Hamilton-raised accountant turned crime writer Abir Mukherjee explores the legacy of colonialism in his latest India-set novel, Death in the East, he tells Jackie McGlone
If Abir Mukherjee were to abandon his life of crime, he could surely have a successful career as a stand-up comic. There is no need, however, for this hugely entertaining 45-year-old to change professions. He’s done that already.
For 20 years, Mukherjee, toiled as an accountant. The London-born child of Bengali immigrants, who grew up and was educated in Scotland – “We were the only brown people just outside Hamilton, where we were the local colour for many years” – abandoned the spreadsheets and is now an award-laden, best-selling crime novelist.
“I did spectacularly dull stuff I couldn’t actually do,” he says when we meet over tea at a London hotel to talk about his latest novel, Death in the East, the fourth in his historical mystery series set in 1920s India and a tribute to his “groundbreaking” literary heroine, Agatha Christie. He admits: “I went into accountancy for all the wrong reasons. I saw films like The Secret of My Success, with Michael J Fox, and thought, what a glamorous life you could live on expenses. That film cost me 20 years of my life. At first it was great, flying everywhere. At one stage my wife Sonal and I actually lived in the company’s beach house in Mauritius. What people didn’t tell us was that there was no fresh milk there.”
Always, Mukherjee longed to write. He “devoured” the works of Martin Cruz Smith and Phillip Kerr, whose death earlier this year he still mourns. He was “39, hurtling towards 40,” when he saw Lee Child on breakfast TV revealing that he started to write only after losing his job at 40. “So I began writing,” says Mukherjee. He submitted 5,000 words of a mystery set during the Raj in India, plus a two-page novel synopsis, to a newspaper competition run by publisher Harvill Secker, looking for new crime writers. He won.
A Rising Man, set in 1919, in the same week as the Amritsar massacre, came out in 2016. It introduced Mukherjee’s Calcutta-based protagonists, Captain Sam Wyndham – like most fictional detectives, a deeply troubled soul and an opium fiend to boot – and his smart sidekick, Sergeant Surrender-Not Banerjee – shades of Mukherjee’s father Satyendra’s life in Scotland where “no one could pronounce his name so everyone called him Joe!” The book won rave reviews.
Today, Mukherjee can’t read it. “I cringe. I think, ‘My God, who wrote this?’ I hope I’m improving.” He certainly is, as his follow-ups, A Necessary Evil and Smoke and Ashes, prove. He’s won a best historical crime novel award, the Wilbur Smith award for adventure writing, been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Gold Dagger for best crime novel of 2018 and is published in more than 20 countries. For some reason he’s yet to fathom, he is huge in Italy.
The gloriously atmospheric Death in the East is his best book so far, a cracking read. It flips between 1905 London, with Wyndham as a young constable pounding the beat in the murky East End, and Assam in 1922. There are two locked-room murders as well as sinister ghosts from Wyndham’s cloudy past. As in previous books, Mukherjee interrogates the often violent and shameful shared history of Britain and India, which forms such a vital part of his identity as “a Hindu-Bengali-Scottish-British-Asian”. A hyphen too far? “Exactly, although I am Bengali I’m not a practising Hindu.
“I began this book as my homage to Christie. She has such a mixed reputation nowadays but I love her books. She started everything: the unreliable narrator, the idea that everybody could be guilty, the notion that the guilty party is one of those being hunted. Although this book is very much my style and my take on Christie, it morphed very quickly into something else, however.
“I was feeling really depressed when I started writing it – not just about what’s happening in this country, but the rise of right-wing global populism and all this fear surrounding us, also, what it means to be a British Asian. When I started researching I discovered bigotry and prejudice against Jews in the East End. You can take any passage from a 1905 newspaper and substitute the word Jew for Muslim, Bangladeshi, Hindu, Sikh only to realise nothing has changed.”
Yet, he points out, because he is “the son of middle-class, brown immigrants with qualifications” – his father taught accountancy – this country gave him and his lawyer sister better life opportunities than, say, working-class children from the Gorbals or Grimsby. “So I am British and full of optimism. Yes, I’m angry about colonialism and this thing we have about romanticising the history of the Raj, Downtonifying it. I use it as a mirror to show us ourselves and our identity.”
Surely his books would make great TV? “Actually, the rights have been sold. The scripts for a series of 12 episodes are already written and the Hollywood star of the American sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, Kunal Nayyar, will play Surrender-Not. We just need another big-name actor attached to play Wyndham before we take it to Netflix.”
Currently writing his fifth thriller in the series, he’s keen to write about the immigrant experience from his mother, Suchitra’s, unique viewpoint, and also about the 1943 Bengal Famine. Auntie Val – his great supporter and close friend Val McDermid aka Val Doonican, according to Mrs Mukherjee – wants him to write them as standalones. Now, though, he must dash to meet fellow novelist Vaseem Khan in Mukherjee’s mother’s kitchen, from which they do side-splittingly funny podcasts “with guests and snacks”.
The following morning Mukherjee and Khan appear at London’s terrific first Capital Crime Festival. Their Global Crime session features five ethnically diverse male authors. “Welcome!” exclaims Mukherjee. “Keep calm, you’re at a crime writing festival and not a call centre in India.” Which brings the house down. Death in the East, by Abir Mukherjee is published by Harvill Seccker on 14 November