Thursday, 2 December 2021

The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

"Placing oneself in a position of semi- permanent hypocrisy, that’s what it meant to be an Englishman in India. […] God knows there were enough embittered, broken colonial men and women of good conscience, driving to drink and ruin by the irreconcilable absurdity at the heart of it all: the claim that we were here for the betterment of this land, when all the time we merely sucked it dry."

This is the fifth outing for the redoubtable pairing of Sam Wyndham and Surendranath Banerjee – and the first time Suren has been given his own voice. “Of course that is unlikely to stop [Sam] sharing his two annas worth […] but that is Sam for you, and this is why you require to hear my side of the tale.”

The year is 1923. Gandhi’s general strike has been called off in the wake of a wave of violence. The Indian independence movement has collapsed into ‘a morass of in-fighting and mutual recriminations’ and there are those on all sides who are ready and willing to exploit the simmering tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

At the opening of the novel, Suren has been sent by the Commissioner of Police to tail a Muslim politician from Bombay who has arrived unexpectedly in Calcutta and is suspected by the authorities of being up to no good. Following him to a poor and ramshackle riverside township, Suren is eventually led down a gullee into a trap and knocked out. The first Sam hears of all this is when he learns that Suren has been arrested on a charge of murder.

Before they know it, the two are caught in the beginning of a yet another wave of communal violence and it seems that the harder they try to prevent it, the more they succeed in fanning the flames. Unexpectedly allied with their old nemesis, Colonel Dawson of Section H, Sam and Suren find themselves on their way to Bombay, working outside the law and under assumed identities.

Mukherjee continues to write highly entertaining crime novels that cast a fresh light both on a seminal period in India’s history and on its echoes in the world today. As time has passed for Sam and Suren since the first book, we see ever more clearly the tensions – some inherent and some deliberately stoked – that would make the path to independence so treacherous. This latest book also lifts the lid on the simmering dangers of populism – in India and around world. “My novels reflect what is happening now, what it is that makes me angry,” Mukherjee says [in an interview in The Times, November 2021]

Perhaps the reason that the pairing of Sam and Suren works so well is that they reflect (as Mukherjee told E.S. Thomson at the launch of The Shadows of Men at Portobello Bookshop) the two sides of his own personality – Sam the cynical Scot and Suren the optimistic, questioning Bengali. Suren’s wry observations, given full voice now that he can tell his own half of the story, are something to treasure:

“When an Indian overcharges an Englishman, it is termed fraud, but when an Englishman overcharges an Indian, it’s called capitalism.”

If there is one problem with Mukherjee’s writing, it's that we’ll have so long to wait for the next installment!

You can listen to the whole of Abir Mukerjee’s conversation with E.S. Thomson here.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Vaseem Khan’s Malabar House series; Leye Adenle’s Amaka series; any of the previous books in the series.

Avoid If You Dislike: Poking fun at British arrogance

Perfect Accompaniment: Machher-jhōl (Bengali fish curry with mustard oil)

Genre: Crime, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here:


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