Calcutta, 1919 – In the sweltering Indian heat, a British civil servant is found brutally murdered with a note shoved in his mouth. The note is a warning to the British – quit India or else. Thus begins A Rising Man, a historical murder mystery and the first in the Sam Wyndham series by Abir Mukherjee.
Captain Sam Wyndham – a veteran of both Scotland Yard and the World War – has recently arrived in Calcutta and joined the Colonial Police. Jaded and cynical as the result of the war and a recently deceased wife, Wyndham has been assigned to discover who killed the civil servant – Alexander MacAuley. Diligent and responsible, MacAuley was a good chap who was bound to be promoted up the ladder, the titular rising man in the Indian civil service. So who would want him dead?
Assisting Wyndham is the even more jaded and cynical British cop Digby, and an Indian police officer named Sergeant Banerjee – nicknamed “Surrender Not” since Wyndham can’t pronounce his name. Both make for good companions – Banerjee, wide-eyed and eager to learn, and Digby, full of cynical wisecracks that begin you wonder if he believes in anything anymore. Or perhaps the better question is, what made Digby so jaded?
Since Wyndham is new to India, we learn the eccentricities and day-to-day routines of the empire along with him. British India is a cauldron ready to blow, but the Little Englanders who run it view such warnings with a strange mix of apathy and dread. So do many Indians. There are many pro-independence nationalists, but even more who accept the inevitability of overlords, by they Maharajas or the British Raj.
His investigation leads Captain Wyndham to the highs and lows of Calcutta. He mixes with British colonial officials, all of whom accept British superiority over the natives as fact, although the extent of their prejudice varies from person to person. Wyndham also finds himself in the seedier parts of Calcutta, specifically opium dens as the Captain has become a drug addict, a flaw he manages to hide from his colleagues.
Eventually, it is learned that MacAuley was something of a political fixer for the Lieutenant-Governor of India, and – suspiciously – he was murdered close to a brothel. Complicating matters, news comes of a train attack by Indian dacoits. It appears to be a robbery gone wrong, but with an Indian nationalist – Benoy Sen – back in Calcutta, the Police begin to suspect that perhaps the attack was meant to gather money to fund a rebellion across India.
The train attack gets the attention of Colonel Dawson of Section H, a sort of British Army Intelligence Service in India. Rigid, arrogant, and mysterious, Dawson is a mix between a stern military officer, an upper-class toff, and an intelligence spook. The Colonel clearly has his own agenda other than catching train bandits, namely the suppression of the Indian nationalist movement. However, will he become friend or foe to Wyndham?
Following the clues and informants, Captain Wyndham, Digby, and Sergeant Banerjee manage to track down Benoy Sen to a safe house, but Colonel Dawson arrives first. Gunfire erupts from the hideout, pinning them all down. Flaunting danger like all thriller protagonists, Wyndham infiltrates the safe house, guarded by Indian nationalists, to take down Benoy Sen himself.
But what is Benoy Sen’s end goal? And who killed MacAuley? There are several mysteries running through this mystery novel, all of which are wrapped up in a satisfying conclusion. The characters are all likable and serve their purpose, and the Wyndham and Banerjee relationship is in its beginnings and should probably be more fleshed out in subsequent books. Digby is a wry cynic, disdainful of Indians, along with the whole British colonial bureaucracy itself. Added to the mix is Annie Grant, and Anglo-Indian and secretary to MacAuley. She provides clues of what her boss was up to, and who his enemies were within the civil service itself, along with catching the eye of Captain Wyndham.
The heat itself is a character – omnipresent and unbearable. After a few chapters, you’ll feel as if your shirt has been pasted to your skin with sweat. I personally hate the heat, so the thought of walking around in uniforms in sweltering weather is both disgusting, but atmospheric. There is a sense of doomed inevitability about the British Raj itself. Characters frequently talk about the possibility of Indian independence, but it is also seen as a fantasy, something only in theory. In fact, the main reason why Sergeant Banerjee joins the Police is out of a belief that Indians should be trained in the civil service to take over after the British leave.
I am a particular fan of political intrigue in a historical setting, so A Rising Man was a welcome treat, especially since I didn’t know much at all about India during the Interwar Era. If you like your mysteries hot and muggy, mixing with wealthy and seedy alike, with a dose of conspiracy, all set against historical events, then A Rising Man is bound to please.
Abir Mukherjee Interview
1) What inspired you to write A Rising Man?
I’d always been interested in the topic of British rule in India. It’s a period in history which has contributed so much to modern India and Britain, and it was a time that saw the best and the worst of both peoples. But in Britain, it’s a period that’s generally brushed under the carpet, and if it’s discussed at all, is either painted as terribly black or romanticized. I wanted to examine that period from the perspective of a man who is an outsider to it all, who’s wrestling with his own demons and who sees it all with fresh eyes.
In terms of setting, there was only ever one choice – it had to be Calcutta. It’s where my parents came from, but more importantly, it was a city founded by the British and that makes it both familiar and exotic. In my opinion it’s the most fascinating city in India.
2) Was there anything from earlier drafts that were cut from the final manuscript?
I always say that I learned to be a writer between the first and second drafts of A Rising Man. I’d never written a book before or attended any creative writing classes, so the learning curve was pretty steep. My editor was the one to teach me: providing tips on how to say more with less and what’s required to make a mystery novel really pop.
I tightened up the language, dropping one chapter which didn’t really move the plot along, but there was very little else cut between the first draft and the final version. In fact, the final book was about 15,000 words longer because I added a whole new sub-plot about a robbery on a train where nothing is stolen. Fortunately, I was able to weave it into the overall story without too many complications.
