Wyndham & Banerjee Mysteries #3
Mystery, Historical Fiction
Harvill Secker; June 7, 2018 (UK)
Pegasus Books; March 5, 2019 (US)
352 pages (ebook)
4.5 / 5 ✪
Please beware minor spoilers for previous Wyndham and Banerjee mysteries, or just skim the reviews of them below:
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.
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.