My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"The first drag of the first pipe was a deliverance, like the breaking of a fever. With the second pipe, the shaking stopped, and with the third, the nerves steadied."
Sam Wyndham's error was calling for a fourth. Smoke and Ashes spotlights Wyndham's opium addiction in the first scene--and nearly ends his career with the CID at Lal Bazar, when the vice division raids the Calcutta den he's visiting. During his escape from the authorities, Sam discovers a dying man, curiously mutilated. He continues his flight, but begins a low-key investigation into the murder, which mysteriously appears to remain undiscovered as far as the authorities are concerned.
A more pressing matter is on his superiors' minds - the Indian National Congress and its leader, Mahatma Gandhi. The cause of self-rule have swept the country, with protest rallies, labor strikes, and the burning of British textiles. The Prince of Wales is touring India to restore goodwill and the status quo, and he is coming to Calcutta for Christmas. Alas, there will be no carols about it. One of Gandhi's primary supporters, C.R. Das, is leading the non-cooperation movement in the city, and Lord Taggart is sending Sam and his sergeant, "Surrender-not" Banerjee, to persuade him not to stage protests or stunts during the visit.
Sam Wyndham isn't looking forward to the job:
"I hated this new breed of pacifistic Indian revolutionary. So often they acted like we were all just good friends who happened to disagree about something, and that once the issue was resolved - obviously in their favour - we'd go back to taking tea and being the best of chums. It made punching them in the face morally difficult."
Shortly after their first visit to see Das (fruitless, of course), the second body turns up - mutilated like the man from the opium den.
The Das intervention and murder investigation turn the wheels of the plot after that, taking us into an unsavory part of British history in India, until all the elements come together at the climax of the book, shifting what was a mystery into a thriller.
My greatest pleasure in reading Abir Mukherjee, comes from his use of the language, his ability to slide between cultures, and his philosophical view of his subject matter. His commentary through Sam reminds me a bit of John D. MacDonald's writing.
"Calcutta was a city divided in more ways than one. To the north, there was Black Town, home to the native population; to the south, White Town for the British; and in the middle, a grey, amorphous area full of Chinese, Armenians, Jews, Parsees, Anglo-Indians and anyone else who didn't fit in. There was no law demarking the city, no barriers or walls; the segregation was just one of those things that seemed to have evolved when no one was paying attention."
His observations and seamless writing make the entire series a worthwhile read.
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