Tag Archives: Abir Mukherjee

On to Smoke and Ashes – Final Edgar Nom

smoke

Smoke and Ashes is the final nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel, the third book in Abir Mukherjee’s series set in 1920’s Calcutta and  featuring British officer Sam Wyndham and his sergeant, “Surrender-not” Banerjee.  The debut novel, A Rising Man, was also a nominee for Best Novel in 2018.  It didn’t win and was last on the Literary Lunchbox ranking.  But still – first book and a nominee!  (My review of that book is here.)

The third book focuses on Christmas, 1921.  It’s a tumultuous historical time, when the Indian independence movement is in full swing and the followers of Gandhi are using nonnviolent resistance to press the oppressors and symbolic protests to unite the various indigenous factions.  About to arrive on the scene:  the Prince of Wales.   Lt. Wyndham is called by his superiors to investigate the murder of a woman.  Her eyes had been gouged out and two deep knife wounds were made to her chest.  This would have been upsetting to anyone, but it was a particular shock to Sam Wyndham, as he had seen the same mutilation of a previous corpse, just the night before.  Easy peasy, right?  Just connect the dots and solve the murders.  But Wyndham can’t admit to seeing the previous corpse, because he was stoned out of his mind on opium at the time, running for his life with the cops right behind him.  Yes, our hero is an addict thanks to a war injury and a second blow, his wife’s death of influenza, a few years previously.

What follows is a labyrinthine plot wherein more people die, Wyndham discovers what links the victims, he and Surrender-not set out to lure the murderer out into the open but are outwitted, all against the backdrop of Indian unrest and the stubbornness of the peaceful revolution’s leaders vs. the stubbornness of the British military and monarchy.  (A quick Google search turned up the info that India did not get its independence from Britain till 1947, so Mukherjee has 26 more years of stories to tell, should he choose to do so.)   Revealing the killer and what motivates him – a ruthless military project to develop a new, even more lethal mustard gas by testing it on Indian subjects – was not the end to the plot twists, though.

Here’s what works very well in Smoke and Ashes:  We genuinely like the main characters; the depiction of Surrender-not as a loyal friend and policeman, and the cultural pressure he feels as the go-between; the plot is complicated and horrifyingly believable; the writing is top-notch and pacing excellent.  However, not much is made of Wyndham’s addiction; evidently, a shot of kerdu pulp (from a gourd that is native to India) staves off withdrawal symptoms.  There was also rather perfunctory treatment of his on-again, off-again romance with Annie Grant (a key figure in the first book in this series).  But all in all, a satisfying historical mystery.

How does Smoke and Ashes stack up to the other nominees?  Pretty well, but not a home run for me.  There is nothing to dislike here, but I am not a fan of historicals in general and I read this at some remove, admiring the plot as it emerged, but not caught up.  (Others are likely to find it just their cup of tea!)

In terms of ranking, I’m going to place it at #3.  That leaves Michael Robotham’s Good Girl, Bad Girl in the top spot.  If Literary Lunchbox were in charge, Robotham would get his first Edgar the year.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Good Girl, Bad Girl (Michael Robotham)
  2. The Stranger Diaries (Elly Griffiths)
  3. Smoke and Ashes (Abir Mukherjee)
  4. The River (Peter Heller)
  5. Fake Like Me (Barbara Bourland)

 

Edgar Noms! Heller’s The River Up 1st

mwa_logoThe Mystery Writers of America Edgar nominees are out.  I missed reviewing them last year, so I’m back for 2020!  Typically I read, review and rank nominees for one, two, or three categories depending upon the time I have available for reading.  The fun – besides the obvious – comes in when I see how many of the ones I think should win, did win.  I’m not guessing who will win, so 100% is probably not an option.  In 2018, I got 50% – Edgar and I both picked Jordan Harper’s She Rides Shotgun as Best First Novel.  (Click here for my review.)  On the Best Novel front, I picked Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, while Edgar chose Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke. (Reviews here.)

