Friday, July 27, 2018

Review of A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee (Vintage, 2017)

India, 1920. Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee of the Calcutta Police Force are escorting Prince Adhir from a meeting with the Viceroy at Government House to the Grand Hotel when they are forced to stop and the Prince assassinated. The following day they corner the assassin, who takes his own life. As far as the Viceroy is concerned that is the end of the matter. Wyndham, however, wants to know who send the assassin, the answer to which he believes is in the kingdom of Sampalpore. The Viceroy expressly forbids Wyndham from pursuing the case as Sampalpore is a semi-autonomous state, run by a Maharajah and a local government. Since Banerjee knew the Prince he is sent to attend his funeral, with Wyndham taking holiday leave to accompany him. Their real aim is to continue the investigation and they soon become embroiled in the complex family and power struggles inside the Sampalpore court, which reveals many suspects. The question is can they untangle the conspiracy before they too fall victims to a killer intent on reshaping Sampalpore’s future.

A Necessary Evil is the second book in the Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee series set in 1920s India. In this outing, the two detectives travel from Calcutta to Sampalpore, an Indian state rich from trading diamonds and run by an aging Maharajah, to investigate the assassination of a Prince. While Banerjee is there as an official attendee at the funeral, Wyndham has travelled on holiday leave, having been told to drop the case which has seemingly been concluded with the suicide of the assassin. While the Maharajah asks Wyndham to find the power behind his son’s killer, few of the royal court and government are pleased with the outsider’s presence, and their investigation is actively hindered. The tale has all the hallmarks of a very good police procedural: an interesting puzzle, well-drawn and engaging characters, a balance of investigation with character development and back story, strong sense of place, nice pacing, plenty of intrigue and twists and turns, and interesting framing and contextualisation. With respect to the latter, Mukherjee does a very nice job in detailing the complexities of Indian society, politics, and pre- and colonial history without these ever swamping or distracting from the investigation at the heart of the story. The result is a thoughtful, entertaining and colourful tale. A series that I’ll certainly keep following.

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