Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

This third outing for Sam Wyndham and his redoubtable sergeant Surrender-not in 1920s Calcutta does not disappoint, from its shocking opening in Calcutta's Chinatown to the tense ending, blending fact and fiction.

It’s almost Christmas Day 1921, the end of the year in which Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation movement really got going. It’s also the year that the King Emperor George V decided to send his son, the Prince of Wales, on an ill-advised tour of India. Then, in the midst of seething unrest and with all the security implications of an impending royal visit, mutilated corpses start to turn up – apparently unconnected but bearing startlingly similar wounds. Section H, the military police, are convinced it must be the work of terrorists from the Independence Movement, but Sam is far from sure.

This is case that will test Surrender-not’s painfully divided loyalties to the limit. It will also force Sam to confront his own growing dependence on opium.

Mukherjee continues to paint a vivid picture of Calcutta as India lurches closer to independence, weaving fiction around real events and people. Chitta Ranjan Das, Gandhi’s chief lieutenant in Bengal, his wife Basanti Devi and his disciple and future hero of the movement Subhash Bose all appear in this novel, as Sam starts to appreciate both the genius of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance and the untenable nature of the British position.

“To see a man as your enemy, you needed to hate him, and while it was easy to hate a man who fought you with bullets and bombs, it was bloody difficult to hate a man who opposed you by appealing to your own moral compass.”


Mukherjee’s choice of Sam as his point of view character – an outsider who is part of the British Raj without being fully of it – provides a fascinating lens through which to see this troubled and pivotal period in India’s history. At the same time, he draws the thriller elements of the story from little known scraps of background history – in this case, a particularly shameful episode in British treatment of its colonial subjects.

This absorbing series just keeps getting better and batter. I am thrilled by its success – not least because it means should be plenty more to come for Sam and Surrender-not.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee, The Devil’s Porridge by Chris Longmuir, The Golden  Scales by Parker Bilal

Avoid If You Dislike: Facing up to the realities of Britain’s colonial past

Perfect Accompaniment: A stiff whisky

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Available on Amazon

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