The novel is set in the British Raj. It follows on from the storyline in the The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, and The Towers of Silence. Many of the events are retellings from different points of view of events that happened in the previous novels.
The title, A Division of the Spoils comes from the Isaiah 53.12:Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
and the Proverbs 16.18-19:Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly than to divide the spoil with the proud.
The story is set in 1945 and 1947 in several locations throughout India, prior to and after Indian independence, particularly in an unnamed province of northern India. The province shares characteristics with Punjab and the United Provinces. The names of places and people suggest a connection to Bengal; however, the physical characteristics place the setting in north-central India, rather than in northeast India. The province has an agricultural plain and, in the north, a mountainous region.
The capital of the province is Ranpur. Another large city in the province is Mayapore, which was the key setting in The Jewel in the Crown. The princely state of Mirat is a nominally sovereign enclave within the province. Pankot is a "second class" hill station in the province which serves as a headquarters for the 1st Pankot Rifles, an important regiment of the Indian Army, who fought the Axis in North Africa. During the cool season, the regiment moves to Ranpur, on the plains. At Premanagar there is an old fortification that is used by the British as a prison. Another town, Muzzafirabad is the headquarters of the Muzzafirabad ("Muzzy") Guides, another Indian Army regiment, as well as the Bishop Barnard mission.
The story covers in personal terms the humbling and hasty decamping of the British: the precipitous concession of power to a country fiercely bent on division; the travails of an honorable Muslim Congressman, Mohammed Ali Kasim, and his sons, one of whom had deserted to the Japan-directed Indian National Army; the quandary of the Nawab of the small fictitious princely state of Mirat, left in the lurch by the lapse of British Paramountcy; the suicide of a dysentery-debilitated and maladapted British officer; the prowling of the haunted Ronald Merrick. The new man on the scene is Sergeant Guy Perron, once a pupil of a public school called Chillingborough which Hari Kumar (as Harry Coomer) also attended when he lived in England. It is Guy who returns in 1947/8 to be an observer of India on the eve of Independence; this assignment soon turns into a personal inquiry into the truth behind the hushed-up story of Lieutenant-Colonel Ronald Merrick's death in Mirat. The tragic consequences of India-Pakistan partition are dramatized in a horrific train massacre in which Ahmed Kasim, the son of Mohammed Ali Kasim, is targeted by rioters and chooses to sacrifice himself in order to protect the rest of the people in his carriage.
Merrick’s fears, desires, ambitions, and hatreds are the catalyst for the Jewel in the Crown and the stories of the subsequent three novels in the series. Merrick comes from a working-class background and keenly feels his inferior position in British society.
Having come to India, he finds a place where he can be on top and he has developed a sophisticated justification for a virulent brand of racism. Merrick strongly believes that whites are the natural rulers of the world and non-whites must be made subject to them. He also believes that non-whites cannot ever improve their position and that they must be reminded of this.
For his own part, however, Merrick seeks to climb the ladder of British society. He is intelligent, resourceful, and ruthless in both his quests: to keep Indians in their place and to improve his own social rank.
Merrick was the district superintendent of police in Mayapore when Daphne Manners was raped. He was admired for his efficiency and skill at his job, but his notoriety after the Manners case (Falsely setting up Hari Kumar and sadistic interrogation methods used on him, which was never revealed to the public) resulted in his transfer to Sundernagar, a backwater town in the unnamed province. Seeing his opportunity to advance in the civil service frustrated, Merrick calls in his chips to get a commission in the Indian Army at the rank of captain. At the start of the book, he is handling the interrogation of INA members. He is later posted to the State's Police in Mirat where he attempts to quell sectarian violence.
In Perron's view, other characters in the story become important when Merrick "chooses" them for his personal attention. He chooses the Layton family as an opportunity to climb the social ladder.
