India, 1920. Captain Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee of the Calcutta Police Force investigate the dramatic assassination of a Maharajah’s son.
The fabulously wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore is home to tigers, elephants, diamond mines and the beautiful Palace of the Sun. But when the heir to the throne is assassinated in the presence of Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant ‘Surrender-Not’ Banerjee, they discover a kingdom riven with suppressed conflict. Prince Adhir was a moderniser whose attitudes – and romantic relationship – may have upset the more religious elements of his country, while his brother – now in line to the throne – appears to be a feckless playboy.
As Wyndham and Banerjee desperately try to unravel the mystery behind the assassination, they become entangled in a dangerous world where those in power live by their own rules and those who cross their paths pay with their lives. They must find a murderer, before the murderer finds them…
Following the inclusion of Abir Mukherjee’s debut A Rising Man in my Top 5 of 2016, obviously I was as keen as mustard to read A Necessary Evil, the next in the series. This time our indomitable duo of Englishman Captain Sam Wyndham, and his right hand man Sergeant Surrender-not Banerjee of the Calcutta police are transported from their usual locale to the opulent kingdom of Sambalpore, following the assassination of its crowned prince. And be sure that there is more trickery afoot…
Instantly, I was drawn back into the lives of Wyndham and Banerjee, with their affectionate and mutually respectful relationship, and their sense of comradeship and camaraderie fully intact. Wyndham is still struggling with his own personal demons, and also still proving woefully inept in matters of the heart, which adds a lightness of touch to this particularly testing case. Banerjee also grows in stature throughout the book, becoming less of a foil for Wyndham’s character, and becoming much more equal in terms of their professional relationship. He also has some blistering moments of insight, along with the intuitive and studied air that he displays in the course of the investigation. I love the openness and amicability of their friendship, which makes you very comfortable as a reader, and how Mukherjee affords them equal importance, with Wyndham being the more emotionally scarred of the two, but Banerjee subtly adjusting to, and caring about Wyndham’s mental and physical health. I think as well that there is enough scope for both these characters to anchor a long and successful series. While in the realm of characterisation, I would also draw your attention to Mukherjee’s depiction of his female characters, which I think is incredibly good. I like the way that he mirrors men’s general mystification at the workings of the female mind, and his women are strong, independent, and always slightly at a remove of the understanding of his male characters throughout the book. Wyndham is once again bemused by the wonderfully strident and prismatic Annie Grant, and as the plot progresses we meet a parade of incredibly strong, sometimes scheming, women to thwart and confuse the investigation, and outwit our floundering male protagonists.
Once again, Mukherjee is pitch perfect in his representation of the period detail, during the uneasy era of the rule of the British in India. There is a sense of parity throughout where the author is equally stoical and objective of the good and bad that pervades both sides of society, and the interesting contrasts he draws between the human melting pot of poverty in Calcutta, and the ostentatious wealth of Sambalpore, accrued from diamond mining. The sumptuous lavishness of the Maharajah’s palace, and its surrounds, is meticulously brought to life, immersing the reader in opulence, grandeur and the daily routines and traditions of palace life. There are tiger hunts, fancy cars, eunuchs, myriad wives and concubines, but perhaps most importantly for our enjoyment as crime readers, jealousies, plots and murder in abundance. I also like the way that Mukherjee includes little factual vignettes throughout his books, that obviously in the course of his research had piqued his curiosity like ‘death by elephant’…who knew?
So to sum up, Abir Mukherjee has returned in some style, and I thoroughly enjoyed the further adventures of Wyndham and Banerjee in A Necessary Evil. Colourful, dangerous, exciting, and enjoyably educational, this is, once again, a highly recommended read. Add it to your wish list!
(With thanks to Harvill Secker for the ARC)