Book review: Death In The East, by Abir Mukherjee

Abir Mukherjee'''PIC: Nick Tucker
Abir Mukherjee'''PIC: Nick Tucker
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There is something about the Raj that attracts novelists, particularly British ones. I am thinking of, say, Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, best known for The Jewel In The Crown, or JG Farrell’s The Siege Of Krishnapur or The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye, or even a masterpiece like EM Forster’s A Passage To India. It is a curious phenomenon, since it manages to combine a queasy nostalgia for tiffin and manners and kedgeree with a confessional tone at the abuses of the Indian population during the Raj. It manages to have the glamour of a Merchant Ivory film spliced with the horrors of what colonial subjection really involved. Think of it as part pearl-clutching and part diamond-thieving and part hand-wringing, all in sepia.

Death In The East is Abir Mukherjee’s fourth novel featuring Sam Wyndham and “Surrender-not” Banerjee, and it too is set during the Raj, in 1922 to be precise. Wyndham is a former copper from a down-at-heel background who was bumped into the police in the East End of London before “taking up the white man’s burden”. “Surrender-not” is his sergeant in Calcutta, and his name is actually Surendrabath, with the nickname being an unfortunate side-effect of the British not really learning much about the locals. In this volume, Sam has gone off to an ashram to try to recover from his opium addiction. Surendrabath is away with his slightly estranged family, as the complicity of Indians with the British State comes under the forensic scrutiny of one Mahatma Gandhi. Since these are crime novels there is more space to explore inequality, prejudice, presumption and class, and this conforms to type. Although it might be said that the first “Raj crime novel” was actually Forster, and the crime – an accusation and its consequences – may not have been a crime at all.
This novel moves between Wyndham’s early days on the beat in Whitechapel and his addiction being burned out of him in Assam, mostly by hallucinating, vomiting and drinking a supposedly wonderful local tisane. Both inevitably involve murder. In Whitechapel, in 1905, Wyndham lost a suspect after seeing a woman, with whom he was tangentially entangled, being assaulted. She then is found dead, and suspects abound, from a pair of prototype Krays, to her ne’er-do-well husband, to a wide-boy plutocrat, to an impoverished Jewish immigrant who lived in the same set of lodgings. This is mirrored in the sections set in Assam. As he struggles with his addiction and the cure to his addiction, one of Wyndham’s fellow “drug-fiends” is found dead. Before even that, Sam has glimpsed someone at the railway station and puts his misidentification down to withdrawal symptoms. But the corpses pile up, and by the end of the book the narratives intersect.
One can imagine this novel in some ways as retro-engineered from successful franchises: Morse and Lewis, Sidney and Geordie, Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, even Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, or Poirot and Captain Hastings. We have a mismatched pairing, sometimes with dark pasts and difficult presents and unforeseen futures. 
The fact that three of the murders are locked-room mysteries makes the parallel with “Golden Age” crime fiction even more problematic. I solved the final one halfway through the novel, and it was so clearly signalled that they might as well have written CLUE in the margin. Where there is a difference, and a necessary one, is that the politics is held up close. Yes, we have two detectives with very different backgrounds, but “Surrender-Not” is not a sidekick. He has his own agendas, and that allows a lens into the Indian politics of the day. It did strike me as a shame that he only enters on-stage three quarters of the way through, as the pair’s interactions are by far the most entertaining and provocative parts of the novel.
The character of Wyndham seems strangely compromised. How can a man who is revolted by anti-Semitism accede to the thoughtless superiority of the British elite in India? We want him to be the (struggling) hero, but at the same time, shouldn’t he have known better about prejudice and privilege having experienced it and seen it?
This is a well enough done, middle market novel. It rolls along at a jolly rate, and part of the reason for that is that you rarely trip over a word. There are many clichés, and many repetitions (white-suited being the most irritating), and the prose doesn’t get in the way. Some may think that a virtue. I prefer to be surprised. The first page of the first chapter has “grim resolve”, “forgotten backwater”, “hallowed tones”, “wasn’t much to pin one’s hopes on”, “a drowning man will clutch at a straw” and “temporary respite”. The reason the eyes glide so quickly across this fluid and readable novel is that often we already know what is coming next in the sentence.
Unsurprisingly, it ends with a moral dilemma which is basically an EastEnders-style closing credits drum roll for #5. I could not say with my hand on my heart that I disliked the book; it is fluid, it is ever so mildly camp, it is interesting about inter-Indian rivalries. But would I go out of my way to read the next? Only if I had a week off and nothing else to do.

Death In The East, by Abir Mukherjee, Harvill Secker, £12.99