I knocked and entered. A young woman was seated behind a desk too small for the oversized typewriter, telephone and stacks of papers that sat upon it. She seemed preoccupied with her typing. ‘Miss Grant?’ She looked up, flustered, her eyes red-rimmed. ‘I’m Captain Wyndham.’
‘Captain,’ she said, pushing a strand of brown hair from her face, ‘please do come in.’ She rose from her chair and in the process knocked over a stack of papers, which scattered on the floor. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, quickly bending down to gather them up. I tried not to stare at her legs, which was difficult because they were fine legs and I appreciate these things. She caught me nevertheless, and to hide my embarrassment, I knelt down, picked up a few stray sheets that had landed at my feet and handed them to her.
I thanked her for her time and stood up to leave. She rose and led me to the door. ‘And Captain,’ she said, ‘if I can be of any further assistance, please let me know.’ I thanked her, took one last surreptitious glance at those smooth, tanned legs, then heard myself saying, ‘And, if it’s still open, I might take you up on your offer to show me Chowringhee.’
She smiled. ‘Of course, Captain. I look forward to it.’
commentary: I feel a bit mean picking on one particular aspect of this very enjoyable book, but Abir Mukherjee has come up against the raison d'etre of Clothes in Books.
Later on our hero has this:
Annie Grant…wore a simple blue dress that came down to her knees and afforded me a view of those calves that I so admired.To which we say: no she didn’t, and no you didn’t get to look at her legs.
It IS simple, and quite straightforward: This is 1919, and Annie Grant works as a respectable secretary in the Indian civil service. She was not showing her legs to anyone.
The top pictures show what Selfridges department store was selling in London as the height of daring fashion in that year. It is likely that a respectable young woman in Calcutta might be wearing even longer skirts, but even with the benefit of the doubt the policeman could, at best, have seen her ankles. These descriptions of her clothes are unthinkable. The author is mistaking her for a flapper of the 1920s – though even then it would be more correct to say that her blue dress ‘came up to her knees’ rather than down – down implies it is longer than the norm. And even when skirts got shorter, I imagine a working woman in Annie’s situation would err on the modest side.
However. There is a lot more to enjoy about the book - the opener in a new crime series featuring Sam Wyndham, a policeman from Scotland Yard making a new start in Calcutta. The author wants to feature India between the wars, an unusual and intriguing setting.
Our hero investigates the murder of a local sahib, the body found in evening dress with a threatening note in his mouth, and gets caught up in all kinds of politics, the independence movement, and the internal politics of the ruling classes. He has his own issues and problems, and memories of life in London, and the First World War. He establishes a relationship with Surrender-Not Bannerjee, a local policeman with endless experience and useful knowledge. He is the best character in the book, and is given the best lines. When Sam wants to question some women in a house overlooking the crime scene, his Anglo assistant objects:
‘I’m not sure that would be such a good idea, old boy,’ said Digby. ‘There are some things you should know about the natives and their customs. They can be very funny about us questioning their lady-folk. You go barging over there to interrogate some woman and before you know it you’ll have a riot on your hands. It might be better if I handled it.’
Banerjee squirmed. Digby’s face darkened. ‘Is there something you wish to say, Sergeant?’
‘No, sir,’ said Banerjee apologetically. ‘It’s just that I don’t think anyone will start a riot if we go in there.’
Digby’s voice quivered. ‘And what makes you so certain of that?’
And then later
‘Well, sir,’ said Banerjee, ‘I’m fairly sure that house is a brothel.’
[There was a] wooden sign, its perfect white letters bearing the message: NO DOGS OR INDIANS BEYOND THIS POINT
Surrender-not noticed my distaste. ‘Don’t worry, sir,’ he said. ‘We Indians know our place. Besides, the British have achieved certain things in a hundred and fifty years that our civilisation didn’t in over four thousand.’
‘Such as?’ I asked.
The book is quite long, and some of the chapters gave us only local colour and maybe one piece of information, but I assume Mukherjee is showing us his research. Some of the casual relations seemed unlikely in such a formal and divided society, and would a respectable preacher really say ‘I thought he was an arse’ about the murder victim? And as for the repeated use of the construction ‘Digby was sat opposite’ or ‘was sat on a chair’ – one might grudgingly have to accept that now, but it is completely wrong for 1919, unthinkably ungrammatical. It’s odd, because Mukherjee is very careful about language in general.
Banerjee’s lips contorted in a thin smile. ‘Well, we never managed to teach the dogs to read.’
But it was a most promising start to this new series, and I look forward to more, much more, of Surrender-Not.
Thanks to Jackie for the recommendation.