Smoke and Ashes, by Abir Mukherjee
Book three of Abir Mukherjee’s vastly entertaining crime series featuring Captain Sam Wyndham of the British imperial Police Force in Calcutta, and his trusty sidekick Surendranath (called Surrender-not, because how’s any British chap supposed to pronounce that absurd name) commences in late 1921: mild-mannered but persistent little lawyer Mohandas Ghandi has founded his Congress Party and decreed that its legions of members should register their disapproval of British Rule by ‘Peaceful Protest’, a euphemism for followers to clog up transport networks , thus bringing Calcutta commerce to a grinding halt whenever they get the word.
The authorities, particularly the police, are feeling the strain: the jails are full and there have been unexpected resignations among their own ranks by those who feel the power and worth of Ghandi-ji’s logic: there is nothing more effective than peaceful, non-violent protest, and there are always the jackals of the Press hanging around to report on any savage lapses of professionalism by the authorities – and there are many, especially in the army which has been brought in to restore order where the police have failed, for the military is staffed with Sikhs and Ghurkas, ruthless and famed warriors with an utter contempt for the local Indians, for whom they feel no kinship.
It’s a sticky situation, old chap, compounded even more by the fact that Captain Sam is nearly caught by the Vice Squad on their raid of an Opium Den where he has been stupefying himself for most of the night. He is forced to make a hair-raising escape across the rooftops – and discovers a dying man, eyeless and stabbed on both sides of his chest. Sam is unsure whether he’s having an opium nightmare or if what he has found is real – until after his lucky escape to safety, where another body killed in the same fashion is discovered two days later.
And to prove that all the Gods of the Indian Pantheon are laughing mightily at British expense, the Powers-That-Be in Whitehall have decided to shore up the Raj with a visit from the future king-emperor, Prince Edward, Prince of Wales: a great show of British might and power will surely convince all those natives, low caste and high, where they really stand. Sam is a slave to his addiction, an ‘Opium Fiend’; Surrender-Not, scion of one of Calcutta’s proudest families, has been exiled because he is working for the Raj, but together they must try to avert the inevitable bloodshed caused by Peaceful Protest and Prince Edward’s Christmas Goodwill Visit, not to mention the ritual killings, all of which display great purpose and planning.
Yet again Abir Mukherjee displays his mastery of the era, melding the crime genre satisfactorily with the explosive events of British and Indian history of almost a century ago. His two unlikely protagonists are so convincing that, along with Surrender-not, I hope Sam cleans himself up for the next instalment! FOUR STARS