3) I read somewhere that you were fascinated by stories that portray otherwise good people who serve authoritarian regimes (e.g. Bernie Gunther). Anyone who writes historical fiction is wary of injecting modern sensibilities into their characters. Was there anything about Wyndham’s personality that you added to make him more authentic to a British man of 1919? Likewise, was there anything you left out to make him (and the other characters for that matter) more palatable for modern readers?
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a good man upholding an evil system. I always wonder what I would have done in s similar position, and I think it’s very difficult to write lead characters that don’t in some way reflect our own personal views. That said, it is always a balance. As you say, we can’t make the character too ‘modern’, otherwise she or he becomes unbelievable. At the same time, there’s a risk that if they embody all of the foibles of the period, they just won’t be likable to modern readers. For example, I could have made Sam Wyndham much more racist and homophobic, reflecting the general prejudices of white British people of his time, but that wouldn’t make for a very appealing character. At the same time, not all British people in the Raj, were that racist or homophobic – take George Orwell for instance – so I think it’s fair to strike a balance.
In the end, my objective is for Sam to hold up a mirror to the society he’s living in and commenting on. In some ways, he’s rather out of time – caught somewhere between the period he’s living in and our own.
4) How much of A Rising Man is rooted in historical fact?
Most of the background is rooted in historical fact. The British did introduce a draconian set of laws in 1919 called the Rowlatt Acts which meant Indians could be imprisoned without trial and forbade political gatherings, mere months after the end of WW1, where hundreds of thousands of Indians had fought on the side of the British and in the name of liberty. The massacre in Amritsar, which is mentioned in the book, actually took place. In fact, it occurred exactly a hundred years ago this April and was commemorated in India and in Britain. Armed resistance groups such as the one mentioned in the book did exist, and they had ties to the Irish republicans, and the British really did have signs outside certain buildings that read ‘No dogs and no Indians.’
5) Throughout the novel, a friendship grows between Wyndham and Banerjee. How common would this have been in 1919 India?
From my research it seems to have been far more common than we’ve been led to believe. The relationship between individual Britons and Indians changed dramatically over the two hundred and fifty years during which the British had a presence in India. At first, it was very much a relationship of equals, with British men learning Indian languages and customs and taking Indian wives. Later, as the power dynamic shifted, the relations between the races also changed, however, even at the height of empire, there were some great friendships between individual Brits and Indians – such as that between Rabindranath Tagore (India’s greatest poet and the first non-white to win the Nobel Prize for Literature) and the Scottish architect, Patrick Geddes. Indeed, if you think about it, unless you see the British as totally amoral, there had to be such friendships. When they arrived in India and met real Indians, they realised they weren’t that different from themselves. Friendships are just human nature.
6) You mention the uniforms of the Police Force and the British Indian Army a few times. I’ve always been interested in historical uniforms and was wondering what kind of research you did for this? Likewise, what research did you do for the historical events and the political climate? Were you already familiar with India in the Interwar Era?
Ha! That’s a very interesting question! The fact is I wasn’t particularly familiar with the uniforms of the period, and, having watched too many Bollywood movies, assumed that the colour of the police uniforms would be khaki. So I wrote the first and second drafts of the novel with Sam and Surrender-not in khaki uniforms. But then I went on a research trip to Calcutta and realised that the police uniforms in the city are white. They were white during the time of the British and they’re white today! I had to go back, change the uniforms and and rewrite several plot points because of that!
It’s always the things you take for granted that you tend to get wrong. Other than the uniforms, I also assumed that the colour of the earth in Calcutta would be red, as it is in most of North India. But when I arrived there, I found I was wrong. Calcutta sits in the Ganges delta and the earth is black, not red. That’s the sort of thing you generally spot only by being there on the ground.
7) Was A Rising Man a tough sell to publishers or did they jump at the chance?
I was extremely lucky. I’d written about ten thousand words of the book and then life got in the way. I put it in a drawer and would have forgotten about it, had I not seen an article in a UK newspaper on a competition being run by Harvill Secker (part of Penguin Random House) looking for new crime authors. They just wanted the first five thousand words, and a two-page synopsis, so I tidied up what I had and entered the competition. Three months later, I got an email telling me I’d won and that they were going to publish my novel (though at that point I didn’t actually have a novel. I just had ten thousand rubbish words in a drawer). The next two years were hard work getting the book finished, but it was a dream come true.
8) I found the inclusion of Colonel Dawson and Section H interesting. Will they be back for future novels?
Absolutely! They’re a big part of the third book in the series, Smoke and Ashes, which came out in the US in March.
9) Is there any reason you chose first person POV for Wyndham only and not Banerjee?
That’s a good question. The truth is, despite being of Indian heritage, I didn’t feel I could write authentically from the Indian’s perspective, whereas being British, I thought it was easier to write convincingly from Wyndham’s point of view.
10) What projects are you working on currently?
I’m working on a number of things. I’ve just handed in the third draft of the fourth book in the Wyndham and Banerjee series, entitled Death in the East. Half of this is set in 1922, and the other half in 1905, where we see a young Wyndham on his first case. It’s my version of an Agatha Christie style locked room mystery, but it’s also quite topical, dealing with issues of immigration and acceptance.
I’m also writing a short story for the Historic Royal Palaces of London – in which the hero is the manservant to the Groom of the Stool (i.e. the servant to the man whose job it was to wipe the royal backside – that was real position – and the man who held it was immensely powerful!)
I’m also writing a short story for an anthology of Scottish and Indian crime – I’ve got some ideas for that, but I need to start writing it.
And finally, I’m planning a book (non-crime fiction) based upon the immigrant experience of my parents. It’ll be quite different to anything else I’ve written. I’m hoping to make it quite funny and have my fingers crossed that a publisher will be interested.
In the meantime, check out Abir’s site at https://abirmukherjee.com/.