Blood and the bean counter

Crime fiction, with a colonial flavour, is what Abir Mukherjee specialises in

68-abir-mukherjee Abir Mukherjee | Nick Tucker

ABIR MUKHERJEE PLOTTED his first murder before he turned 40. In the last two years, he has been on a rather thrilling, much avidly followed, killing spree. His victims meet their deaths in varied ways: a British officer gets his throat slit, a prince is assassinated, and now, a very messy stabbing.

An accountant-turned-fictional murderer, Mukherjee is a fresh new voice on the crime writing scene. He turned to bloodier pastures because he wanted more in life. It sure seems that he has a flair for murder. And, solving it.

His first, A Rising Man, was the outcome of winning the Harvill Secker crime writing competition in 2016. This book set him firmly down the path of crime. His second, A Necessary Evil, won the most coveted crime prize last year—the Crime Writer Association’s Historical Dagger. His third book, Smoke and Ashes, has just hit the stands.

Mukherjee creates vividly imagined plots set against the backdrop of a changing political landscape in British India—post the World War I. He explores the seamier side of the Empire—and, Calcutta—amidst the charged politics in India, with Gandhi emerging as a leader. Sam Wyndham, who comes back from the war to take a job in India, ably assisted by his sergeant Surendranath Surrender-not Banerjee, battles the system to solve crimes.

“The Raj period is not really taught in British schools. I think that, in itself, says a lot,’’ he says in an email interview with THE WEEK. “I learnt more about German history in the 1920s and 1930s, than I did about British history in the period. I really learned about the Raj from romanticised period pieces like The Jewel in the Crown and A Passage to India. I found it difficult to square those accounts with what my parents would tell me.”

Crime fiction in Britain is serious business. And, even more so, in Scotland. In a country obsessed with murder (the bloodier the better), creating a new detective, likeable, flawed with just the right amount of angst and popularity, is not easy. Mukherjee’s Captain Sam Wyndham—opium-addict, detective and failed lover—has done just that. And, has carved a space for himself in just two books.

He has been quickly and warmly adopted into the crime writers’ club—Val McDermid tweets about him—and beyond that in Britain and America. It is at home, in Calcutta and beyond, that he needs to find a space. His work, especially the opium dens and Chinese dons, is reminiscent of Ray. In Smoke and Ashes, the notorious kingpin is in Calcutta. There are two brutal murders, and Calcutta is at a standstill with the non-cooperation movement.

Mukherjee uses crime fiction, as the Scots do, to hold up a mirror to society. “Scottish authors such as William McIlvanney, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin transformed the crime novel into a medium for social commentary,” says Mukherjee. “Through them and others, the crime novel has evolved, and the detective has become a tool for holding a mirror to the society we live in. For me, growing up as a fan of such fiction, the crime novel was therefore the natural choice for me, when I wanted to explore issues of Raj-era India.”

His world is grey. There are no heroes, there are plenty of villains, and fighting for freedom also has its price. This might be a little difficult for an Indian—read true-blue Bengali—audience as he writes about beloved icons in his latest book. Especially, with Bose. The friction between him and Surrender-not, who is a black sheep for not being patriotic and giving up his police job, is palpable. The question is whether Indian readers will be able to stomach real characters in the midst of fictional setting? “I think that period in history has contributed so much to modern India and Britain, and it was a time that saw the best and the worst of both peoples,’’ he says.

Mukherjee always wanted to write, but never had the confidence. “There was no problem in me wishing to follow a literary career. My father wrote Bengali fiction and our house was always full of books. But, like most Indian families, the need to have a practical, paying career came first,’’ he says.

So, he still has a day job. Writing, then, takes place in the evenings and on weekends. Mukherjee uses fiction to fill in the gaps of history. “If there is one story I do want to tell, it would be the man-made Bengal famine of 1943, in which 3 million people died. Very few people in Britain today have even heard of it, let alone know its causes,’’ he says.

Mukherjee’s books, however, are an ode to Calcutta, the only true hero, if any in the books. “I love Calcutta,’’ he says. “My sense of ‘Bengaliness’ and all the cultural ramifications that it entails are wrapped up in that city. It is still home to my uncles and aunts, and a few years ago my father, after 40 years in the UK, passed away back in what he considered his home city. There is something special about Calcutta. Despite all its problems, both past and present, it has a certain spark; a vitality and a sense of humour that is unique. To me it is still one of the great cities of the world.”

There are many more murders in store. He has another two planned already. There will be more blood. Soon.

Smoke And Ashes

Author: Abir Mukherjee

Publisher: Harvill Secker

Pages: 352

Price: Rs 599