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!)
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel
- Good Girl, Bad Girl (Michael Robotham)
- The Stranger Diaries (Elly Griffiths)
- Smoke and Ashes (Abir Mukherjee)
- The River (Peter Heller)
- Fake Like Me (Barbara Bourland)