DRAGONFIRE by HUMPHREY HAWKSLEY

Having just read “This United State”, moving straight to “Dragonfire” was another disturbing look at what could happen in the ambitious world of politics in which we live. What made this book even more fascinating is that it centres on a part of the world where I live, Asia, and particularly India.

Although written in 2000 & supposedly taking place in 2007, this book is scarily prescient. The threat of Pakistan and India going to war is always there, and when tempers rise and enmities flare up (as they have done dramatically over the past few weeks) you could almost believe that “Dragonfire” is a work of fact not fiction.

Surprisingly, the technology referenced in the book has “aged” quite well, adding to this feeling of reality. I never once felt as though I wasn’t reading a bang-up-to-date book, especially where India was concerned.

Many external current factors played alongside the reading of this book, adding to the worrying idea that this piece of fiction could one day become reality. With the Brexit madness still unsolved in my native Britain, and India and Pakistan recently inching close to conflict over the Pulwama attack, with India weeks away from general elections & all the political manoeuvring that entails, the basic premise of the book seemed anything but far-fetched.

From Tibet to the corridors of power in Washington, from baking hot New Delhi to Downing Street, this story shows how the major (and sometimes minor) players in realpolitik are inter-connected and how they operate – sometimes selflessly, sometimes selfishly, but hardly ever without serious repercussions.

I got slightly overwhelmed by the technical statistics, and facts and figures that Mr. Hawksley employs in talking about weapons & ammunition & aircraft, and after a while I simply skipped them, knowing there was no way I’d remember any of the names and details anyway. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book at all.

With the passage of time – 19 years sine the book was written – you do notice some things. For example, it was even more of a man’s world then than it still is. 2 women protagonists, I think, and both with very minor roles.

You also realise how little has changed.

Tibet is still a flashpoint.

Taiwan is still a thorn in the Chinese flesh.

Pakistan and India are still at violent loggerheads.

India and China are still manoeuvring for dominance, although now, in 2019, there’s very little doubt which country has the upper economic hand.

If you look at it that way, it’s almost depressing to see how little we have all progressed, as a world community, in 2 decades.

But I digress.

This is a gripping read, which gets very tense towards the end, and when the Delhi suburb where I live is mentioned as a possible attack point, it became super intense, as fiction became a terrifyingly possible reality.

Despite all the political manoeuvring, some of the politicians came across as decent men, genuinely concerned about the greater good. Not sure one could say that today, 19 years after the book was written…but perhaps I’m just feeling unusually cynical about our current political masters (reference Brexit and the upcoming Indian elections).

If you haven’t yet read this clever, well-written, exciting book, I urge you to do so. For those of us living in Asia, where the threat of conflict is a real possibility, there is no time like the present. Read this book and reflect on the current state of play.

If you do want to order it, here you go.

You all know what to do with this link.

THIS UNITED STATE by COLIN FORBES

Not quite sure how or why I’d never read any Colin Forbes before.

Bit of (probably unnecessary) scene -setting before I start.

This big, satisfying chunky novel was bought years ago, in a second hand bookshop in Johannesburg, when we lived there, and has travelled back to India with us, and sat, unread, on a shelf for years.

Cue a bout of spring cleaning and I saw this book, read the blurb “The Island state – Britain – is in mortal danger” and thought it was perfect for the current Brexit mess we’re living through.

What I hadn’t realised until I was a fair bit into the novel is that it is one of a series. Unlike many authors, Mr. Forbes doesn’t do the quick recap & potted history of his characters for new readers, so I battled a bit working out who was whom. Turns out I plunged right into the murky world of international politics with the 16th book in the series.

The story line was interesting & almost prescient in some respects – the US trying to make Britain its next state, planning to take over the country, in an attempt to shore up its defences against the perceived European and Muslim threats just waiting to engulf the UK.

The story is reasonably gripping but a tad repetitive. There are only so many dark, wintery, freezing cold European cities I can take, and ditto smart hotels, and ditto car trips through said cold, dark wintery European countries. I fell Mr. Forbes could have axed several days of expensive hotel stays and the plot wouldn’t have suffered.

