Book Review: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee
By Larry ClowMarch 14, 2019
Smoke and Ashes is the third novel in Abir Mukherjee’s prize-winning Sam Wyndham series in which Wyndham continues to battle his opium addition, sparked by a WWI injury, as he investigates two murders, both involving similarly mutilated bodies. Unfortunately, Wyndham has a dilemma: one of the bodies is discovered in an opium den he visited the previous night.
In Smoke and Ashes, the third entry in Abir Mukherjee’s Sam Wyndham series, Calcutta, and the rest of India, is on a knife’s edge. It’s 1921 and Gandhi and his followers are staging protests, building support for Indian independence and generally being a thorn in the side of their British occupiers. The political situation is tenuous and the world’s eyes are on the waning British Empire.
Of course, there’s no better time for murder than in the midst of political turmoil, and Smoke and Ashes opens with Wyndham, roused from a stupor in a seedy opium den, stumbling across a ritualistically mutilated corpse. By the time Wyndham, a member of Calcutta’s police force, evades his colleagues, sobers up and returns to the scene, the body is gone. Another corpse quickly takes its place—this time, a native woman who works as a nurse at a local military base has been killed. Alarmingly, her injuries match those of the body in the opium den.
Meanwhile, Calcutta has become a flashpoint for the Indian independence movement. C.R. Das, one of Gandhi’s chief lieutenants, is planning a massive protest timed to coincide with a Christmas day visit from the Prince of Wales. Wyndham’s superiors want him and his partner, “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, to babysit Das and make sure he doesn’t further inflame tensions. As the two police officers soon learn, Das’ plans and the bizarre murders have set in motion events that could topple British rule—and snuff out the independence movement.
Smoke and Ashes is a phenomenal historical mystery. Mukherjee shows no sign of losing momentum with Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not. Told over the span of four days, the narrative moves briskly, but both leads have ample time for some great character development. While Sam struggles with keeping his opium addiction (the result of treatment for wounds suffered in World War I) under wraps, Surrender-Not must navigate fraught family relationships. Every act is complicated—by race, by class, by their jobs—and Mukherjee deftly balances putting his characters through their paces while writing a ripping good mystery.
Mukherjee makes decades of Indian and British cultural and social history visceral in Smoke and Ashes.
One of the book’s strongest features is its characterization of Calcutta. A port city and former capital of the British Raj, the city is presented in vivid detail. Little details, from the routines of the ferrymen who traverse the Hooghly River to the locations of cab stands around the city, matter to Mukherjee just as much as the big picture. Mukherjee makes decades of Indian and British cultural and social history visceral in Smoke and Ashes. Capturing that atmosphere, from the micro to the macro, is not easy, but Mukherjee’s prose is effortless:
I shook my head at the absurdity of it all, and yet, if it was absurd, I was the only one who seemed to find it so. The Volunteers seemed to be taking themselves seriously, and from the discreetly positioned troops, it appeared the military was too. At street corners stood not the girls of the WAAC, but squads of hard-faced Gurkhas, rifles at the ready, impassively watching the crowds from under wide-brimmed hats. They were a lurking, menacing presence, like lions stalking their prey, biding their time but ready to strike, ready to turn those white clothes crimson if ordered.
The Sam Wyndham books have always been political, with an unflinching look at the toll of British colonial rule, and here, Mukherjee continues his exploration of the tensions between those with power and those without, and how a small change in circumstances can cause a tremendous shift in roles. Wyndham is the perfect encapsulation of that tension, a British officer who sees through the colonial lie and knows that he has more in common with his partner than he does with the aristocrats, military leaders and British spymasters who rule over the country.
Speaking of Wyndham, he’s on track to be one of the genre’s great protagonists. Some 90 percent Philip Marlowe with a dash of Bertie Wooster thrown in, Wyndham hides his abilities—and his personal demons—underneath a façade of wise-cracks and cynicism. He’s a funny, flawed and capable protagonist, constantly doubting himself but always ready to help someone, even if it costs him everything. As Wyndham reviews some case developments, Mukherjee gives us his mission statement:
From that moment, three things would always mitigate against her: she was poor; she was a native; and she was a woman. In India, that meant her life counted for little, and, unless it could be made to fit a wider narrative, her death would matter even less. But her case had landed on my desk, and while it probably didn’t matter to her, I’d never been one to give up on lost causes, maybe because I was one myself. I’d keep going as long as there were questions to ask and loose threads to pull; not as a riposte to Surrender-not’s father and his belief that we didn’t care about the ordinary victims, but because at the end of the day, there was precious little else in my life that seemed noble.
Mukherjee makes this sort of character work look easy. Smoke and Ashes often presents Wyndham at his worst—particularly after he goes into withdrawal following a plot development I won’t spoil—but Mukherjee keeps us on his protagonist’s side. If there’s any downside to the book, it’s that Surrender-Not Banerjee doesn’t get enough time on the page. It would be nice to see Banerjee take a more central role as the series amps up its political dimensions—Banerjee’s family is firmly in favor of the independence movement, and watching him resolve his sense of duty with familial obligations results in some great moments.
Smoke and Ashes avoids all the usual pitfalls of historical mystery series and excels in just about every regard. It’s thrilling and evocative, darkly funny and surprisingly touching. It’s so deeply rooted in place and history that you may want to read it while under a mosquito net, but Mukherjee’s prose is so sharp that the setting feels immediate and vital. I can’t imagine how Mukherjee will top Smoke and Ashes, but I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.