Chaired by Stephanie Merritt, better known in the world of crime fiction as SJ Parris, Monday’s event was a conversation between historical crime writers Abir Mukherjee and Kaite Welsh.
Both books, Welsh’s The Wages of Sin and Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, and more recently A Necessary Evil, have Scottish roots. Set in Victorian Edinburgh, Wages follows the story of Sarah Gilchrist, an upper class woman turned medical student with a tumultuous history, as she wends her way through the dark underworld of Edinburgh’s slums, and the bright-lit ballrooms of the wealthy above. A Rising Man and A Necessary Evil follow Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath ‘Surrender-Not’ Banerjee through the streets of 1920’s Calcutta. They must navigate the complex and unstable power structures of a city on the edge of political upheaval.
The speakers were lively and relaxed, engaging with each others’ work with jokes and anecdotes – both historical and personal – that had the audience laughing. It soon became clear that the pairing of the two authors was especially fortuitous: their works share striking similarities in theme, despite taking place in different ages and continents. Most notably, both books plunge their protagonists into times and places of great social change. This informs the nature of the mysteries themselves, but more importantly creates an essential disconnect between the idea of justice as seen through the eyes of the characters, and through the eyes of society.
These books follow in the footsteps, according to Mukherjee, of Scottish authors like Rankin, McDermid and McIlvanney: crime writing as social introspection, focusing on a character who is essentially a good person, acting under a system in which they don’t particularly believe.
They also discussed the evolution of their main characters: Gilchrist, said Welsh, represents the beginning of the arc for the ‘plucky lady sleuth’ character we’re all familiar with, a la Christie and Collins. And despite both their dark pasts, neither Wyndham nor Gilchrist seem to exhibit the self-destructive tendencies we tend to see in so many fictional detectives: Wallander, Rebus, even Holmes. Welsh put it succinctly: ‘There are so many people who want to destroy Sarah, she’s not going to give them a hand’.
This talk was everything it should have been: it cleverly connected the work of two up and coming authors, and showed the audience deeper insights into themes and source material than would have been possible on reading alone.