Death in the Raj, serial rapists and adrenaline junkies

Sunday Times, 24 October 2021

Abir Mukherjee’s terrific crime novels are set in India in the 1920s. The Shadows of Men (Harvill Secker £12.99) is vivid and brutal, taking place at a moment when the murder of a Hindu politician in Calcutta risks sparking a religious war. Mukherjee’s detective, Captain Sam Wyndham, is a First World War veteran who has had to overcome an opium addiction to keep his job. He shares digs with his Indian sergeant, Surendranath Banerjee, and Mukherjee explores both men’s misconceptions about each other.

 
In the fifth in the series, Banerjee becomes the chief suspect in the murder investigation and Wyndham struggles frantically to save him from a death sentence. In a shift from the earlier books, the story alternates between the two men’s voices, giving Banerjee’s view of the Raj for the first time. Mukherjee’s novels are becoming more political, deftly using the conventions of the crime genre to expose the racist assumptions of the period.

 
The depiction of sexual violence in crime fiction is a controversial subject. The veteran American author Michael Connelly and the multi-award-winning German crime writer Oliver Bottini have both put rape at the heart of their new novels, dealing with the subject with greater sensitivity than some of their contemporaries.

 

In The Dark Hours (Orion £20), Connelly’s detective, Renée Ballard of the LAPD, is pursuing a couple of serial rapists when she’s diverted to a separate investigation involving the murder of a reformed gang member. It’s a clever device, avoiding the pitfalls of having the rapes centre stage while showing how few resources are put into investigating sexual violence. Ballard’s interaction with the victims is sympathetic, while her investigation into the murder keeps up the tension.

Bottini’s novel Night Hunters (MacLehose £18.99), translated by Jamie Bulloch, is the fourth in his superb Black Forest series. Two teenage boys discover a badly beaten young woman in a barn. Shockingly they do not call the police, but lock the woman inside with the intention of returning at night to inflict further violence.

One of the boys is murdered before they can carry out this plan, but it’s a stomach-churning opening, part of an unflinching commentary on the nature of male violence. Bottini’s main character is a woman, and both novels suggest that the rapists would go free without a female officer determined to secure justice for the victims.

On the Edge (Verve £9.99) is a promising debut by Jane Jesmond. A young woman is in rehab recovering from drug addiction after a free climbing accident in which her ex-boyfriend suffered life-changing injuries. Jenifry Shaw has promised to give up the sport, but when she returns to her childhood home in Cornwall, she wakes from a drugged sleep to find herself dangling from the parapet of a lighthouse. Jesmond explores the adrenaline rush of risky sports in this original mystery.

 

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