The book was written in 1999 (which is only 20 years ago, remember), so the technology side of things reads a little dated, but it is the character of Paula who best illustates how attitudes have changed in 20 years. Each time she got up to pour coffee or hang up someone’s coat, I felt like shouting “Sit down, Paula. Let one of the blokes get the drinks.”

Was the world really like this only 20 years ago?

Were London cabbies really plucky, patriotic fellows?

Was England, Europe & the US so white? Unless I missed it, I don’t think there’s a non-white character in the book.

Reading “The United State” was like reading about a different-but-vaguely-familiar world.

Nevertheless, a fun-enough read in these confused days, where Britain’s place in the world is being assessed by millions of puzzled and baffled observers, including her own citizens like me.

Listen to the US Secretary of State speaking to a Brit:

When we look east we see Europe losing all its strength with their crazy idea of merging countries – nations all with different languages, histories, ways of life. History shows us the Austrian-HungarianEmpire, also a hitch-pitch of nations who detested each other, was held together by Tito for a time. Tito dies. Yugoslavia, as a similar federation to the one proposed for Europe, collapses in a bloodbath. The Soviet Empire is another example of different nationalities which broke down into chaos. You see why Washington is so worried about Europe.

Will i go back and read the preceding 15 novels?

Not sure, to be honest.


BEAU DEATH by Peter Lovesey

Everyone needs a sister like mine.

A voracious reader, Jane generously shares her books, her reading lists, her favourite authors, and has introduced me to many good reads over the years.

Latest discovery, via kid sister, is Peter Lovesey, whom I am only just now discovering, decades after everyone else.

Jane was reading “Beau Death” whilst on holiday with us in India, and kindly left it for me to read.

And thus I discovered that just about everyone else in the world has been raving about the Peter Diamond series for decades, as I plunge into this long-running series, starting with (I learn) the 17th book in the series.

The mark of a great writer of a string of successful books, like this Peter Diamond series, is the ability to engage a first time reader, who may not have all the background info that faithful readers have accumulated over the years. Starting off with Book 17, I never once felt out of my depth, nor that I was not picking up references.

What an intriguing novel this is, as Diamond sets out to solve an 18th century murder. Set in Bath, the book opens as a wrecking ball destroys condemned houses and uncovers a skeleton, dressed in what looks to be authentic 18th century clothing. From the period clothes and, especially, a distinctive tricorne hat, the skeleton is thought to be that of Beau Nash, an infamous dandy who lived in 18th century Bath.

And from this bizarre discovery, the 21st century police force is drawn into investigating what may/may not be a 250 year old unsolved murder. If the skeleton is indeed that of Beau Nash, this would totally rewrite Bath history and folklore.

The clever interweaving of several different narrative threads, the delving into local history, is superbly done and it isn’t until the closing paragraphs of the book that the various threads and leads and hints are conclusively drawn together.

I enjoyed exploring Bath with Peter Diamond, and the city and its history and architecture are all an integral part of the story.

I’m not going plot-spoil, so I’ll leave it there.

Suffice it to say that I will now go back to the beginning of the Peter Diamond series, and binge read my way through whodunnits that everyone else has savoured for years.

If you feel like reading this novel, couldn’t be easier.

Click on the link below, and you know the drill!

DEAD SIMPLE by PETER JAMES

Oh, the joy of “discovering” a new writer.

Whoops, the slight embarrassment when you realise that everyone else in the world except you already knows about said writer.

And so, having got that off my chest, let’s talk about Peter James.

I was riveted by “Dead Simple” – published in 2005, so how up to date am I? – and literally could not put the book down, with its clever plot twists and its gripping, macabre story line.

Reviewing a murder mystery inevitably involves being a little vague, because the last thing I would want to do is to spoil your enjoyment of this brilliant story.

We are introduced in this book to Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, a man we instantly like and trust and respect.  What makes Roy Grace so interesting a man is his own tragic back story.  9 years earlier, his adored wife Sandy disappeared, and he still has no idea what happened to her.  He wonders, constantly, whether Sandy is still alive and in his quest for answers, Roy consults mediums and fortune tellers, and has an interest in the occult – for which he is sometimes ridiculed, within the conventional world of modern policing.

