Books

Abir Mukherjee: ‘Using the crime novel to discuss social issues is in our blood’

Death in the East, the fourth of Abir Mukherjee’s retro crime novels featuring Captain Sam Wyndham of the Calcutta Police and Sergeant Surendranath ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee, opens in 1922. The novel switches between Assam of 1922 and 1905 in Whitechapel when Sam was a constable.

“I am partly doing this because I feel I need to grow as an author,” says Abir over the phone from London. “In book five, I felt I needed to challenge myself in an additional way. Sam’s narrative will be interspersed with chapters in Suren’s voice.”

When he started writing the series, Abir wrote from a white, Englishman’s point of view. “Sadly I didn’t feel that I could write from an Indian’s point of view despite being Indian. Now I am more comfortable and I hope I am getting slightly better as a writer. I feel able to speak in Suren’s voice.”

Despite being genre fiction, whodunits are a good way to explore social conditions. “I grew up in Scotland, where there is a tradition of social commentary. Using the crime novel to discuss social issues is in our blood. There are several reasons for that. First, a detective has access to all levels of society, from the prince, all the way to the prostitute. It is a good character, a good vehicle. Second, a lot of the issues in society today, such as terrorism, drugs, people trafficking, and the issues that I am looking at 100 years ago, have a law-and-order angle.”

The Scottish-Bengali author says while the police are fighting the good fight now, it was more ambiguous earlier. “In the Calcutta Police Museum, the displays for the modern day war on terror or drugs show the police as heroic. However, when you go back to before Independence, it is the freedom fighters who are heroic. I found that dichotomy interesting.”

The books (published by Penguin Random House) are enormous fun and Abir has created a fascinating cast of characters including the lovely Annie Grant.

Abir is not willing to commit on whether Sam and Annie will get together. “Sam is a damaged individual. He suffers from what we call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder nowadays, but there was no name for shellshock then. He is a widower and has undergone a lot of trauma. He needs to sort himself out first. Also I don’t know if I want them to get together. The chase is interesting. I am happily married and have two lovely children but I stand by what I said.”

Creating suspense

Suren will be married or find some sort of romantic affiliation before Sam, Abir concedes. So Sam looks to be set for the archetypal loner detective. “He is going to have his circle of friends. There will be Suren, there will always be an Annie. But at some point, there will be a falling out between Sam and Suren.”

The foundation for the disagreement has been set at the end of Death in the East when Suren visits Sam in Indian clothes and asks to be called Surendranath and not Surrender-Not.

There does not seem to be any way the two could agree on the Freedom Movement. “I am not so sure,” says Abir. “Not all the British in India believed in the English divine right to govern. I don’t think it would be completely outrageous to say that in the end Sam would be convinced of India’s need for Independence. He is not your average Englishman. He has seen too much in the war, to be blinkered. My gut feeling is there will be a coming together between the two around the story I really want to tell, that of the Bengal famine.”

The famine in 1943 resulted in the death of an estimated three million people. To get to 1943, Abir is thinking of moving things forward. “I am thinking of not writing a book for every year like I have been doing, (A Rising Man is set in 1919, A Necessary Evil in 1920 and Smoke and Ashes in 1921) rather writing a book for every two years. On the other hand, I don’t want to rush to get to ‘43 because I am also scared of dealing with the topic.”

It is a widely held view that the famine was man-made due to colonial wartime policy. “It is a part of British history that has not been talked about. Unlike Germany or Japan, Britain has never had that mirror held up to its face. I have been lucky that the books have grown in popularity here and in America. I am getting to a point where I hope that when I come to write that story, I will have enough readers to actually make a dent in the psyche.”

Talking about the genesis of the crime series, Abir says, “In school I was asked to write an essay about the Bengal famine. I used the argument that, while we lambaste and denigrate the Germans for what happened, we don’t even look at the Bengal famine. I got a C and I swear, that has been the inspiration for this. That anger was the cause of the series.”

Writing a series of books, has its pros and cons, Abir says. “As a writer if you say this is the start of a series, it helps publishers with their initial gamble. Second, you build a familiarity with your characters. Readers are invested in Sam, Suren and Annie. It took me till book three to effectively do what I set out to do, which is to be a pacey thriller and also highlight the mustard gas experiments carried out by the British. I felt I achieved 75 to 80% of what I wanted. The downside of writing a series is not about having to come up with a new plot, but about challenging yourself as an author rather than churn out books by the numbers.”

Abir says his next book is going to have nothing to do with India. “It will deal with issues such as how we view capitalism and will be different from anything that I have written. I have started writing it. Now I spend my mornings with Sam and Suren and afternoons with this new idea. It is keeping me fresh.”

The 45-year old author says setting is one of the most important things in a crime novel if done right. “I chose to set my books in Calcutta because it is a unique place. One of the strangest places I have ever been. I can understand the Bengali bombast, and the Bengali penchant for pretending to think instead of actually doing any hard work. I have seen it in myself. I am glad it is not laziness but genetics (laughs).

“I think setting is important because it can change your novel from being a crime novel to being about a place. William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw (the 1977 novel is considered the first tartan noir), was a love song to Glasgow. We grew up reading Agatha Christie and the golden age of the country house crime novels. That has no relevance to me. They are great stories but did not have the relevance for me that Laidlaw did.”

The mention of Christie brings us to the classic closed door murder in Death in the East. “It is my tribute to Christie. She was an innovator in so many ways. She introduced things that we now take for granted in crime fiction such as the unreliable narrator or as in the case of Murder on the Orient Express where everyone is the murderer or And Then There Were None where there is no detective… I think most crime writers want at some point in their life to write a locked room mystery.”

We will soon be seeing Sam and Suren on screen as the series has been optioned. “Kunal Nayyar from The Big Bang Theory wants to play Suren and has come on board as executive producer.”


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