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Posts Tagged ‘post-World War I’

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.


BIG WHEAT by Richard A. Thompson: Book Review

Bindlestiff.  A hobo or tramp, especially one with a bedroll. It’s in the subtitle–Big Wheat:  A Tale of Bindlestiffs and Blood–of a mystery novel by Richard A. Thompson.

Charles Krueger isn’t a bindlestiff when the novel begins. He’s a young man of 23 in 1919 North Dakota, the only surviving son on his parents’ farm.  He’s got a girlfriend, or so he thinks, but it turns out that Mabel Boysen was only using him.  She’s intent on marrying a neighboring well-to-do farmer whom she thinks may be sterile, so she’s gotten herself pregnant with Charlie’s child whom she intends to pass off as the other man’s; obviously she’s been burning the candle at both ends.

Charlie is devastated and distraught.  Out on the prairie late at night shortly after this revelation, he sees a man who looks as if he’s burying something.  As Charlie gets closer the man runs, or rather limps, quickly away.  What Charlie doesn’t know, of course, is that the man has just raped and buried Mabel.  And although the man doesn’t know who Charlie is, he’s fearful that Charlie can recognize him and determines to find him and kill him.

The man with the limp calls himself The Windmill Man. He’s a serial killer stalking the Great Plains, convinced that man is destroying the land with his farms and cities and that the only way to cleanse the land is through blood, the blood he spills each time he kills someone.  There’s so much he needs to do to atone for everyone else’s sins.

Charlie has put up with his father, a brutal alcoholic man, for years, but one day it’s simply too much.  After being threatened with yet another beating, Charlie picks up a kitchen knife and stabs it through his father’s hand, pinning the hand to the kitchen table.  Then he packs a bag and leaves.  It’s the day after Mabel is killed, and the townspeople think they ran off together.  But when the young woman’s body is discovered a few days later, their opinion changes to viewing Charlie as a murderer, and the hunt for him is on.

He doesn’t have much formal education and has never been to a city, but Charlie is a genius with machinery.  He’s picked up on the road by a man named Jim Avery who’s the leader of a group of wanderers with histories they’d rather forget–bindlestiffs, abused women, an almost-veterinarian.  Charlie joins them and soon proves his worth as a thresher and mechanic. He also begins to fall for Emily, one of the walking wounded in the Ark, as Avery calls his group.  But the Windmill Man and the sheriff from Charlie’s home county are still looking for him, and he’s not sure how long he can evade them.

There are plenty of other interesting characters in this novel.  Dishonest and corrupt sheriffs and greedy bankers are there, but so are generous farmers and mystical Indians.  The Great Plains are big enough to encompass them all.

Richard A. Thompson has written a fascinating novel about a time and a place that was unfamiliar to me. His characters are vibrant, and the prairie is alive with men and women working together to hold onto a type of life that is fast-disappearing.

You can read more about Richard A. Thompson at his web site.