Reading Abir Mukherjee’s “A Necessary Evil” was a fine balancing act between dying to know what happened next, and dreading the approaching end of the book.
This absolute cracker of a novel is a fine and worthy successor to Mr. Mukherjee’s first novel “A Rising Man“, and it is with great pleasure that the reader re-acquaints him/herself with Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta, his wonderful assistant Sergeant Surrender-not Banerjee, and the lovely Annie Grant, who has captured Sam’s heart, but doesn’t seem to return the compliment.
Mr. Mukherjee’s first novel took place almost entirely in Calcutta, and though the action in “A Necessary Evil” begins in the city, the heart of imperial India, in June 1920, it quickly moves to the princely state of Sambalpore in the state of Orissa. The crown prince of the state is murdered in Calcutta, in the presence of Sam and Surrender-not, and so the duo heads to his state to try and find out who murdered the flamboyant but popular young prince. And why.
Calcutta is but a fleeting presence in this novel, though a powerful one.
Sam, a troubled man after his experiences during the First World War, sometimes heads out at night for the opium dens of Calcutta:
“At night, though, Tangra transformed itself into a hive of shebeens, street kitchens, gambling house and opium dens. In short, it housed all the things that made living in a sweltering, crumbling metropolis of several million people worthwhile.”
Since the murder victim is from one of the semi-independent princely states that were outside British colonial jurisdiction, there is a noted reluctance on the part of the British powers-that-be to follow up on the murder, for reasons of political expediency.
Sam is a caring man, but cynical about the trappings of Empire:
“That was the things about viceroys, they might assume the mantle of demigods, but in truth, since the time of Lord Curzon, the only thing that’s really mattered to any of them is to keep the plates spinning until they can move on. No one wants to be remembered as the man in charge when the music stooped – the man who lost India. But that wasn’t my concern. Everyone has their own priorities. The Viceroy’s was the avoidance of anything that might rock the ship of state; mine was getting to the truth, and I wasn’t about to give up on this case now, just because the Viceroy might deem the results unpalatable.”
Through a clever slight of political hand Sam and Surrender-not go to Sambalpore for the prince’s funeral, Sam in a private capacity and Surrender-not as the official representative of the Imperial Police.
The wonderful Surrender-not is an intelligent, perceptive young man who went to Harrow with the prince, speaks flawless and eloquent English, but is hopelessly tongue-tied in the presence of women.
“Of course Surrender-not wasn’t his real name…His parents had named him Surendranath: it meant king of the gods: and while I could make a fair stab at the correct Bengali pronunciation, I never could get it quite right. He’d told me it wasn’t my fault. He’d said the English language just didn’t possess the right consonants – it lacked a soft “d,” apparently. According to him, the English language lacked a great many things.”
Mr. Mukherjee’s descriptions of the glittering, bejewelled pomp and circumstance of princely India are glorious, with cremations and coronations and palace intrigue and zenana politics all on dazzling display. Despite all the trappings of princely India, from the eunuchs to elephants, from jewels to private trains, Mr. Mukherjee never falls into cliché-dom. There is enough intrigue and danger and dislike swirling around the palaces and forts to keep Sam & Surrender-not busy, and the reader enthralled.
It would really not be nice of me to reveal much more about the plot of this thoroughly enjoyable murder mystery, so suffice it to say that the 2 policemen have to unravel a clever, complicated skein of intrigue.
There are twists and turns, there is elegance, there are moments of pure horror, there is thwarted love – all the components of a great, historical read.
For the record, I bought the book myself, and was not asked to write this review.
Published in 2017 by Harvill Secker, you can order the book now, by clicking on the link below: