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A RISING MAN by Abir Mukherjee: Book Review

Back when there really was a British Empire, India was “the jewel in the crown.”  Its incredible mineral riches, its variety of desirable goods such as cotton and spices, and its huge population of workers all made the subcontinent the most valuable part of Great Britain’s holdings.  But times change, and in 1919 things were changing in India more quickly than could be dealt with by the ruling class.

A Rising Man opens with the arrival in Calcutta, capital of the state of Bengal, of Captain Sam Wyndham.  He’s fresh from the Great War and from London’s Metropolitan Police Force.  Devastated by death and trauma–the death of his bride just three weeks after their wedding, the deaths of his half-brother and their father during the war, as well as the injury he suffered in France–Sam jumps at the opportunity he’s offered to join the police in Calcutta, about as far from England as he can get.

Barely has he arrived than he has his first murder case.  The body of an Englishman, dressed in evening clothes but with his throat slashed, is found in the city’s native section called Black Town, a place where no respectable British citizen would go.  Even worse, the corpse is in front of a brothel, making it clear that the case will have to be handled with the utmost care and sensitivity.

The body is that of Alexander MacAuley, a man of great importance in the Bengali government.  In fact, so important was MacAuley that there is a dispute over which department should take over the investigation–the Imperial Police Force or Military Intelligence–with Military Intelligence having more power.  So Sam and his two assistants, Digby and Banerjee, have only a very short time to solve the case before it’s taken from them.

In addition to the murder, Sam is dealing with another crime that may be related, although his superiors aren’t certain of that.  A mail train was stopped by a group of robbers, dacoits; a railway guard was killed but the safes on the train, usually filled with cash, were empty.  The whole set-up is strange, the train’s driver tells Sam:  it’s unusual for a train to be robbed this close to Calcutta, the guard’s murder seems pointless, and why didn’t the dacoits rob the first-class passengers if they were thwarted by the empty safes?

This novel is as rich as India itself was at the time it takes place.  There’s so much going on–the murder, the robbery, the daily buildup of tensions between the ruling British and the Indian natives, and the fight for power among the various government departments.  Added to this are Sam’s personal problems–his understandable depression about his wife’s untimely death, his increasing dependence on drugs to help control his physical and mental pain, and his newness to a culture so different from his own.

Abir Mukherjee’s debut novel is stunning in its complexity.  The plot and characters shine, and I was delighted to discover that the second book in the series, A Necessary Evil, was published earlier this year.  It’s a must read for me.

You can read more about Abir Mukherjee at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


WHERE THE SHADOWS LIE by Michael Ridpath: Book Review

Iceland–a country with a lot of differences from the United States. Police do not carry guns, and there are no handguns in the country; citizens are listed in the phone directory under their first names; most sons have the last name of their father with the addition of “son”–Teddy Douglasson; most daughters are given the last name of their mother with the Icelandic addition of “daughter”–Lyla Suzannedottir (Teddy and Lyla being siblings with the same parents); women keep their original last names after marriage.

Although Magnus Jonson (his American name) knows some of these customs, he’s still feeling a bit off-kilter when he returns to the land of his birth after twenty years in the United States. Actually, Magnus Jonson isn’t even his real name.  His real name is Magnus Ragnarsson, since he was the son of Ragnar.  But the American bureaucracy couldn’t cope with this when they realized that his father’s name was Ragnar Jonsson and his mother’s name was Margret Hallgrimsdottir–his name should be one of those.  So, in desperation, Magnus took Jonson as his last name; sometimes, he thought, it’s just not worth the battle.  But upon his return to Iceland, he introduces himself as Magnus Ragnarsson, and the people he meets nod approvingly.

As the novel opens, Magnus is a police detective in Boston who is supposed to testify against three crooked colleagues in his department in a drug-related arrest.  There have been two attempts on his life, generally thought to be related to his upcoming testimony. So his supervisor tells him that, in response to a request from the Reykjavik police department for the loan of an experienced homicide detective, Magnus will be going to Iceland until the trial begins. The fact that Magnus speaks Icelandic is definitely an added bonus.  Against his will, but understanding the necessity for his transfer, Magnus leaves his adopted home and heads north.

Although crime is rare in Iceland and murder even rarer, there was a murder just days before Magnus arrived in Reykjavik.  A university professor was killed at his summer home, and investigation shows that the reason for his death points to his involvement with an ancient Icelandic saga that has been offered for sale.  The saga has been handed down from father to eldest son in a family for generations.   Now, due to the economic downturn that has hit Iceland hard, Ingileif Asgrimsdottir, the daughter of this family, has reluctantly decided to sell the saga; the professor was very interested in buying it.  Her decision brings new deaths and reopens investigations into old ones.

In addition to the saga itself, there is another very important and nearly priceless artifact involved.  The family lore is that there is a gold ring that, like the saga, has been passed down from generation to generation, a ring that has unequaled power.  It is similar to the gold ring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and there is correspondence from the author of those books, J. R. R. Tolkien, to an ancestor of Ingileif’s.   Her father fell to his death searching for the ring, and she wants no part of it.  But it seems as if someone else does.

The plot and characters in this novel are outstanding, and the unusual locale simply adds to the pleasure of reading this book.

Where the Shadows Lie is the first of Michael Ridpath’s Icelandic crime novels.  Although it was published in 2010, I just discovered it this month.  His second in the “Fire and Ice” series was published as 66 Degrees abroad but may be found under the title Far North in the United States.

You can read more about Michael Ridpath at his web page.