In this novel Merrick, who has married Susan Layton and become stepfather to Teddy Bingham's son Edward, finally reaps the consequences of his actions towards Hari Kumar following the events in the Bibighar Gardens. He is killed in mysterious circumstances after a campaign of entrapment organized by Pandit Baba has succeeded. However, it is strongly implied (by Count Bronowsky) that his death is the result of Merrick being forced to face certain facts about his repressed, deeply closeted desires that he was never willing to admit to himself before.
Perron serves as an intelligence operative in the Indian Army. He comes from the ruling class, having attended Chillingborough and Cambridge University, which is unusual for an enlisted soldier. Perron is a scholar of Indian language and history and uses his time in India to observe and study human nature. He is assigned to work under Merrick, to whom he develops an intense disliking. Despite the surname, he is no relation of the 18th French adventurer Pierre Cuillier-Perron.
Sarah is the elder daughter of Lt. Col. John Layton, the commanding officer of the 1st Pankot Rifles, and his wife, Mildred. While her father is held in a German prison camp in Europe after engagements in North Africa, Sarah and her family continue to live the aristocratic life of the British in India. However, unlike the rest of her family, Sarah is uncomfortable with the hierarchy that the English have established in India. She is not so sure of the racial philosophy that forms the basis of British dominance in the subcontinent and she occasionally shocks her family with her deviance from accepted propriety.
Sarah's strength, independence, and competence are what keep things going in the Layton household, especially after the death of Susan's husband, Teddie. For the duration of the war, Sarah (as well as her sister, Susan) has joined the Women Army Corps (India), and is serving in a clerical position at regimental headquarters (the "daftar") in Pankot.
Nigel Rowan is a member of the IPS, working in Ranpur and Mirat. He is a thwarted suitor of Sarah's.
Ahmed Kasim is the younger son of MAK, and secretary to Count Bronowski. He is a womaniser, and an avid hawker.
Hari Kumar was an Indian raised as an Englishman at the exclusive public school Chillingborough. Upon returning to India, he found himself isolated from both the Indians and the English, until he met Daphne Manners, in The Jewel in the Crown. His affair with Daphne ended tragically when she was gang-raped by several Indians, and he was held as a suspect by Ronald Merrick. The police were unable to make any charges stick, but they hauled Kumar off to Kandipat Jail as a political subversive.
In this novel he has been released, but is perhaps the greatest victim of the imperial process. He is too English for the Indians and too Indian for the English. At the end of the novel Guy Perron goes to visit Kumar, but finds him away from home and reflects that it would be an unkindness to remind him of his past. It is hinted that he is writing under the pseudonym Philoctetes.
Mohammed Ali Kasim (MAK) is a Muslim member of the Indian National Congress who had been imprisoned by the British in 1942.
An economist unhappily drafted into the war effort, and the counterintelligence measures surrounding Operation Zipper.
The former Mahranee of Kotala is divorced from her husband but keeps the title. She gives unusual parties that sometimes last for days. Her guests are mixed race, ranks, class, and gender. She is a Hindu, and depicted as capricious.
John Layton commands the First Regiment of the Pankot Rifles, and is the father of the Layton sisters. He was captured in North Africa and spent most of the war in a German POW camp.
Mildred is the wife of Colonel Layton and the mother of Sarah and Susan. As the daughter of a general and the wife of a colonel, she is very comfortable with her place in society and her class status and enforces her authority without hesitation.
Bronowsky, a one-eyed émigré Russian, serves as the wazir, or chief minister, to the Nawab of Mirat. Much of Bronowsky's background is mysterious. It is thought that his title, "count," is genuine, but it is not certain. It is said he fled Russia after the defeat of the White Movement.
Fenny is the younger sister of Mildred Layton. She is more outgoing and fun-loving than Mildred.
The Nawab is the head of the princely state of Mirat.
Sayed Kasim is the eldest of MAK's son, and held the King's commission as an officer in the army. After his capture by the Japanese he became a major in the INA, and, later, a committed Pakistani nationalist.