Beautiful World of Books – The Wyndham & Banerjee Mysteries

After last weekend’s review of Smoke and Ashes, I thought I’d do the Wyndham and Banerjee Mysteries on this week’s BWoB, as many feature quite pretty (or if not, interesting) covers. While a few I find disappointing—for they seem to cast Colonial India as a drab (which it wasn’t), depressing (which it very much was, depending on who you were) place—through their use of unflattering yellows and browns, in general it’s a bunch of lovely covers depicting an even lovelier series. And I do so love when a good book is matched with an equally good cover!

A Rising Man

Vintage (2016) • PegasusVintage (2020)

I have no idea who did any of the cover art for these, so if you do please do let me know. As much as I love both the first two, I hate the 2020 release from Vintage enough to make up for that. I won’t go into the reasons why—I just don’t like it. The 2016 Vintage is probably my favorite, but the Pegasus is a close second. This is the only book in the series I didn’t prefer the Pegasus covers on.

A Necessary Evil

Harvill SeckerPegasus

I had to uncrop this specifically to get the flowers to show. So they won’t match up, something that is kinda driving me nuts. But the addition of red blooms here to break up the green and brown of the jungle is what makes this one of the loveliest covers in the series, in my opinion. While there’s nothing wrong with the opposing cover, the Pegasus one features a character shrouded in the shadows of the jungle around him, something that lends itself directly to the lead’s experience in the text.

Smoke and Ashes

PegasusHarvill Secker

The most recent book in the series I’ve read is always my favorite to date. But—other than possibly the most recent Shadows of Men—I’d say it has the blandest covers. Though the smoke and indistinct shadows of the Pegasus copy did relate very nicely to the actual text.

Death in the East

Harvill SeckerPegasusVintage

The strongest covers of the series feature in Book #4—Death in the East. I’m not sure which one I like the most, and that’s okay. They’re all good, and all for the enjoying! While I’ll probably never own this in physical form, ideally I’d like to have all three of these covers (provided I also had somewhere to put them).

The Shadows of Men

VintagePegasus

The most recent release from Abir Mukherjee finds Wyndham and Banerjee traveling to Mumbai (Bombay) investigating a murder. Here, both covers go for the same stylized arch, the so-called “Gateway of India” (yes, I had to google the name). The background colors are a little different, but neither instills any real feeling of hope. One feels very much overshadowed by dread (at least that’s what I think of when I see the red and black clouds like wildfire), while the other’s drab overtones speak more of hopelessness.

My favorites here by far are the Pegasus covers—the shadowy figure, the cursive text done in an opposing color, the use of color and light. What do you think?

Smoke and Ashes – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Wyndham & Banerjee Mysteries #3

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Harvill Secker; June 7, 2018 (UK)
Pegasus Books; March 5, 2019 (US)

352 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for previous Wyndham and Banerjee mysteries, or just skim the reviews of them below:

A Rising Man Review

A Necessary Evil Review

Kolkata, British India – 1921

India has become more of a home to Sam than England ever was. After his return from the Great War, at least. Still haunted by the memories of war, his friends dying all around him, and the wife he barely knew, Wyndham has known vices to cope. What started out as morphine has turned to opium, and what was initially a habit has become a full-blown addiction. But before he can attempt to kick this vice, he must see the error of his ways.

For Sam, this error takes the form of a dead Chinese man in an opium den.

At first he thinks this corpse a figment of his drug-addled imagination, but once he touches it, examines it, Wyndham is forced to reconsider. Though he can’t consider it for very long. There are police in the den, and Sam must escape unseen if he wants to keep his job. Still, even after leaving, he can’t get the corpse off his mind. Nor his obligation to the man.

And so Wyndham returns to the opium den. But there’s no corpse to be found. Instead, Sam is summoned to the scene of another grisly murder, this one an Englishman. And yet he’s struck by the manner in which the man was killed—the same that the Chinese man had been struck down the night before.

