London author Abir Mukherjee returns with a third novel featuring his marvelously flawed hero, Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force. The year is 1921 and, scarred by his experiences in World War I, Wyndham is wallowing in Calcutta and spending his evenings in an opium-induced haze. On a particularly eventful night, the opium den he's lying in is raided by police and Wyndham stumbles into a gruesome murder scene while attempting to escape. He can't report the crime without incriminating himself, which leaves him in something of a sticky situation that is made exponentially worse the next day by the discovery of a second, similarly mutilated body.
Wyndham's search for the murderer takes place against the backdrop of British imperialism in India and the movement for Indian independence. With appearances by and references to real historical figures, Mukherjee grounds his mystery in a context of social and political unrest. This tension is mirrored in Wyndham's friend and assistant, Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee--nicknamed "Surrender-not" by the British superiors who couldn't pronounce his name--whose choice of career isolates him from his family and people. Mukherjee writes with an energy and urgency that is well suited to the turbulence of his setting and brings historic Calcutta to muggy, sweaty, visceral life. In Sam Wyndham he has created a complex and entertaining hero, marked by a pragmatic humor that makes Smoke and Ashes not just an excellent historical mystery, but a wonderfully entertaining read. --Judie Evans, librarian