Death In The East is a story I was testing the waters with, I never read crime fiction! Historical fiction, however, I am completely into so thought I would give it a go. As far as introductions to a genre, Abir Mukherjee has given me a thought provoking one.
Death In The East shifts in alternate chapters through two time frames. In 1905, we follow the young protagonist, Constable Sam Wyndham through East London as he attempts to unravel the murder of Bessie Drummond. This victim being his own spurned ex, we can sense Wyndham attempting to find redemption by desperately seeking justice. For the chapters set in 1922, Wyndham has travelled to the hills of Assam, India. He spends time in the ashram of a monk in an attempt to shake his strong opium addiction. It’s rehab. On arrival, he comes across a ghost from his previous life in London. An enemy he hoped he would never see again. The series of events that follow set him (and the reader) on a path of unexpected turns and distinctive (suspicious) characters. There are ALOT of key characters.
Initially, I found the story to be a slow starter but once the momentum built up, it become more engaging. On quite a few occasions, Abir Mukherjee doesn’t immediately reveal what Wyndham is thinking, keeping you on the edge of discovery with him. I found myself becoming more interested in what potential clues signified, how different character narratives interlinked. It definitely has the locked room mystery element. I was pulling up my mac collar like Columbo. Even with all that, I was more interested in the societal themes driving the motives and reactions in Death In The East.
The settings allowed commentary on British attitudes toward class and ethnicity
True to attitudes towards ethnicity at the time, the characters’ perspectives of each other rely heavily on racial stereotypes. This colours the judgements made by police, including Wyndham– who is far from a perfect or heroic. These attitudes prevail today, we are experiencing the reverbs of xenophobia playing into decisions around Brexit. Abir Mukherjee did note that our current state influenced the direction of Death In The East and it is evident. In particular, we see the horrific views of immigrant Jews held by Britain in the 1900s. In colonial India, we see the impacts of hierarchy and race in the disparaging way Indian natives are treated by the English ruling class. As well as race, class weighs heavily on power plays throughout the book. While in East London, there is definitely a notion of not assuming yourself ‘above your station’. This easily translates to the hierarchical system in colonial India. Gender also has plays a huge role in the fate of the key characters.
I didn’t really like Wyndham as a character
I realise that this is could have been the effect Mukherjee was going for. Sam Wyndham is entitled, elitist and essentially thriving on nepotism. Typical of the middle class in an era of colonialism. He serves as a good vessel to assess some issues and the reader can only hope for his improvement! I’m not sure if this is consistent of his behaviour in other books in the series, I easily read Death In The East as a stand alone.
The interplay of the media and the legal system
Mukherjee gives a brief 360 view of how the media influences judicial systems and vice versa. I found that interesting, we see it all the time! The public read a report or op-ed in the paper, which then influences our perspectives and the circle goes round. With the dominance of social media, this has become an even bigger conundrum.
Will I read another crime fiction? I’m not sure to be honest! But I do know that if, like Death In The East, there are strong themes exploring our society as it is today, I would be interested
Sidebar: I think Taron Egerton could play Sam Wyndham in a film. He’s good at that balance of troubled and charming
Death In The East Published by Vintage Publishing (Penguin) 6th August 2020
Thank you to Vintage Publishing for a review copy of the book