It smacks of a ritualistic killing—and is not the last body to drop before the week is out. Now Wyndham and Banerjee must find the killer and unravel the case before more bodies drop, and the killer slips away into the chaos.

As with the two British India novels before it, I was once again impressed by the scope of Smoke and Ashes, and just how well early 20th century Kolkata is reproduced. Racism and apartheid rule the city, with the Indians (treated as a lump sum) seen as generally decent workers—for colored barbarians—and bodies to die in war, but little more. The British are the undeniable saviors of the Raj, unless of course one were to ask the natives. Which one wouldn’t, of course. It’s just the kind of attitude I’d expect from the days of the Empire (or the US at that time, to be fair)—and comes across quite well in the text. The tensions, the opposition to British rule, the start of a movement against it. While the roots of this were evident in previous novels—the non-cooperation, the protests—really take form in this book. It’d be an interesting time to revisit even without the undercurrent of a murderer loose in the crowds.

Connecting the two murders takes some time, but that time is thoroughly enjoyable. Wyndham sees the Indians as people in their own right (helps that he’s in love with one of their own), and the rightful rulers of the continent besides. But while they may have a point about who should lead them, fact is that the British do. And Sam’s a native son of England, after all. So, while he’s become conflicted, it’s not difficult to tell where his loyalties lie. Banerjee is a much more conflicted case. While he and Sam are friends, the young man’s Kolkata-born and a native of the peninsula. He may work for the Empire, but it’s really hard to go against one’s family, one’s people, one’s loved ones. But so long as he and Wyndham agree on one thing, they can still work together. That the murderer must be stopped.

The mystery element of Smoke and Ashes may just be the best it’s ever been. Ritual killings. Interconnected murders. How do a Chinese man, an Englishman, and a Portuguese nurse fit together? And why would someone want them dead? This is what drives the tale. And, if I may say so, it has a satisfying conclusion. So many times you’ll reach the end of a mystery/thriller only to find the antagonist has some psychopathic logic, something that only adds up if you have one too many screws loose. The conclusion of Smoke and Ashes reveals a rather normal, human assailant, albeit one who would resort to murder.

The mystery itself, the conclusion, the ending all support the continuation of the Wyndham and Banerjee mysteries, as this may well be their strongest case yet. Still not sure it justifies the price, however. But I can do very little to ever rationalize a $17 ebook. At least in the UK it’s more reasonable: £5. But if I were you, I’d pick it up in paperback (where you can probably find it under $10), or audio, or at your local library. But you do need to pick this up—that much is for certain.

TL;DR

Smoke and Ashes is the best Wyndham and Banerjee yet. With the movement of noncooperation in the background, the race to catch a killer is all the more desperate and all the more difficult in the crowds of natives. And if India does one thing well, it’s CROWDS. A nation of over a billion (well, ~300 mil in the 1920’s), the subcontinent is packed with so many different beliefs, ethnicities, cultures, and histories that it was a powder keg even before the British arrived. Especially when factoring in that it was an incredibly RICH powder keg. The series continues to illustrate this quite well—especially when capturing the heightening tensions between all the sides. The Indian people may agree on the British Empire, but it’s only a temporary truce, and a partial one at that. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Death in the East, the 4th Wyndham & Banerjee book, is out already, although I may have to find another format to read it in, as the audio isn’t out in the US (in the Audible store, at least). As usual, the audio performance is strong, albeit with Simon Bubb replacing Malk Williams as the sole reader worldwide (Williams had previously read the US version). While I still prefer Williams’ narration (as a grittier, weathered Wyndham), Bubb is very hard to dislike.

A Necessary Evil – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Sam Wyndham #2

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; June 1, 2017

11hr 3min (audio)
381 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.2 / 5 ✪

British India, 1920.

The Kingdom of Sambalpore has grown rich off diamonds. But riches also breed resent. As a semi-autonomous entity within the Empire, the Maharajah is uncontested in his rule. But all things change.