Roy Grace lives in the southern English coastal town of Brighton, and the city features largely in the story.

I am not going to spoil the book by telling you anything more than the book’s blurb does:

“It was meant to be a harmless stag-night prank.  A few hours later Michael Harrison has disappeared and four of his friends are dead.”

As I said earlier, there are plot twists in this book, lots of them, but at one point I was cocky enough to think I’d “got it”.  That I’d figured out what was happening.

No way.  You are kept on your toes tight until the last sentence of this exciting book.

Personally recommended.

And if you would like to buy the book, here’s the link.  You know what to do.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS by Kevin Kwan

Although I tell myself I really don’t care what other people think, secretly I was a little worried at quite how much I enjoyed “Crazy Rich Asians”.

So obviously I googled reviews of the book, & was relieved beyond measure when I read this comment in a 2013 review of the book in the New York Times:

Mr. Kwan knows how to deliver guilty pleasures. He keeps the repartee nicely outrageous, the excess wretched and the details wickedly delectable.”

Wickedly delectable.

Totally spot on.

This book is a light-hearted, un-judge-y romp through the lives and times and shopping binges of the crazily rich of Singapore.

There is delicious designer-name-dropping throughout the novel, and it rapidly becomes totally addictive to see who is buying what and wearing what.

The premise of the book is quite simple.

Rachel Chu, ethnically Chinese but brought up and educated in the US, falls in love with another academic like herself, handsome and charming and low-key Nick Young.

They live together in New York, and life is good.  Until Nick invites her to join him in his home, Singapore, for his best friend’s wedding, where he is best man.

I don’t think I’m spoiling the plot for you when I say that when she visits Singapore, Rachel is confronted with wealth and opulence on a scale she has never imagined (let’s face it, it’s all on a scale that not many of us have imagined).  Nick’s world, the world into which he was born, is that of the uber-rich and as a wealthy single man, he is considered way too valuable a catch to fall into the hands of this unknown, clearly not very wealthy ABC (American Born Chinese).

Plotting and scheming ensue, on a scale that would make old Machiavelli himself blush.

Nick is blisffully in love, and blissfully unaware of how much of a catch he is considered to be, and totally unaware of the lengths to which his family will go to put a spanner in the works.

The wedding that is the anchor-point of the novel is so grand and so opulent that you literally can’t stop turning the pages, to see just what excessive display of wealth will come next.

Quick aside: I live in India, where eye-wateringly expensive weddings take place.  Fortunes are spent on impressing everyone how wealthy you are, so the excesses of the Colin & Araminta wedding didn’t strike me as being in the realm of fiction.  I could even imagine some Indian mothers of the bride reading this novel and thinking “Ah, now I could do that for my daughter’s wedding…”

But I digress.

This is a jolly, happy read – though I did shed a tear at one point, I must confess.  The opulence and wealth and sheer bonkers-ness of the excesses of the idle rich are vicariously fun to read.  I mean, who doesn’t dream of climate controlled wardrobes, with different temperatures for the shoes and the furs?  And a camera in the mirror that takes a photo of you, and records what you’re wearing, thus ensuring you never repeat an outfit?

The city state of Singapore is depicted with great affection by Mr. Kwan, and the descriptions of the gardens of Nick’s ancestral home are lyrical and beautiful.

This is a fun read, showcasing the struggle for true love, and good vs evil.  And lots of fabulous frocks.

Enjoy this “wickedly delectable” novel.

And don’t even feel guilty about so doing for a moment.

Go on!

Order the book now.

You know you want to!

HALF THE NIGHT IS GONE by AMITABHA BAGCHI

“Like an old man, which I am, I found myself yearning for the time, no, not the time, for the life that has gone by.  Not my own biological, chronological life, but the life of the place where I was born.”

These words, written by a distinguished Hindi author, Vishwanath, in a letter to a friend, are at the very heart of this complex, densely-woven, generation-spanning novel.

An old man, a writer, clever with words, is writing.

