Abir Mukherjee wants you to know he’s not a hero. The Indian Scottish novelist spent much of the 1990s and 2000s—before he became a breakout crime writer—working in finance and being, as he puts it, “a bit of a dickhead.” It’s tempting to imagine that Mukherjee’s irrepressible artist’s soul moved him to blow up his life in spectacular fashion on the floor of the London Stock Exchange one afternoon. The truth, he insists, is less sensational.

On days when Mukherjee, a London School of Economics graduate, felt especially disillusioned with his routine of “making a lot of money by making rich people richer” at firms including Deloitte and Abingdon Capital, he’d purchase lottery tickets or start writing novels. Neither effort bore much fruit. Then, in 2013, he stumbled across a Telegraph crime writing competition and decided to enter as a sort of personal litmus test. If he won, he thought, the reward—a £5,000 book deal with British publisher Harvill Secker—could launch a brave new future. But he’d never win, of course. And when he didn’t, he’d finally put his writerly daydreaming to bed.

Except Mukherjee did win, and that fuzzily defined “new future” blossomed into a five-book historical mystery series that’s earned him two Edgar Award nominations and sold more than 400,000 copies. “The day I got the email, I was in the office, and I reacted the way anybody from Glasgow does when faced with good news: I started swearing my head off,” Mukherjee recalls on Zoom from his home in Surrey, peeking out from behind round tortoise shell glasses and a gray-flecked beard. It felt, to him, like an act of fate. “I was never heroic enough to say, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ If I hadn’t won, I’d still be losing bits of my soul every day.”

Five minutes with Mukherjee is enough to confirm that his soul remains intact. Like many of his cohorts in crime fiction, he counterbalances his macabre work on the page with buoyant extroversion. He’s eager to talk at length about his literary heroes, and quick with a self-deprecating jab about his own Scottish brogue. He often turns questions back on his interviewer, either genuinely curious or sufficiently media trained to butter up the person with the notepad. And he has no qualms about charging straight toward big ideas—particularly political ones—in conversations or in his books.

Mukherjee’s first five novels centered on Sam Wyndham, a former Scotland Yard detective reassigned to the British force in Calcutta in the 1920s, and Surendranath Banerjee, his Indian sergeant. The books (most recently 2021’s The Shadows of Men) use meaty whodunit plots to address the intricate tensions of early-20th-century British-Indian relations.

The format mirrors the tartan noir Mukherjee read in his youth—Scottish novels by writers like Val McDermid and Ian Rankin that couched critiques of Thatcherism in hardboiled crime tropes. “Essentially all of my writing comes from anger, but shouting doesn’t achieve very much,” Mukherjee says. “You can’t just have a diatribe. You have to have a story there.”

In Hunted (Mulholland, May), Mukherjee’s latest novel, he uses a kaleidoscopic thriller plot to explore his anxieties about everything from his children’s safety to the durability of democracy as a form of government. The book had its origins when Joshua Kendall, Mukherjee’s editor at Hachette, asked him what he feared most, and Mukherjee replied with an answer that will feel familiar to many readers: the past decade’s worldwide uptick in political populism.

Hunted kicks off with a suicide bombing in an L.A. shopping mall. The attack attracts the attention of workaholic FBI agent Shreya Mistry, who nearly dies while investigating the mall’s ruins. From there, Mukherjee introduces a carousel of primary characters, each somehow linked to the initial explosion. There’s Aliyah Khan, a young Muslim woman from London living in a remote Oregon town with a group of political radicals; Greg Flynn, an Afghanistan veteran well-versed in explosives; Sajid, Aliyah’s modest father; and Carrie, Greg’s salt-of-the-earth mother. With more bombs exploding across the country, a shadowy Islamist group called Sons of the Caliphate starts taking credit for the attacks, and the chaos threatens to tip the balance in a close presidential race between a right-wing ideologue and the milquetoast vice president. As the election approaches, Mukherjee’s characters meet and join forces in various permutations, their individual motives unfurling slowly.

Hunted marks many firsts for Mukherjee: it’s his first standalone, his first contemporary novel, and the first in which he indulges his lifelong fascination with the United States. “To me, one of the major paradoxes about America is that everyone I’ve met there is so pleasant one-on-one.” Mukherjee says. “At the same time, I’ve never felt more scared someone’s going to shoot me.”

As he chewed on big ideas like Americans’ “talismanic” use of words such as freedom, he kept one eye on the ambient threat of violence that’s long characterized the national mood. The more he considered it, the more he came to see it as a question of economic decay. “Even if you were a working-class American in the ’50s or ’60s, you had a better lifestyle than 99% of people on the planet,” he says. “To go from those certainties to being a paycheck or an illness away from poverty—what does that do to people? And even more fascinating, what does that do in terms of identity?”

But Hunted is no pensive treatise on current affairs. Its ideas may have roots in Mukherjee’s experience growing up as “the local color” in West Scotland, but in execution, it’s a bang-up thriller—another first for the author. And while mysteries and thrillers are often grouped together in conversations and bookstore displays, Mukherjee found the mechanics to be wildly different. “With a thriller, you have to almost throw the kitchen sink at your characters in a way I never did in the Wyndham & Banerjee novels, because they’ve got British characters from the ’20s in them, and we wouldn’t do anything so quite so ungentlemanly as to thrill people,” he explains. “Excitement’s for you Americans. Over here, we’re more cerebral.”

The mandate to “hit readers in the face with a frying pan every five pages,” as Mukherjee puts it, means Hunted is stuffed with sucker-punch twists and a stone-faced, breathless quality that ramps up as the novel enters its second act. While he had a lot of fun figuring out how to heighten the book’s action without straying into out-and-out insanity, he admits he missed the humor of the Wyndham & Banerjee novels. “I see a lot of absurdity around me,” he says, “and I think the best way you deal with absurdity is humor.”

His next book, due out sometime next year, will be a Wyndham & Banerjee mystery, but he’s also stewing on a satire about an Indian George Santos–like figure who moves to America and swindles his way to the upper ranks of the political system. He wants to get back in touch with his funny bone, continue working in the fertile playground of the American imagination, and further explore ideas about the difficulties and privileges of being an outsider.

Because for all his success, Mukherjee still deeply identifies as one. “I’m just an idiot trying to get through things,” he says. “There’s a degree of, ‘Fucking hell, how did this ever happen? I’m just a wee boy from Hamilton in Scotland, and now people ask my opinion on stuff? That’s mental.’ ”