Whose side are you on?

A review of A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

By the time Sam Wyndham washes ashore in Calcutta, he’s a damaged man. Reeling from the loss of his wife to influenza, nursing a opioid addiction and faith in the British Empire severely bruised by what he witnessed in the French trenches, he comes to Calcutta in 1919 in an attempt to start afresh—or maybe escape into oblivion, he hasn’t decided which. In A Rising Man, Abir Mukherjee’s first in a series centered on Wyndham, if the former soldier was wishing to get out of the frying pan, he soon realizes he’s in the fire—Calcutta is a hotbed of Anglo-Indian tensions.

When a high government official is found murdered in the Indian portion of town with a threatening Bengali note stuffed in his mouth, the problem lands in Wyndham’s lap. But just as he’s starting to track down clues and interview witnesses, a special section of the government under direct control of the lieutenant government, horns in and takes both body and crime scene under their control. Wyndham hasn’t been in Calcutta long, but he knows something isn’t right. With the help of his subordinates, Digby and Surendranath ‘Surrender-Not’ Banerjee, Wyndham begins to turn up clues, but they all seem to point in one direction—but a little too conveniently. To find the answer, Wyndham and his cohorts have to go from the splendid palaces of the British Raj to the shantytowns abuzz with revolt. What they uncover doesn’t just rock Wyndham’s perceptions on India, but could have repercussions throughout the empire.

First time author Mukherjee has chosen a great time and place for his series launch, as Calcutta and the rest of India were just seeing the rise of Gandhi and his civil disobedience campaigns. The police force is especially ripe for storytelling tension—with Indians beginning to fill the ranks but denied full priveledges of their positions, the force exists as a body divided against itself. This plays out best in the relationship between Wyndham and Banerjee—both have the benefit of good schooling and better intuition, as well as a common goal to see justice done. But they have to circle around their prevailing opinions about race and rank before they warily form a sort of trust. It’s probably the best part of the book, and Mukherjee leaves plenty of room for his characters to grow in later installments. The mystery itself is fairly solid, with a few red herrings and twists to add to the fun. I was a little disappointed that Mukherjee didn’t quite evoke the feel of Calcutta—I didn’t feel as immersed in the city as one could hope for in a story that hinged so much on setting, but perhaps Mukherjee felt building up his characters’ backstories was more pressing. Nonetheless, it’s a promising start to a new series, and I’m looking forward to checking out book two, due out next year.