As he writes, he reminisces about the Delhi that he knew as a child, he writes about family, he writes about the child he has lost, he writes about regret.

These themes – family, loss, regret, emotion, memory – are the warp and weft of this sweeping novel.

Family is at the very heart of the book.  Well, families, more precisely, since we follow the stories of different families, with their stories paralleling each other and intertwining over the generations.

Lineage, protecting your family and its wealth, passing the baton to future generations – these sentiments are counterpointed against the sad reality of exclusion, of love unfulfilled, of the inability to express the love that steers so many of the emotions and reaction in the novel.

Mr. Bagchi writes beautifully, offering us lovely, long complex sentences that are a joy to read, quite apart from their narrative value.  One imagines the author to be a deeply thoughtful and eloquent man, so well does he understand the driving force of a writer, and of one who yearns to learn more about religion and philosophy.

His male characters, across the generations and the class divisions are strongly drawn.  Although a couple of his female characters are also strongly portrayed, men dominate this story, their histories the ones that bind the generations.  The connection between a family’s history and its forefathers is constantly played out and replayed in this novel, which spans generations of the same families.

As the rich trader Lala Motichand musing about family and its origins and future obligations puts it:

“After all, they belonged to the class of people for whom the family and its generations are like a single living organism whose long lifespan…is an unending thread woven into the unrolling tapestry of human history.”

This is a novel to be savoured – for its fine writing, its beautiful prose and for a long, languorous telling of the history of ordinary men and women, of their families, of their errors, and very often their regrets.

I was sent a copy of the book by the publishers Juggernaut, but absolutely no pressure was put on me for a review, favourable or otherwise.  Thank you.

Do read this novel.  It is a great read.

Here’s the link to buy it online:

A VENETIAN RECKONING by DONNA LEON

I had owned up here, publicly, in a review a couple of weeks ago about having only recently discovered the wonderful Commissario Brunetti series, written by the talented Donna Leon.  Having got addicted, I am now binge-reading this series of gripping detective novels, set in Venice.  Catching up on the lost years, as it were.

In “A Venetian Reckoning” Donna Leon once again enchants us with her palpable love for Venice, a city which is as much a character, a presence in these books, and every bit as essential as the humans.

We re-meet, with great pleasure, Brunett’s intellectual wife, Paola, his affectionate daughter Chitra, fast morphing in front of our eyes into an adolescent.  We reconnect with his police colleagues – dependable, faithful Vianello, Brunetti’s impossibly conceited boss Vice-Questore Patta, as well as the latter’s delightful secretary, the organised, resourceful and beautiful Signorina Elettra, who likes to fill her office with fresh flowers and who manages to dazzle Brunetti by her computer knowledge and her vast network of contacts.

Against the backdrop of Venice, in all its beauty, Ms Leon shows us yet more of the sordid underbelly of La Serenissima.  In this case, it is human trafficking and prostitution, and as Brunetti tries to solve a series of murders of some of the city’s respectable and respected citizens, he is led ever deeper into a world of exploitation and despair.

But even when he is investigating death, Venice never ceases to take Brunetti’s breath away:

”Few people were out, and those who were all seemed lifted to joy by the unexpected sun and warmth.  Who would believe that, only yesterday, the city had been wrapped in fog and the vapourers forced to use their radar for the short ride  out to the Lido?  Yet here he was, wishing for sunglasses and a lighter suit, and when he walked out to the waterside, he was momentarily blinded by the reflected light that came flashing up from the water.  Opposite him, Brunetti could see the dome and tower of SAN Giorgio – yesterday they hadn’t been there- looking as though they had somehow crept into the city.”

The Venice we see through Brunetti’s eyes is essentially the Venice of Venetians, not that of the tourist hoards.  But occasionally, tourists do cross Brunetti’s path and on the day in question, lulled by the wonderful spring weather, he feels no rancour towards the visitors who otherwise seem to irritate most native-born Venetians:

”He turned right and walked up towards the Piazza, and Brunetti found himself, to his own vast surprise, looking kindly upon the tourists who strolled past him, mouths agape and steps slowed down by wonder.  She could still knock them down, this old whore of a city, and Brunetti, her true son, protective of her in her age, felt a surge of mingled pride and delight and hoped that those people who walked by would see him and somehow know him for a Venetian and, in that, part heir to and part owner of all of this.

The pigeons, usually stupid and hateful, appeared almost charming to him as they bobbed up and down at the feet of their many admirers.  Suddenly, for no reason, hundreds of them flocked up, swirled around, and settled back right where they had been, to continue with their bobbing and pecking.”

Venice, on a warm spring morning, in all her glory, and we the reader come to love the city as much as Brunetti.

One of the wonderful things about these Brunetti novels is his family life, which is (most of the time) a welcome haven for him, to de-stress from the horrors he sees during his working day.  Sometimes, of course, family life for the good Commissario involves the same kind of negotiation and manoeuvring that dealing with his unreasonable boss does.

In this bartering session with his young teenaged daughter Chiara, Brunetti wants her to go down and buy some wine for lunch:

“But why should I go?

Because I work hard to support you all.

Mamma works, too.

Yes, but my money pays for the house and everything we buy for it.

She set her book face down on the bed. “Mamma says thats capitalistic blackmail and I don’t have to listen to you when you do it.”

“Chiara,” he said, speaking very softly, “your mother is a troublemaker, a malcontent, and an agitator.

Then how come you always tell me I have to do as she says?”

Family banter like this with his adored daughter takes on a deeper significance for Brunetti, when he later asks Chiara to help him ferret out some information for him, via one of her school friends, a decision he will bitterly regret.  In the sordid world he is investigating, where young women are being forced into prostitution, the innocence of his own child is shattered by things she learns of the world around her.

As Brunetti investigates the murders, he confronts moral and philosophical issues, such as the logic of jailing someone for theft in a country where the political class is largely assumed to be corrupt and looting the public coffers for themselves.

“Brunetti knew this mood and almost feared it, this recurring certainty of the futility of everything he did.  Why bother to put the boy who broke into a house in gaol when the man who stole billions from the health system was named ambassador to the country to which he had been sending the money for years?”

It is this grappling with the larger issues of life, being able to rise above the horrors of his job and squabble good-naturedly with his children, and his total compassion for the marginalised people he encounters in the course of his investigations, that make Guido Brunetti such a likeable detective, and a fitting hero for these wonderful books.

Oh yes.

Of course.

How could I forget?

Food.

There is always wonderful Italian food in Donna Leon’s books:

“He brought his attention back to the table, and their plates of fettuccine, glistening with the sheen of butter.  The owner came back, carrying a small truffle on a white plate in one hand, a metal grater in the other.  He bent over della Corte’s plate and shaved at the truffle, rose, and bent over Brunetti’s plate and did the same. The woody, musty odour wafted up from the still-steaming fettuccine, enveloping not only the three men, but the entire are around them.”

“A Venetian Reckoning” is every bit as enthralling as the earlier books in the series, with its skilful blending of crime, family, food and the dramatic beauty of La Serenissima.

If you  would like to read this book, it couldn’t be easier.

Here’s the link.   You all know what to do.

THE ANONYMOUS VENETIAN by Donna Leon

At times, it’s almost embarrassing how late I come to some parties.

Like the Donna Leon party.

How on earth did I miss Ms Leon’s utterly wonderful detective novels, set in Venice?  Where was I all the years that everyone else was reading and raving about Donna Leon’s wonderful writing, brilliant scene-setting and palpable love for Venice?

Luckily I have a ferociously well-read sister, who mentioned these books to me when we were all in Venice last year for her daughter’s wedding, and now I am binge-reading them.

Which is kind of wonderful as well, rather than reading and then having to wait a year…

“The Anonymous Venetian”, the 3rd in the Commissario Brunetti series brings us back into the world of this family-minded, decent Venetian detective.

We walk the streets with him, we travel along the canals by boat with him, we suffer through the stiflingly hot summer with him, somewhat relieved by chilled white wine and fresh figs.

