Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Funny,” he said, “how the poor and the wretched are always being blame for their own misfortunes, isn’t it? As though the Jews who wash up on our shored are responsible for the pogroms against them and the filth that our own poor live in.”

I am always excited by the release of a new Sam Wyndham mystery, but never more so than by this one, the fourth in the series.

This time the story takes place over two time lines, and we see not only the weary Sam Wyndham of 1922, doggedly trying to free himself of opium addiction, but also the young Sam Wyndham, wet behind the ears and newly recruited into the police in London, as two cases at either ends of his career become entangled together.

Even the title operates on several levels – as the word East can be taken as referring simultaneously to Assam, east of Sam’s usual haunts in Calcutta, to Whitechapel in the east end of London – and to the patronising orientalist term for anywhere east of central Europe. 

As Mukherjee explains in his interview in the Hindustani Times “It was going to be my homage to Agatha Christie... where a body is found in a room which is locked from the inside. But I have been very depressed and angered by everything that’s going on in the world, and in Britain. So I couldn’t just write my little locked room mystery. As an author, and just as a person, I had to write something which spoke to what is happening in the world.”

As the quote with which I opened this review indicates, there are close and uncomfortable parallels between attitudes toward the Jewish refugees who found themselves in the East End of London in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and those towards the Muslim communities that live there today. And Mukherjee could not resist drawing out those parallels in this gripping historical crime thriller.

We left Sam at the end of Smoke and Ashes travelling towards Assam to undergo a cure for his opium addiction. But on the last leg of his journey to the ashram, he sees a ghost from his past. Maybe it’s just an opium induced illusion, but as Sam says, it’s hard to forget the face of a man who’s tried to kill you.

From that point, the two timelines weave in and out through the course of the story, giving us not one but two locked room mysteries. 

The book also contains Surendranath’s most direct challenge yet to Sam’s unthinking support of the status quo. The young officer doesn’t appear until towards the end of the book this time, but when he does, he is given charge of the investigation, something his white suspects don’t take kindly to. When Sam upbraids him for the way he speaks to one of them, he responds:

“I addressed him with no derogatory epithets. He on the other hand called me a heathen runt, a jumped up subaltern. You have nothing to say about that?”

The two men's relationship is slowly and irrevocably shifting, just as the relationship between Britain and India is shifting. And Mukherjee’s depiction of it continues to go from strength to strength. He has said that he sees Sam and Surendrenath as two sides of his own character – the Scottish and the Bengali, which is perhaps how he can write both characters so sympathetically. 

All I can say is, roll on 1923! 

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Previous Sam Wyndham mysteries by Abir Mukherjee. Ripper Street (BBC TV) House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Avoid If You Dislike: Descriptions of addicts going cold turkey

Perfect Accompaniment: Death in the Yeast – Pale Ale specially brewed for the release of Death in the East by Southwark Brewing. Or any fine Pale Ale.

Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

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