A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee was this month’s book club read. It was a book I discovered by chance in some ways, being totally out-with my usual periods for historical fiction, and I am so glad I did. At the Granite Noir festival in Aberdeen a couple of months ago, the opening even featured the author being interviewed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. As my friend is a huge fan of Sturgeon, she was keen to go, and I am always keen to hear about a good historical crime novel.
Mr Mukherjee talked about his identity as a Bengali Scot, growing up in the West of Scotland as the child of first generation immigrants, and how he wanted to write something that effectively reflected a bit of both cultures. It was a really interesting talk and as his books ticked all my reading boxes: namely ‘murder mystery’ and ‘historical fiction’, both my friend and I picked up copies of his award-winning first novel afterwards and were lucky enough to get them signed. She then selected it as April’s book club read.
I absolutely whizzed through this; it’s the most I’ve enjoyed a book club book in ages. I’m not going to talk too much about the plot as the ending pulls the rug right out from under you and I don’t want to spoil that!
The novel is set in India in 1919 and stars Captain Sam Wyndham who is a former Scotland Yard officer, traumatised veteran of World War One and recent widower. Shaken and lost after the loss of his wife, he accepts a post in the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta under the Raj and arrives just in time to be put on the case of the brutal murder of a high-rising Scottish government official. Initially, it looks like an action by the Quit India movement, but Wyndham is not so sure…
I’m ashamed to say that I know very little about Indian history besides the period when Arthur Wellesley was there, so this was an educational read as well as an entertaining one. The streets of Calcutta are so well described, I felt as though I could almost feel the humidity. The novel also provides a frank look at impact of Colonialism in India and the violence that went with; touching on the treatment of Indian freedom fighters and the fallout of the massacre at Amritsar.
I thought Sam Wyndham was an incredibly well-constructed protagonist; balanced exactly right. Although he himself is still capable of bigoted thinking now and again – in one scene he sternly tells himself that he can’t show weakness in front of his Indian sergeant – and drops racial slurs on a couple of occasions, he is more forward thinking and enlightened than many of his colleagues; highly valuing Surrender-not and reacting angrily when the sergeant is treated as abjectly lesser by other Britishers. This means the character never feels ‘too good to be true’; he’s of his time and has some of the attitudes of the time but it would be impossible to like him if he was an outright racist a la Sub-Inspector Digby. He has a strong sense of honesty and decency which gets the reader firmly behind him.
Like all the very best detectives, he also has a weakness. Holmes has a cocaine addiction, Poirot is obsessive compulsive…and Sam Wyndham is a morphine addict as a result of treatment for his wounds in the war. Again, this really fleshes out of the character and makes him a really human protagonist.
My favourite thing about the book though? Sergeant Surrender-Not Bannerjee! I absolutely loved the character. I loved his earnestness, his occasional flashes of dry sarcasm and his sharp intelligence. What I especially liked was that he wasn’t a sidekick. So often with detective fiction, the main character’s partner is there largely to exclaim ‘oh Holmes/Poirot etc, how clever you are!’ and to bridge the gap between the them and the reader. Surrender-not, though, is Sam’s intellectual equal and in several cases it’s his insight that provides the necessary steps forward in the case.
A Rising Man is a plotty, well-paced read full of twists and turns. I normally fancy myself as pretty good at figuring out the murderer before they are revealed but with this story I was off down completely the wrong path; I didn’t see the killer coming at all!
I enjoyed the Holmes and Watson-esque set up at the end and am thoroughly looking forward to reading the rest of the series now. I am so glad I went to that Granite Noir event!
My rating: 5/5