Ms Leon loves Venice, and knows it in intimate detail, and her writing brings this stunning city to life.  The food, the markets, the regular, non touristy neighbourhoods, the under-belly –  for, sadly, every beautiful place has its less desirable side.

In this book, the under-belly involves murder and money, a fairly classic combination.

Ms Leon tells a gripping detective tale, woven through with the sights and smells and sounds of the city of Venice that is inhabited and frequented by Venetians, and not by the tourist throngs.

We can almost taste the food that Brunetti’s lovely, intelligent and long-suffering wife Paola prepares while quizzing him on the latest developments in the murder case he is investigating:

“She took some basil leaves, ran them under cold water for a moment, and chopped them into tiny pieces.  She sprinkled them on top of the tomato and mozzarella, added salt, and then poured olive oil generously over the top of everything.”

All this whilst discussing murder.

One of the many reasons that Commissario Brunetti is such a likeable man, is his compassionate nature.  Crime and exposure to violent death have not hardened him.

Here he goes to interview a suspect, and encounters the man’s bigoted “portiere” who is vulgarly voluble about his dislike of gays.

“Brunetti sighed tiredly.  Why couldn’t people learn to be more discriminating in whom they chose to hate, a bit more selective? Perhaps even a bit more intelligent?  Why not hate the Christian Democrats?  Or the Socialists? Or why not hate people who hated homosexuals?”

Amidst the murder, and attempted murder, amidst the oppressive summer heat and the depressing industrial areas of Venice that the Commissario must tramp in search of clues, there are however, moments of humour.  Brunetti calls a journalist and asks him about the self-styled title he has given himself on his answering machine.  The journalist agrees he should perhaps update his answering machine:

“It takes me forever to change the message.  So many buttons to push.  The first time I did it, I recorded myself swearing at the machine.  No one left a message for a week, until I thought the thing wasn’t working and called myself from a phone booth.   Shocking, the language the machine used.   I dashed home and changed the message immediately.  But it’s still very confusing.”

And it’s moments like that, by the way, that ever so slightly, but only ever so slightly, date the books.  But they do not impact the pleasure or the storyline whatsoever, those non existent mobile phones…not one little bit.

Another light-hearted moment (and one which struck a chord) is on the subject of the ugliest Baby Jesus search Brunetti and his wife have going:

“Then, a little to the left of the fireplace, a Madonna, clearly Florentine and probably fifteenth-century, looking adoringly down at yet another ugly baby. One of the secrets Paola and Brunetti never revealed to anyone was their decades-long search for the ugliest Christ Child in western art.  At the moment, the title was held by a particularly bilious infant in Room 13 of the Pinacoteca di Siena.  Though the baby in front of Brunetti was no beauty, Siena’s title was not at risk.”

It is this combination of a gripping plot happy, set against the backdrop of a normal family life, food, and the sheer breath-taking beauty of Venice that never ceases to astound Brunetti and through him we, the reader, that makes “The Anonymous Venetian” such a great read.

Hugely enjoyable, and I can already tell that this series is going to be completely addictive.

If you would like to buy “The Anonymous Venetian”, it couldn’t be easier.

Here you go.

A NECESSARY EVIL by Abir Mukherjee

Reading Abir Mukherjee’s “A Necessary Evil” was a fine balancing act between dying to know what happened next, and dreading the approaching end of the book.

This absolute cracker of a novel is a fine and worthy successor to Mr. Mukherjee’s first novel “A Rising Man“, and it is with great pleasure that the reader re-acquaints him/herself with Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta, his wonderful assistant Sergeant Surrender-not Banerjee, and the lovely Annie Grant, who has captured Sam’s heart, but doesn’t seem to return the compliment.

Mr. Mukherjee’s first novel took place almost entirely in Calcutta, and though the action in “A Necessary Evil” begins in the city, the heart of imperial India, in June 1920, it quickly moves to the princely state of Sambalpore in the state of Orissa. The crown prince of the state is murdered in Calcutta, in the presence of Sam and Surrender-not, and so the duo heads to his state to try and find out who murdered the flamboyant but popular young prince.  And why.

Calcutta is but a fleeting presence in this novel, though a powerful one.

