DEATH IN THE EAST by ABIR MUKHERJEE

What a delight it is to meet up again with Captain Sam Wyndham of the Calcutta CID and his Sergeant and friend, Surrender-Not Banerjee.

There are 2 story lines in “Death in the East”, going back and forth between London in 1905 and Assam in 1922.

1905 forms the back-story for the future, as the events of those rain-soaked, violent days mark Sam for ever, and are a precursor of what is to come in 1922.

The Sam we meet in 1922 is far away from his home in colonial Calcutta. He is at a strict Hindu ashram in Assam, trying to kick his opium addiction; the description of the treatment involved is an eye-opener into a world of addiction and de-addiction, and also how, despite being fellow addicts, Europeans and Indians are housed separately and treated differently.

As Sam prepares to start his de-addiction treatment:

“I was, of course, free to walk away – the exercises weren’t compulsory – and yet, because there were natives present, I felt I had no choice but to take part. it was a curious thing. I was an opium fiend, the lowest of the low, and hardly a poster boy for the campaign to defend the prestige of the white man, and yet such was the nature of empire that, even now, part of me believed that I had to maintain a certain standard. as though it was vital to show that an English opium fiend was superior to a native opium fiend. And the worst of it was, I did this not so much for my own sake, but because I felt the natives expected it of me.”

The descriptions of the de-addiction treatment are graphic, to put it mildly, and alongside them you have lyrical depictions of rural India that (sitting writing this in rural India), ring oh-so-true

“It was late afternoon. In India, the time of daily rebirth after the stupefying heat of midday. The time when men and women re-emerged from huts, dogs came out from the shadows, and birds took wing.”

At the end of his treatment, Sam is released from the ashram into the care of a young British man living in a small neighbouring town called Jatinga, and it is there that 1905 and 1922 begin to coalesce.

One of the things I found interesting in this book is the occasional glimpse we are given into the minds of “decent” British people, at a time when one presumes there was little sympathy for the poor, the working classes or immigrants (in 1905), and most definitely not for Indians (in 1922). We already know Sam to be a man of compassion and integrity, and his friendship with Surrender-Not marks him out as very different from his colonial colleagues.

Cut from a similar cloth is Inspector Gooch, Sam’s senior officer on the 1905 investigation into the death of Bessie Drummond in London’s East End. A Jewish immigrant has been arrested for the murder, but Inspector Gooch is shocked at the prevailing, rampant anti-Semitism:

The truth is, the crime and the filth in this place have nothing to do with the Jews. In fact it was worse before they arrived. But people don’t want to hear that. It’s easier to blame someone else for your problems than to look in the mirror and notice the plank of wood in your eye. And rags like the Gazette are more than happy to provide the targets. Divide and conquer – that’s their motto. And you know what? It works. It sells papers. The press, banging on about what these foreigners are doing to the country. Well, it’s my country, too, and my country is better than this. Whatever happened to fair play, giving a man a chance, and not kicking him when he’s down? Aren’t those supposed to be the things that make us British? Shouldn’t we be proud to uphold them rather than vilifying the poor bastards seeking sanctuary among us?”

This sounds distinctly and depressingly contemporary. This book was written in 2019, and as 2020 has shown us, the levels to which people will sink in blaming others and turning people against each other has reached terrible levels.

Mr. Mukherjee makes Inspector Gooch sound (sadly) bang up-to-date.

As Sam and a newly confident Surrender-Not investigate a death in Jatinga, the racist language and attitudes are shocking – as were the ugly epithets used against the Jews during Sam’s 1905 investigation. But the gentle, soft-spoken, Cambridge-educated Surrender-Not handles the arrogance and racism with aplomb, to Sam’s delight:

“In the four years I’d known him, Surrender-Not had matured. The boy who wouldn’t say boo to a goose if it was British, now spoke to Englishmen with the authority that befitted his status as a police officer. I suppose that at least some of that change had come through sharing lodgings with me, the mystique of the ruling class fading in light of the mundane…”

Although Surrender-Not only appears towards the end of the book, he is as integral a character as in the previous novels, serving as a foil to Sam’s thought processes. He is an all-round lovely young man, and I for one cringed with shame at the obnoxiousness of the British towards him.

I won’t spoil your enjoyment of this very enjoyable book by telling you the plot. But it is ingenious, let me tell you. Very ingenious.

“Death in the East” is a worthy addition to the Sam and Surrender-Not series, and as the latter evolves and becomes more assertive of his Indian-ness – despite his colonial job – I foresee fascinating adventures ahead. The closing sentence leads me to believe that.

There is an Author’s Note, at the end of the book which is telling, and explains the London chapters:

Death in the East” was not the novel I set out to write. True, I had wanted to write my take on the classic locked-room mystery, however, initially I has no intention of setting any of it outside of India.

In the end though, circumstances meant that I had little choice. Like many people, I’ve been saddened by the condition in which Britain, and much of the world, finds itself. From the United States to Europe and Asia, the rise of populism has seen the growth of anger, extremism, fear of the other, and the erosion of tolerance and decency.”

An excellent whodunnit. A fascinating look at the workings of colonial India. And a thought-provoking glimpse into racism over the decades.

Recommended.

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