A Necessary Evil

by Abir Mukherjee

Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

A Necessary Evil, set in India in 1920, is the second in a mystery series (after 2017's A Rising Man) featuring a British colonial police captain and the native sergeant who assists him. This time, Captain Sam Wyndham travels outside Colonial India to Sambalpore, a tiny but wealthy kingdom still at least nominally independent of the British. The heir to the Sambalpore throne has been murdered practically under Wyndham's nose, a galling experience which sends him on a search for the truth that requires certain evasions of the truth. Political sensitivities mean he must travel unofficially, claiming to be on holiday, while Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee ("Surrender-not") travels as the "official representative of the Imperial Police Force." One complication among many is Wyndham's opium addiction, which sometimes impairs his focus if he is suffering withdrawal symptoms or the daze from a recent fix.

The novel's many twists and turns are not the only reason it's so absorbing. Wyndham, a newcomer to India, needs Banerjee's assistance to understand customs like the markings painted on an assassin's forehead. Even Banerjee's knowledge, in this vast and varied country, is hardly extensive enough to decipher every clue; the language of a note found in the slain prince's hotel suite is unknown to him. As Wyndham discovers the complexities of India and of the Kingdom of Sambalpore, the reader too must discard stereotypes. For example, the British are not the first to have up-ended the pecking order in odd and ironic ways. The Sambalpore prince points out in the novel's early pages that the color of his skin bars him, despite his high rank, from entering a British men's club. But in another context, Banerjee, a member of the Brahmin caste, outranks both Wyndham and the prince.

The puzzles and paradoxes of early twentieth-century India, interpreted by such a skilled mystery author, should be plenty to support any number of fascinating sequels to A Rising Man and A Necessary Evil. I look forward to them. (2018; 374 pages, including an Author's Note separating history from fiction)

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Other historical mysteries set in India:

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee (2017), Wyndham and Banerjee investigate the murder of a British official in Calcutta in 1919, amid tensions between the British and the independence movement; #1 in the Wyndham and Banerjee mystery series. More info

The Englishman's Cameo by Madhulika Liddle (2009), about a young nobleman in in Delhi, India's capital who investigates a case a murder in 1656 to help a friend who has been accused of the crime; #1 in the Muzaffar Jang mystery series. More info


Nonfiction about India in the early 20th century:

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor (2018). More info

India's Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra (2000). More info

Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India by Lawrence James (1998). More info


Online:

From Empire to Independence: The British Raj in India 1858-1947, an article by Dr. Chandrika Kaul at the BBC website

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