When the Maharajah’s heir-apparent is assassinated on a visit to Kolkata, it’s up to Captain Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Banerjee to discover why. The mystery leads the two into the heart of Sambalpore, and embroils the pair in the politics of the court. Within days their suspect list practically grows to encompass the entire kingdom. From a ruthless playboy now in line for the throne, to the third-in-line and his highly ambitious mother, to a power hunger advisor or a cult of religious fanatics, to a missing Englishman and the a secret so valuable it’s worth not killing for once, but twice—everyone’s a suspect. And everything is suspect.

As the pair of detectives get further embroiled, it soon becomes clear that while the former prince was well-liked, nearly anyone would benefit in some way from his demise. And the deeper they dig into the case, the larger the stakes get. It seems that very few people actually WANT Wyndham to solve the case, but as the death toll continues to grow, it’s clear that the murders won’t stop until the Captain does just that.

Some familiar faces, some action, and a really deep mystery await them—in Sambalpore.

The followup to A Rising Man, A Necessary Evil marks the return of Wyndham and Banerjee, as well as a few more familiar faces. While the Empire hub of Kolkata was left largely unexplored in Book 1, Book #2 instead chooses to whisk us off to an autonomous kingdom within the Raj, where tensions are higher, riches are flowing, and Englishmen can’t necessarily do as they please. Thus it’s more difficult for Wyndham to investigate—and easier for the kingdom to stonewall him. So begins a long and intricate (even sometimes convoluted) story to get to the heart of the matter. Seriously, there’s so much going on here that I started to get lost towards the end. As the number of threads exploded and the suspect list grew and grew, it’s really hard to keep a full handle on everything (at least, it was for me). But before everything gets too much, Wyndham is able to whittle the list down, eventually tying everything up in a way that somehow left me with relatively few unanswered questions. Questions that I suspect will be (mostly) addressed in the sequel.

The ending here surprised me. I mean, as I spent a decent chunk of the second half so completely at sea, that’s not really surprising. But, after my initial guess turned out to be wrong, my second and third quickly followed. When the end came it nearly blindsided me. I was waaaay off. But it wasn’t because of any information that was withheld, or sprung upon us at the last minute. It was all there—I just failed to put it all together. But I was listening to this while playing video games, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I got overwhelmed. Not to mention the change of locale, politics, religion (it’s still Hinduism, but with a different major deity, and—I’m really not familiar enough with the Hindu pantheon to get into this), and tone. There’s a lot to keep track of. But if you’ve read A Rising Man you’ll be good. Mostly.

Annie returns in Book #2, though things between her and Sam aren’t the whirlwind romance we spent #1 hinting at. Something about accusing a girl of aiding and abetting a murder really seemed to sour their relationship. But Wyndham is giving it his best, so maybe they’ll recover. Or maybe she’ll run off an marry a Maharajah.

Again, I loved Malk Williams’ performance as Captain Wyndham, although his return to the series is a bit bittersweet. See, after this one, the very talented but undeniably different Simon Bubb takes over as Wyndham, and it’s going to be an adjustment—unless it isn’t. Because Simon Bubb is always the reader if you live over in the UK, but for some reason it’s Williams here in the US for two books. Bubb returns for #4—again at least in the UK, as the audio of Death in the East isn’t out in the US yet. For some reason.

TL;DR

An intricate, occasionally convoluted tale regarding the assassination of a prince, a kingdom whose future remains in the balance, plus the many, many secrets worth killing for in the Kingdom of Sambalpore. If you’re not familiar with Colonial India, this series does a lovely job of taking the reader back to experience just what it’d’ve been like to go for a visit—if you were an Englishman, at least. The religious and political tension, the ethnic tensions, the press of bodies, the heat and humidity, the unwashed masses—Mukherjee really does an excellent job of painting a picture of Colonial life. And death, for that matter. The mystery is more than worth the price of admission, as the twists and turns kept me guessing up until the end. I love how the character of Wyndham—and Banerjee as well—are evolving, and hope they continue to progress in the next installment, Smoke and Ashes.