Book review: A Rising Man* by Abir Mukherjee

I’m not a big reader of crime fiction. My only real experience with the genre is two Agatha Christies and the Cormoran Strike series. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t actually realised Mukherjee’s debut was a crime novel (though, in hindsight, the blurb makes the fact perfectly clear). I had simply heard that it was a good read (it was shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize), so I thought I would give it a try.

Without a doubt, A Rising Man* ticks every box on the Crime Fiction Tropes Checklist. Ex-Army protagonist with emotional baggage and a drug problem? Check. The resentful subordinate passed over for promotion in favour of the protagonist? Check. The mysterious yet attractive woman who might not be totally trustworthy? Check. There also just happens to be a murder, as you might expect.

You could be forgiven for imagining that a story that appears to be so paint-by-numbers would be utterly boring. After reading a few pages, it’s what I assumed as well. I was more than happy to be proved wrong.

What sets A Rising Man apart is its setting. The action takes place in colonial Calcutta, not long after the close of the First World War. This is my first encounter with a book set during the British imperial rule of India and, as a result, every scene hooked me with vivid descriptions of this unfamiliar landscape.

Put simply, it’s a masterstroke. Mukherjee doesn’t simply transplant familiar tropes wholesale into this setting. Everything in A Rising Man is shaped by its context. Protagonist Captain Wyndham, for example, is a WW1 veteran running away from his demons by moving to Calcutta and joining the local police force.

WP_20170518_12_47_33_ProFar more notable, however, is how the setting influences the overall plot. Yes, it follows the basic elements of a murder mystery, but it does so while confronting the racism, hypocrisy, and delicate balance of power at work in the British Raj. The murder victim was not only a white man, but a senior clerk in Calcutta’s government. As a result, Capt. Wyndham gains access to the great and the good of the city’s European elite, and conducts his investigation against a backdrop of potential uprisings across India. He does all this while accompanied by Sergeant Surendranath “Surrender-not” Bannerjee, whose utter competence as an officer in no way mitigates his lesser status as a “native” officer, and whose birth name is mangled into a crass Anglicism by everyone, including Wyndham.

The plot of A Rising Man certainly had me hooked, and I was wrong on more than a few occasions as to who the culprit could have been. For this alone, I would recommend the book to anyone, including crime novices like myself.

But it’s Mukherjee’s confident approach to the political and colonial complexities of his chosen setting that really stands out for me. Indeed, his use of tropes is an asset, rather than a weakness. They become recognisable points within the unfamiliar landscape of 1910s Calcutta, and are in turn reinvigorated by the change of scenery. Like Capt. Wyndham, fresh off the boat and used to conducting investigations in London, the reader has to abandon any preconceptions about crime fiction they may have held, as A Rising Man is something else entirely.

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