Sam, a troubled man after his experiences during the First World War, sometimes heads out at night for the opium dens of Calcutta:

“At night, though, Tangra transformed itself into a hive of shebeens, street kitchens, gambling house and opium dens.  In short, it housed all the things that made living in a sweltering, crumbling metropolis of several million people worthwhile.”

Since the murder victim is from one of the semi-independent princely states that were outside British colonial jurisdiction, there is a noted reluctance on the part of the British powers-that-be to follow up on the murder, for reasons of political expediency.

Sam is a caring man, but cynical about the trappings of Empire:

“That was the things about viceroys, they might assume the mantle of demigods, but in truth, since the time of Lord Curzon, the only thing that’s really mattered to any of them is to keep the plates spinning until they can move on.  No one wants to be remembered as the man in charge when the music stooped- the man who lost India. But that wasn’t my concern.  Everyone has their own priorities.  The Viceroy’s was the avoidance of anything that might rock the ship of state; mine was getting to the truth, and I wasn’t about to give up on this case now, just because the Viceroy might deem the results unpalatable.”

Through a clever slight of political hand Sam and Surrender-not go to Sambalpore for the prince’s funeral, Sam in a private capacity and Surrender-not as the official representative of the Imperial Police.

The wonderful Surrender-not is an intelligent, perceptive young man who went to Harrow with the prince, speaks flawless and eloquent English, but is hopelessly tongue-tied in the presence of women.

“Of course Surrender-not wasn’t his real name…His parents had named him Surendranath: it meant king of the gods: and while I could make a fair stab at the correct Bengali pronunciation, I never could get it quite right.  He’d told me it wasn’t my fault.  He’d said the English language just didn’t possess the right consonants – it lacked a soft “d,” apparently.  According to him, the English language lacked a great many things.”

Mr. Mukherjee’s descriptions of the glittering, bejewelled pomp and circumstance of princely India are glorious, with cremations and coronations and palace intrigue and zenana politics all on dazzling display.  Despite all the trappings of princely India, from the eunuchs to elephants, from jewels to private trains, Mr. Mukherjee never falls into cliché-dom.  There is enough intrigue and danger and dislike swirling around the palaces and forts to keep Sam & Surrender-not busy, and the reader enthralled.

It would really not be nice of me to reveal much more about the plot of this thoroughly enjoyable murder mystery, so suffice it to say that the 2 policemen have to unravel a clever, complicated skein of intrigue.

There are twists and turns, there is elegance, there are moments of pure horror, there is thwarted love – all the components of a great, historical read.

Thoroughly recommended.

For the record, I bought the book myself, and was not asked to write this review.

Published in 2017 by Harvill Secker, you can order the book now, by clicking on the link below:

A RISING MAN by Abir Mukherjee

What a fabulous book “A Rising Man” is.

And what a prodigiously talented writer Mr. Mukherjee is. 

A murder mystery set in Calcutta in 1919, this is an absorbing page-turner from the very word go.

From the first moment you meet the narrator, Captain Sam Wyndham and his endearing deputy, Sergeant “Surrender Not” Banerjee, you know –  you just know – that this is a duo that was meant to be.  And that they will have many more adventures together.

Sam Wyndham arrives in Calcutta, emotionally drained after the horrors of World War 1.  He has seen such dreadful sights and experienced such loss, that his view of Calcutta, and India, and his fellow Brits is understandably jaundiced.  Sam is not a believer in the supremacy of the British in India, and he is a rare, compassionate man in a system that discourages such emotions, especially towards Indians.  

“There’s a special arrogance to be found in the Calcutta Englishman, something you don’t find in many other outposts of empire.  It may be born of familiarity.  After all, the English have been top dog in Bengal for a hundred and fifty years, and seemed to consider the natives, especially the Bengalis, as rather contemptible.

Sam doesn’t like Calcutta that much, nor does he buy into the whole colonial grandiloquence that has fashioned this city on the humid banks of a river.

“I set foot on the soil of India on the first of April, 1919.  All Fool’s Day. It seemed appropriate…

Pitching up in Calcutta for the first time without the assistance of drugs is not a pleasant experience.  Of course there’s the heat, the broiling, suffocating, relentless heat.  But that’s not the problem.  It’s the humidity that drives men mad…

Calcutta – we called it the City of Palaces.  Our Star in the East.  We’d built this city, erected mansions and monuments where previously had stood only jungle and thatch.  We’d paid our price in blood and now, we proclaimed, Calcutta was a British city.  Five minutes here would tell you it was no such thing.  But that didn’t mean it was Indian.

The truth was, Calcutta was unique.”

Calcutta is an integral part of this novel, both its geography as well as its social mores.

Take Dalhousie square, for example.  On his first visit to the iconic Writer’s Building, Sam passes Dalhousie Square with its fenced-off pool:

“Dalhousie was too big to be elegant.  At its centre sat a large, rectangular pool the colour of banana leaves.  Digby had mentioned that in the old days, the natives would use it for washing, swimming and religious purposes.  All that stopped after the mutiny of ’57.  Such things were no longer to be tolerated.  Now the pool stood empty, its bottle-green waters shimmering in the afternoon sun.  The natives – the ones we approved of, at any rate – now suited and booted in frock coats and buttoned-down collars, hurried around it…signs in English and Bengali warning of stiff penalties should they be tempted to revert to their base natures and go for a dip.”

No sooner has Sam arrived, than he is tasked with solving the murder of a British official.  The authorities want the murderer to be found as quickly as possible, mainly to show that the British cannot be trifled with, but Sam’s training as a Scotland Yard detective is somewhat at odds with the British agenda.

In “Surrender Not” Sam finds an intelligent, eloquent, impeccably spoken, well-educated assistant, and their relationship of trust and mutual respect is definitely at odds with the prevailing climate in Calcutta.

Surrender Not is an intriguing character, a perfect foil for Sam, who has to pick his way through the class and colour-ridden minefield that is colonial India.

There are moments when you, the reader, are embarrassed by the sheer crassness of the colonial Brit:

“Digby laughed. “you see what srt of people we’re dealing with here, Wyndham!  That’s the vanity of the Bengali for you.  Even the bloody coolies lie about their age!”

Banerjee squirmed.  “If I may, sir, I doubt vanity has much to do with it.  The fact is, the railways impose a policy of retirement at the age of fifty-eight.  Unfortunately, the pension provided to native Indians is generally too meagre for a family to live on.  By lowering their ages on the forms I beleive the men hope to work for a few years more and thus provide for their families just that little bit longer.”

Sam also has to pick his way through the tortuous relationship both the British and the Indians have with Anglo-Indians such as Annie Grant, a young lady who handles the sneering insults at her mixed race with great dignity.  She, of all people, has no illusions about the nature of colonial rule in India:

“I’m sorry”, she said…It’s just that I’ve seen it happen.  Nice middle-class chaps from the Shires, they come out here and the power and the privilege go to their heads.  All of a sudden they’re being waited on hand and foot and being dressed by a manservant.  They start to feel entitled.”

Along with the mystery of who has committed the two murders he is investigating, Sam gets a crash course in the current political climate in India, mainly through the interesting character of Benoy Sen, a patriot, an intellectual and exactly the kind of Indian to infuriate the colonial overlords, and – not surprisingly – interest Sam, even though he does get exasperated by him:

“This isn’t a political discussion,” I said. “Just answer the question.”

Sen laughed, thumping his hands down on the table.  “But it is, Captain!  How could it not be? You are a police officer,  I am an Indian.  You are a defender of a system that keeps my people in subjugation.  I am a man who seeks freedom.  The only type of discussion we could have is a political one.”

God, I hated politicals.  Give me a psychopath or a mass murderer any day.  Compared to a political, interrogating them was refreshingly straightforward.  They were generally all too eager to confess their crimes.”

“A Rising man” is a wonderful read.  A murder mystery, wrapped up in India a century ago, and introducing a detective duo that one hopes will return quickly to solve another crime.

Unstintingly recommended.  (And, by the way, neither Mr. Mukherjee nor his publisher, Vintage, know that I blog)