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Chasing killers through an opium induced haze

THERE are people who return year after year after year to the same place for their annual holidays. Familiarity apparently brings content.

And probably boredom, as they are not averse also to sneaking away on an occasional  long weekend break which, if pressed, they will describe as “refreshing”.

Which shows it is good to break free every once in a while; to escape the mundane and the normal (a word much in question in this era of the dreaded Covid-19).

The same applies in the world of crime fiction; an overpopulated place excessively dominated by British and American writers  daily churning out their creations in the hundreds, even thousands. It could be said readers are spoilt for choice.

If only.

The reality is they are drowning in a tidal wave of mediocrity sweeping in from both sides of the pond. [To which, I’ll confess, I have made my own pitiful contribution]. There are no lock gates, pontoons or other barriers to stem the flow; no quality control.  In the words of one of the greatest memoirs of journalism, it’s a case of Publish And Be Damned. Or perhaps doomed.

Fortunately there are pleasures to be had beyond this trans-Atlantic whirlpool;  opportunities for the equivalent to that “refreshing” weekend dash over to Amsterdam after yet another dreary fortnight in Clacton.

Thus my bookshelves are proof of regular excursions into Europe (mainly the northerly noir regions) and numerous long-haul trawls among the many delights to be discovered Down Under.

Now it is the turn of the sub-continent, a giddying immersive experience for those prepared to discard their preconceptions and prejudices.

Abir Mukherjee, the son of Indian immigrants, grew up in west Scotland and now lives in London. This distance from the scene of the crime(s) seems to enhance rather than dim the brilliance of his prose. It sparkles. It draws readers into the swirling street scenes of Calcutta and the hinterland. Enfolds them completely. The richness and the poverty and all that lies in between are entwined into a dizzying kaleidoscope.

The pair of mysteries reviewed here and the preceding two that thrust the author into worldwide attention all feature the odd couple pairing of  British military captain Sam Wyndham and his Oxford educated sidekick, Calcutta police sergeant “Surrender-not” Banerjee. The latter so named because of his white superiors’ inability to grapple with his real name of Surendranath.

The India they inhabit is that of the 1920s. The British Raj still holds sway, Gandhi is only slowly beginning to foment the movement towards independence and the bars, clubs and numerous other places are predominately off limits to non-whites other than as servants and lackeys.

Sam Wyndham is enduring a self-imposed exile from tragic earlier police service in London and the horrors of war service in the trenches. His props are alcohol and drugs. Either a calming dram or three of good malt whisky or the total wipe-out of hours in a back street opium den.

Death in the East, a neat double entendre of a title, ventures back to 1905 and the seedy maelstrom of London’s Whitechapel. Here we find Wyndham as an earnest police recruit taking his first  . It  and fills in the biographical gaps when .  It is only                                                                                                after gallantry in the trenches of the First World War ,Yet, as A Necessary Evil so brilliantly portrays, the Indians also maintain class divides no less rigid than those of their colonial “betters”. Strict hierarchies govern the numerous minor kingdoms, states … maharajahs, princes and all their offpsring vying for control

 

 

 

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