Death in the East
Today is my stop on the Death in the East blog tour!
Death in the East is set both in 1922 India and 1905 London and follows detective Sam Wyndham, who, in an attempt to kick his opium addiction, has travelled to an ashram in remote Assam. While at the railway station, Wyndham is surprised to see a ghost from his past and this leads him to recall earlier events of a case he was working on in the East End where a young woman was violently attacked and murdered. The past and present collide as he is confronted with a new case which threatens to bring up deep-buried memories.
Mukherjee’s interest in British colonial history and class distinctions is very apparent in this novel. Through the medium of historical crime fiction, Mukherjee’s writing is able to transport his reader back to the rule of the British Raj in the 1920s and address some of the forgotten crimes that were acted out in the name of Empire. The novel’s address of xenophobia in Britain primarily focuses on how the Jewish community in London’s East End are blamed for the poverty and unemployment of the region, despite Wyndham noting that these issues existed long before their migration. Weaving in racial politics that are startlingly relevant today, it is said that the Jewish community's biggest crime is having the nerve to look like the English. When Wyndham arrives in the East, he starts to understand the colonial attitude is not limited to British soil. In India, too, the British expats are suspicious of the natives and live separately to local communities. This book is powerfully political and it really served to demonstrate how some lives are seen as more dispensable than others.
The detective serves as the ideal device to navigate these conversations through having access to all levels of society. Veering between habitual racism and sympathy for those who are ‘othered’ by British society, Wyndham undergoes a very admirable character development in this text as he begins to understand the lack of justice in the criminal justice system. Banerjee, Wyndham’s partner, also grows in confidence and I loved how he stands up to Wyndham for calling him ‘Surrender-not’, as opposed to ‘Saranthadra', under the guise that he finds his actual name too difficult to pronounce. Suren rightly points out the casual racism Wyndham engages in, thereby demonstrating his unconscious bias and a complicity in British attitudes towards Indians. In this book we definitely see a power shift within the pair and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how this progresses in future books of this series.
Both the East End and Jatinga were beautifully depicted and I felt that both locations were given as much time and attention as the other. I particularly loved Mukherjee’s metaphor of the suicide birds in creating the right atmosphere in a location already shrouded in mystery and unexplained death. While stating in his Author’s Note that Death in the East was never meant to be set outside India, Mukherjee does a brilliant job at depicting the East End of London of the Edwardian era. Sometimes I feel that historical fiction can sensationalise the poverty of the East End but this wasn’t the case in this book. Every aspect of this book was well thought out and had an end purpose.
My only criticism lies with the title. ‘Death in the East’ is quite a bland title and doesn’t reflect how sophisticated a book this is, especially since the murders in this story take place both in the East and the West. This is me picking straws though, because this book is up there in my top reads of 2020 so far.
I’m just going to say it. This is the best historical crime fiction novel I have ever read. Lovers of crime and/or historical fiction, you need to get on this one. While this is book number 4 in the Sam Wyndham series, it reads as a standalone book so I would definitely say you don’t have to read the other books in the series before reading this one.
A big thank you to Vintage Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.