Review: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

by Sunita

I ran across a couple of articles about this historical mystery earlier this year, put it on my mental to-read list and promptly forgot about it. Then Liz Mc2 discussed it in a recent blog post and I discovered that it was available through the library. So I took advantage of some extra reading time and sat down with it. I discussed the book in comments to Liz’s post as I was reading it, but rather than filling up her comment feed I decided to write up my thoughts more fully here.

I wanted so much to like it. A mystery set in 1919 Calcutta about a British policeman, which is written by a British Asian rather than the usual white author? Yes please. And the reviews have been very favorable. Sadly, I think the reviews are as much about the intention and effort as the execution. This is so clearly a first novel, and maybe the second one will address some of the many flaws. I hope so, because there is stuff to like here, but the problems are glaring. Some are undoubtedly consequences of first-novelitis, but a lot of them should have been dealt with long before the book was released.

Captain Sam Wyndham is paired with Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee to investigate the murder of a high-ranking civil servant. Wyndham has just come to Calcutta and this is his first case. In addition to Banerjee he works with Digby, a veteran police officer who is resentful at being passed over for promotion. Wyndham soon finds that the murder is more complicated than it seems, potentially implicating British officials, Indian activists, and millionaire businessmen. Wyndham moves between the British and Bengali communities, trying to piece together evidence.

The story alternates between basic police procedural and historical infodumps, with plenty of editorializing (and stereotyping) about the Raj and its subjects. There are a few excellent observations (my favorite is the reason why a native Bengali speaker wouldn’t have written the note stuffed in the dead man’s mouth). But there are even more uncomfortable authorial choices and flat-out mistakes. Examples of the former: why does Wyndham know so much about Calcutta and the Raj after barely three weeks in the country? Why, if he’s sympathetic to the conditions of the colonized, can he never refer to Banerjee by his proper name? Surrender-not is slightly amusing the first couple of times, tiresome and then insulting after that. Why does the narrative use American slang that wouldn’t have made it across the pond by 1919?

Examples of the latter: Why is the Bengal Presidency governed by a Lieutenant-Governor in 1919? Why is the government moving to Darjeeling for the summer and monsoon seasons? Why does Annie, the Anglo-Indian, act like a displaced person rather than a member of a settled community? Why are we talking about Home Rule and Quit India the year the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms are being implemented? Why are there no birds besides crows that create birdsong in the morning? And on and on and on.

This reads like an attempt to write a period mystery that will be palatable to 2017 readers. This is really hard to do and I commend efforts to try, but you need a thorough understanding of the period and a sensitivity to the vast diversity of both the Indians and the British. The actual Governor (not L-G) of Bengal in 1919 was an idealistic man who wanted to bring Indians into the political process, not the bizarrely motivated stock character depicted here.

I did like the police procedural parts (although I found the motivation for the murder and coverup unbelievable for the time and place). Wyndham and Banerjee have the makings of a good team. If the author can develop their characters into more realistic people, they have a bright future.