposed you by appealing to your moral compass’ – Sam
I was sad to see Surrender-not, firmly return to his role of side-kick. In the last novel I really felt his character gain such presence. Despite it being difficult to watch an intelligent man (must) take a back-seat to the British rule. Yet I respect the author for changing the style of each novel, keeping you the reader guessing and avoiding the huge error of repeating the same novel with just a different case.
Outstanding historical crime fiction, that I would love to see adapted for the TV screens. I can even picture the atmospheric opening credits, as we glance around 1920s Calcutta. 5* Genius.