As always, the list of nominees include many I had not read as well as several that I did.  On the Best Novel list, the Michael Robotham and Abir Mukherjee books ring a bell.  Here’s the line-up:

riverFirst up for a Lunchbox review is Peter Heller’s The River.   The plot is simple.  Two young men with superior wilderness skills set out on an adventure and face an unexpected challenge:  can they rescue a dying woman from her murderous husband and outrun a wildfire to get her to safety?

Characterization is more complicated.  The men are different.  Jack, whose mother drowned while he watched, helpless, when he was just 11, expects tragedy.  His friend Wynn has an open heart and is innately optimistic.   It’s unsurprising and still a shock when Wynn’s essential nature is the cause of the tragedy that Jack works so hard to avoid.  Enough said.

The other people the men encounter on their river quest are revealed through their actions.  The men wonder about the husband, then must work to outwit him.  They encounter a couple of thuggish, drunken fools – but are they as foolish as they seem?  And the fire itself it a character, lurking, damaging, sending up smoke and sparks that threaten ominously depending upon which way the wind blows.

What makes The River sing is Heller’s writing.   I’m no outdoorswoman.  I like my nature in 2-3 hour chunks, not month-long hikes.  But it’s clear that Heller loves nature and has an easy intimacy with hunting, fishing, hiking, boating. And his writing is even, measured, lyrical:

The day was half gone.  They padded steadily without letup.  The wind shifted around to the west and for the first time they could se the hazy thickening of air that was not yet rolling smoke and the bird in flocks that were smaller now, and many single birds, mostly duller colored, the females, and Wynn posited that these were thee mother birds with hatchlings who had refused to leave their nests until just before the flame.  That was heartbreaking if you thought about it.

The River will quicken your pulse and may make you cry.  Take the time to read it slowly.  As Heller’s book is the first book reviewed, he enjoys the top spot for now!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. The River (Peter Heller)

 

 

Nominee #2: A Rising Man

risingAfter my last post, moaning about historical… the next nominee for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel is Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, set in 1919 Calcutta.   The heat, grime, and colonial culture where the British rule, the natives serve, and those of mixed race are shunned by both, welcome Captain Sam Wyndham.  A former Scotland Yard detective, Capt. Wyndham faces his first case – the murder of a British official, Alexander MacAuley.  Found in a “dark, dead-end alley,” the body was mangled, throat cut, and a mysterious message in Bengali, on expensive paper, was forced into his mouth.  “No more warnings,” it read.  “English blood will run in the streets.  Quit India!”  Terrorists? the captain wonders.  Or perhaps it was just supposed to look like terrorists?

Helping Captain Wyndham is Inspector Digby – surely much too well-qualified to report to an inexperienced man such as Wyndham – and Sergeant Surendranath Bannerjee, known as “Surrender-Not.”  (My favorite character!) Also of service is the dead man’s secretary, the lovely Annie Grant.  The prime suspect?  Political activist Benoy Sen.  It would suit all to find Sen guilty, and it’s soon made clear that Wyndham is expected to investigate only so far as it is necessary to deliver Sen, collect accolades, and let business be business in the corrupt corners of Calcutta.

Hampered by a hankering for opium, Wyndham’s still a good investigator and realizes that all is not as it seems.  Fairly early on, I realized that this was going to be one of those “which one of these characters I already met is really the bad guy?” books.  Was it the madam Mrs. Bose, whose upscale house of ill repute was near where MacAuley’s body was found?  Perhaps the L-G, Wyndham’s boss?  Mr. Buchan?  The good reverend?  Someone closer to home?  And which of these were behind the botched train robbery? That’s where Mukherjee fooled me – there were two surprise bad guys!

Here’s what I found good about the book:  nicely written, easy to read, some likable/interesting characters, pretty twisty plot with red herring.  It read like an Agatha Christie, with an updated protagonist who showed a remarkable openness to diversity given the 1919 timeframe.  Still, not really my cup of tea.

Comparison to Kathleen Kent’s The Dime?  Tough.  Very different books, both worth reading, neither of which do I think will take home the Edgar.  I’m going to keep The Dime on top simply because I’m more likely to read book 2 in Kent’s series.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. The Dime by Kathleen Kent
  2. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee