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Smoke and Ashes

by Abir Mukherjee

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Semo Vindemo (3), Wyndham and Banerjee (3)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1869123,595 (3.95)16
SELECTED AS WATERSTONES' THRILLER OF THE MONTH, JULY 2019 CHOSEN BY THE SUNDAY TIMES AS ONE OF 100 BEST CRIME NOVELS SINCE 1945 SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 CWA SAPERE HISTORICAL DAGGER SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 HWA GOLD CROWN LONGLISTED FOR THE 2019 CWA GOLD DAGGER 'Smoke and Ashes is Abir Mukherjee's best book yet; a brilliantly conceived murder mystery set amidst political and social turmoil - beautifully crafted' C.J. Sansom India, 1921. Captain Sam Wyndham is battling a serious addiction to opium that he must keep secret from his superiors in the Calcutta police force. But Wyndham finds himself in a tight spot when he stumbles across a corpse in an opium den. When he then comes across a second body bearing the same injuries, Wyndham is convinced that there's a deranged killer on the loose. However, revealing his presence in the opium den could cost him his career. As Wyndham and Sergeant 'Surrender-not' Banerjee set out to solve the two murders, Wyndham must tread carefully, keeping his personal demons secret, before someone else turns up dead... 'It is the flamboyant evocation of Calcutta that makes this such a mesmerising read' Guardian Praise for the Sam Wyndham series: 'A thought-provoking rollercoaster' Ian Rankin 'Confirms Abir Mukherjee as a rising star of historical crime fiction' The Times 'Cracking... A journey into the dark underbelly of the British Raj' Daily Express If you enjoyed Smoke and Ashes, look out for the fourth Sam Wyndham mystery, Death in the East in November 2019… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Abir Mukherjee’s series of novels featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and his Harrow-educated investigative partner, Sergeant ‘Surrender-Not’ Banerjee, in 1920s India goes from strength to strength. This book opens with Captain Wyndham being roused in the opium den he has visited and warned to flee as a police raid is under way. As he escapes over the Calcutta rooftops, he finds a disfigured corpse. Unable to risk waiting to pry further, he flees back home. Imagine his surprise, then, when another murder victim is found bearing the same wounds as the body that Wyndham had more or less stumbled over the previous evening, although owing to the circumstances, he is unable to mention the first case.

Wyndham and Banerjee begin their investigation, but find that they are hampered by the political background as Calcutta grinds to a halt as a consequence of demonstrations led by Mahatma Gandhi and his party. Mukherjee carefully weaves in convincing and compelling historical context, as the British administration awaits a visit by the Prince of Wales (later, briefly, King Edward VIII). Sergeant Banerjee is particularly troubled as one of Gandhi’s leading deputies is his own uncle.

Mukherjee does an excellent job combining robust crime stories with what seems to be sound historical context, conjuring a period about which I was previously lamentably ignorant. The plot fairly rattles along, too, and I found myself completely absorbed by the book, and am now eager for the next instalment. ( )
  Eyejaybee | Jul 28, 2022 |
Well done, Mr. Mukherjee. What makes his books stand out is the thoughtful, vivid history of a time and place, as seen through the eyes of one Anglo man - eyes that are gradually opening to the evils and the triumphs of British-ruled India. Ethnicity, culture, politics and belief systems all come into play as Gandhi's leadership is bringing the impoverished masses to a new awareness of their power. Wyndham's consciousness is beginning to be raised, as his opium habit is spiralling him downward. The quiet, brave, smart Sergeant Banerjee is dealing with his own family and political conflicts. Mukherjee finds fascinating - and sometimes horrifying - historical episodes to weave into his crime stories, which bring them a wider scope beyond just who murdered whom and why.

Wyndham has a tendency to paint groups of people with a broad brush: Bengalis are talkers, Gurkhas are chillingly bold killers, Nepalese or Assamese all look a certain way. Given Mukherkee's mixed cultural background, I'm not quite sure how to take that. I really DO wish that Wyndham would stop referring to young women - independent, self-sufficient women running their own households or jobs - as "girls." But maybe that's just him, and he'll get over it. And maybe get over the irritating Annie Grant as well.

Perfectly enjoyable; looking forward to #4.
( )
  JulieStielstra | May 17, 2021 |
Fantastic story, great writing, and a little dose of history thrown in. It's the best book I've read all year. ( )
  jeanbmac | Jul 28, 2020 |
The Sam & Surrender-Not Saga meets Indian History in 1921
Review of the Vintage paperback edition (2019) of the original hardcover edition (2018)

This reading was part of my investigation of the novels nominated for the 2020 Edgar Awards by the Mystery Writers of America. Smoke and Ashes is a nominee for Best Novel. The winners are expected to be announced April 30, 2020.

I've been following the Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath (Surrender-Not) Banerjee adventures since the first one A Rising Man (2016) and have enjoyed them immensely. Author Mukherjee has done his best work yet here in Smoke and Ashes which pits Sam and Surrender-Not into a serial-murder investigation set against the backdrop of a 1921 visit to India by the Prince of Wales (the later abdicating Edward VIII) in the midst of Gandhi's Non-Cooperation Movement.

They work to solve the case facing their usual conflicts with the diabolical Section H secret military police unit of the British Raj. Sam continues to battle his opium addiction which he uses to counter his PTSD from the First World War and is still drawn to his unrequited love of Annie Grant. Surrender-Not is put in conflict between his loyalties to family (who support the Non-Cooperation movement) and his duty to his career and his friend.

This was an excellent continuation of the series and shows how it will begin to incorporate the true-life stories of the end of the British Raj and the Indian Independence Movement into the crime mysteries of the duo. I very much look forward to the books yet to come.

Trivia and Link
If you want to get the atmosphere of the Prince of Wales visit to India in 1921 you can view some archival photographs here. ( )
  alanteder | Mar 16, 2020 |
Summary
December 1921, Calcutta. Captain Sam Wyndham keeps his opium addiction a secret from his superiors. One night, his colleagues raid an opium den and he narrowly escapes detection. As he runs, he stumbles over a mutilated body. Eyeless. Two stab wounds in the chest. Opium-dazed, Sam’s unsure whether this is a hallucination or reality. No one reports a murder.

Meanwhile, their boss tells Sam and his sergeant, “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, to persuade Das, Gandhi’s chief lieutenant in Bengal, not to organize a protest during Prince Edward’s visit.

Then there’s another murder. The corpse bears the same wounds as the victim in the opium den. It can’t be a coincidence. But how can Sam investigate the link between the two victims when he’s got to keep his addiction a secret?

What works for me:
Everything.

That’s not an exaggeration. I took four pages of notes and could’ve written more. (Okay, it was in a 5×7 notebook, but for most novels, I take 2 or 2 1/2 pages of notes.) Here’s a few of the major ones.

The opening.
Mukherjee has mastered the art of the opening lines. It’s not unusual to find a corpse in a funeral parlour. It’s just rare for them to walk in the door under their own steam. (Smoke and Ashes, page 1) Bam! and we’re right there in Sam’s mind as he flees an opium den during a police raid, stumbling through dark hallways and over almost-dead bodies, trying not to get caught by his colleagues.

The portrayal of the upheaval in India
Prince Edward (later Edward VII) is coming to India. Gandhi has called for Indian independence, sparking a non-violent non-cooperation movement that unites both the Bengali and Muslim factions (amazing!) to protest continued British ruling. United, they can shut down major roads simply by smiling while they sit in the road and pray. Current tensions run high. Indian British policemen are quitting by the dozens, so the British don’t have enough police presence to keep the peace.

Mukherjee excels at showing the tensions, the differing opinions, and the complicated political moves of both British and Indian leaders. For example, they can’t arrest Gandhi or his right hand man Das because doing that would make martyrs of them. (There’s nothing like a martyr to refuel enthusiasm for a protest.) But Sam knows that trying to “persuade” Gandhi and the other leaders not to protest during the Prince’s visit is futile.

Sam’s character growth
We’re in Sam’s head. Sometimes that’s not a pleasant place to be. He’s sarcastic, often acid-tongued, and paranoid. (It’s kept him alive, he believes. He may be right.)

His opinions color everything he sees. Background details and cultural explanations that might be dull are brought to life with his sharp and sardonic observations. They aren’t always politically correct. He’s a walking paradox, simultaneously racist and progressive.

On the one hand, he still thinks of the British police as being the best people to maintain law and order in India. He doesn’t care for the “new breed” of Indian revolutionaries (Gandhi’s non-violent protesters). He’s definitely not in favor of Indian independence.

But on the other hand, he shares his living quarters with his Bengali sergeant, Surrender-Not, and considers him to be a friend and confidant. He also investigates the murder of a native woman as thoroughly as he would a white person’s death. Both of these are unusual for a British officer at that time. As he and another officer examine the native woman’s mutilated body, the other man comments that Sam must be used to seeing murdered bodies, he responds, “I pray I never get used to seeing it” (page 87).

He’s about as cuddly as a Brillo pad, but he’s not beyond redemption. I appreciate how in both Smoke and Ashes and A Necessary Evil, Sam comes to new realizations about himself and others. He’s growing as a person. It will be interesting to see how he changes throughout this series.

Surrender-Not
Speaking of character growth, Sam’s sergeant is changing, too. He’s been estranged from his family since he joined the British police force. It’s been a source of pain, but in this novel it comes to the forefront. With so many other Indian policemen quitting the force, his continued presence seems a betrayal of his country and siding with the resented British. He loves his job. Yet he loves his family, too.

His relationship with Sam is changing as well. They seem more like equals (or moving toward equality) in this book than the last.

Like Sam, he’s a bit of a walking contradiction. He’s too shy to talk to beautiful young women, but he’s fabulous at interviewing older women. He shows a disdain for the English language (he finds it deficient–especially its speakers’ inability to pronounce his first name) but is fluent and is often relied on to translate for the British police. He was raised to be a priest but ended up as a policeman. In some regards, he’s innocent but he’s a source of reliable information about Indian cultures for Sam.

The mystery
This particular mystery is deeply rooted in the British/Indian relationship. It’s believable and heart-breaking.

This is a terrific historical crime novel. I highly recommend it!

Note: This review also appears on Bookbub and my personal blog. ( )
1 vote MeredithRankin | Jun 7, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mukherjee, Abirprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Plassmann, JensTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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SELECTED AS WATERSTONES' THRILLER OF THE MONTH, JULY 2019 CHOSEN BY THE SUNDAY TIMES AS ONE OF 100 BEST CRIME NOVELS SINCE 1945 SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 CWA SAPERE HISTORICAL DAGGER SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 HWA GOLD CROWN LONGLISTED FOR THE 2019 CWA GOLD DAGGER 'Smoke and Ashes is Abir Mukherjee's best book yet; a brilliantly conceived murder mystery set amidst political and social turmoil - beautifully crafted' C.J. Sansom India, 1921. Captain Sam Wyndham is battling a serious addiction to opium that he must keep secret from his superiors in the Calcutta police force. But Wyndham finds himself in a tight spot when he stumbles across a corpse in an opium den. When he then comes across a second body bearing the same injuries, Wyndham is convinced that there's a deranged killer on the loose. However, revealing his presence in the opium den could cost him his career. As Wyndham and Sergeant 'Surrender-not' Banerjee set out to solve the two murders, Wyndham must tread carefully, keeping his personal demons secret, before someone else turns up dead... 'It is the flamboyant evocation of Calcutta that makes this such a mesmerising read' Guardian Praise for the Sam Wyndham series: 'A thought-provoking rollercoaster' Ian Rankin 'Confirms Abir Mukherjee as a rising star of historical crime fiction' The Times 'Cracking... A journey into the dark underbelly of the British Raj' Daily Express If you enjoyed Smoke and Ashes, look out for the fourth Sam Wyndham mystery, Death in the East in November 2019

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Haiku summary
Calcutta, il venge
Son fils, cobaye des Anglais,
Tests de gaz moutarde
(Tiercelin)

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