Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Published: 14th November 2019 (Harvill Secker)
Fourth in the Sam Wyndham series, Death in the East continues the trend of Smoke and Ashes in significantly upping its game. It offers a more challenging read, deepening the themes and character relationships, and marking a significant reshaping of both the form and the content of the books. And to top it off, it’s all done through two locked-room murder mysteries that have you guessing right till the end…
‘In the absence of gen (information) on any of them, I decided to fall back on the natural intuition of the Englishman in regard to foreigners. Or to put it another way, I’d rely on deep prejudices, honed over generations’.
Captain Sam Wyndham has been a love him AND hate him character right from the beginning. Uncomfortably reflecting the imperious superiority and institutional, intellectual, and cultural racism of the British in India, he’s a man whose words and actions frequently make you cringe. The only reason any kind of connection to his character is possible, and thus any potential for likability, is through the moments in which he reveals a more open side to his nature. Unlike so many of his peers, he does actually see the unfairness of the situation and often highlights the frankly ridiculous and unsupportable ‘supremacy’ of the British and other Europeans/Americans in India with an internal dialogue characterised by a wry humour. But Abir Mukherjee never allows him to step into the role of ‘the good Englishman’, an example of perfect enlightenment who could act as a balm to the otherwise embarrassingly and horrifyingly realistic portrayal of British imperial rule. Each time Sam takes a step forward, we are reminded that prejudices run deep, and are not so easily sidelined. This is particularly evident in his relationship with his subordinate. Sam might take his advice, live with him, and even have his life saved by him, but when push comes to shove, everything reverts right back to standard operating procedure, putting that uppity man in his place. How dare he question me. Good lord. Whatever next.Sam doesn’t even use his sergeant’s real name, Surendranath Banerjee, instead falling back on the Englishified nickname ‘Surrender-not’, because why should he bother to learn how to say someone’s name when it’s pronunciation so hard…
There’s been little challenge to this status quo until now. But this story is about progress, and honestly, it’s about time. Some changes Sam finally takes upon himself, like dealing with his opium addiction, others are forced upon him, like the negotiation of his relationship with Sergeant Banerjee. Especially now that the ever more fierce struggle for Indian independence is making real waves and undermining the locals’ traditionally deferential attitude towards the British invaders. Certainly, Banerjee’s enthusiasm for taking Sam’s shit is well past over. I can’t wait to see where it takes them both in the future, with the potential of a real friendship becoming a possibility now that some truths have been said aloud. Their relationship is a microcosm of the larger tensions in British/Indian society and Mukherjee doesn’t hold back in dealing with issues like racism, injustice, corruption, and the power of greed. It gives his books that extra something, enough of a kick to make you think seriously about the past and how these issues still resonate today.
The plot perhaps edges into the somewhat unrealistic but it’s more than entertaining enough to let those unlikely coincidences slide. The mirroring is cleverly done: a woman’s death in a locked room in the East End of London in 1905 is reflected in that of a man in the Far East in 1922, the second ‘murder’ suspiciously linked to the original crime. And Sam Wyndham is deeply involved in both. The flashbacks to his life in London and the interweaving of the two stories, with evidence important to both crimes gradually revealed, was an interesting narrative choice and an effective means of illuminating Sam’s past while keeping it relevant to the current timeline.
It all adds up to Death in the East being a great read, written with an increasing confidence and the kind of flair that makes you excited for what comes next.
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