Abir Mukherjee’s first mystery novel, A Rising Man, was one of my favorite reads of 2017. Because I read it several months before starting this blog though I have never really shared my thoughts about it.
That novel is a superb historical mystery that is set in India in the years immediately following the First World War. There are many reasons to recommend it, not least the author’s ability to convey a strong sense of place and culture and the two remarkable main characters. It is a page-turning read and one I find myself regularly recommending on the staff picks rack at my place of work.
A Necessary Evil is a sequel to that book and I am surprised and happy to be able to say I found it an even stronger read than the first one, though I think readers would be best served by starting at the beginning. Before I explain why, I ought to tell you a little bit about its plot.
The book begins close to a year after the events of the previous novel. The heir to the throne of the wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore seeks out Captain Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee (who, it turns out, is an old school friend) to consult them about some strange letters he has received that seem to suggest a threat to his life. As they discuss the matter his car is attacked in an ambush and he is killed.
While Wyndham is able to track down the assassin it is clear that further investigation is needed to understand why this has happened and how it was possible for an ambush to take place when the route they were travelling had not been prearranged. Though political considerations make it impossible to formally continue their investigation, Wyndham and Banerjee travel to Sambalpore in search of answers.
The novel contains an excellent mystery plot but it also reads like a thriller, particularly in the final chapters which have a page-turning, race against time quality. This is not a change of style but rather reflects how the circumstances of the novel manage to amplify the tension at key moments.
In each novel Wyndham is in a position where he is an outsider. In A Rising Man he is a stranger to India, learning to navigate Indian society while trying to solve a murder. Here he finds himself in a country where he has no legal authority and may be given the order to stop and to return home. He is isolated, has few resources he can call on and is treated with suspicion by almost everyone he encounters.
I also appreciated that Mukherjee reduces the amount of discussion of Wyndham’s opium addiction in this second book, though it remains an important part of his character and of the plotting. As a result the calmer, clearer Wyndham is able to show more of his detective skills as he works to understand the complex relationships within the palace and learn about the circumstances of the prince’s death.
His assistant Sergeant “Surrender-not” Banerjee, so named because none of his British colleagues can pronounce his actual name, remains a delight and gets a few moments to shine. I appreciate his steadiness as a secondary investigator and I like his relationship with Wyndham which is generally respectful and constructive.
A secondary character makes a return from the first book and she makes an important contribution to the investigation. Her involvement helps to reinforce one of the series’ most potent themes – that social status shifts and can be a matter of perspective.
That idea is crystallized in a wonderful exchange in the very first chapter of the book when the Prince points out to Wyndham that the question of precedence between the Indian prince, the British policeman representing the crown and his Indian sergeant from the priest caste is far from simple. Throughout the novel we see Wyndham confronting his own lack of status within Sambalpore as he is unable to gain access to people he wishes to speak with, impeding his investigation.
Speaking of that investigation, the mystery here is a good one and very well plotted. Mukherjee creates an intriguing cast of characters and while the identity of the villain didn’t surprise me, I felt the resolution was extremely powerful and effective.
The best historical mysteries do not simply entertain but they educate, inform and speak to aspects of our culture and society. A Necessary Evil does this, discussing aspects of British rule in India without becoming polemical and exploring fascinating themes such as of the nature of justice and the transience of social status. Its characters are compelling, as is the case they are investigating. If you haven’t tried the first one, I’d definitely recommend starting there (there are references made to events that take place at the end of the previous novel) and just know that you will be in for a treat when you get to the second. Highly recommended.
A copy of the novel was provided by the publishers through NetGalley for review though I have also purchased my own copy.
11 thoughts on “A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee”
Thanks for the review, which led to me borrowing a copy of ‘A Rising Man’ from the library. At just under 400 pages, it was about 140 pages longer than the mystery novels I tend to read – but I still found it enjoyable. I recently read a mystery novel that was about 300 pages, but it felt ‘longer’ than ‘A Rising Man’. The historical setting and the characters were interesting, and I was relieved that the ending had some fair sign-posting. I was slightly disappointed that Sam Wyndham didn’t uncover the whole truth himself.
Thanks for the recommendation! 🙂
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Firstly thanks for letting me know about your experience. It’s always exciting to be responsible for someone discovering an author or title!
I have to cast my mind back a bit but I think you are right to characterize the story as one where a fair amount of the solution presents itself to Sam rather than being deduced by him. I think that didn’t bother me because it is signposted to the reader, as you point out, even if Sam doesn’t pick up on it.
I am not sure if you will choose to proceed to book two any time soon but I can say that he does work it out for himself in that one, though once again at the last possible moment.
Thanks for sharing your feedback and experience with me! 🙂
Glad to hear Sam does work things out more fully in the second novel. 🙂 I’m also glad to hear that the opium experiences get toned down in the second novel.
One question I’m interested to find the answer to, by reading the second novel, would be Surrender-not’s role. Is he there primarily for the workings of the racial discourses within the novel? Does he evolve as a detective in his own right? I liked him in the first novel, but wonder if he will do more than function to complicate the novel’s racial and moral landscapes.
I decided to start on the first novel in the case that I liked it and want to read the series in their proper order. So I’m glad I did!
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Yes – the opium usage is confined to just one shorter section of book two.
Surrender-Not is still in a secondary role for book two. He does offer a window into some aspects of Indian life and he has personal knowledge of the deceased. I think though that he is primarily a sounding board in the deductive process though.
Book 3 of the series Smoke And Ashes is being released on 7th June
I am looking forward to it!
🤗 I just finished the novel last night, and I confessed I pretty much raced through the entire story. Like the first novel, I thought ‘Necessary Evil’ was historically and culturally engaging. In particular, I was impressed by the fact that the second novel managed to retain the same historical and cultural concerns as the first novel, without being repetitive – locating Sam and Surrender-not in a different milieu within the same country allowed for fresh insights within familiar themes.
Where I might take a slightly different view from you pertains to Sam’s, erm, habit – or, should I say, addiction. I found those chapters or snippets somewhat distracting, and wasn’t sure if they added much. I thought the mystery worked well, with a resolution that fitted with what came before – but I think I might have missed a clue or two, as the way it was solved felt slightly more intuitive than deductive. At one or two moments, I also thought things were telegraphed slightly more explicitly than I’d expected.
But I still enjoyed it, and will return to ‘Smoke and Ashes’. I’d be keen for further developments to Sam’s and Surrender-not’s relationship. It seems to me that there is more underlying Surrender-not’s otherwise repressed demeanour, and it would be interesting to have a friendship unfold out of the working partnership, across racial lines.
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Thanks so much for coming back to share your thoughts. I am glad you enjoyed it and found it to be historically engaging.
I do not disagree with you about Sam’s addiction – I found those chapters the least enjoyable and engaging of both books. I just appreciated that it is substantially reduced here!
The growing friendship between Sam and Surrender-not is one of my favorite aspects of these novels and I look forward to seeing how it develops in Smoke and Ashes.
I feel like the relationship between Sam and Surrender-not in the second novel remained where it was by the end of the first novel. And apart from moments of banter – Bunty? – it didn’t bear significant development. I would have liked some wrestling over the question as to whether a genuine friendship between the two could happen, across lines of hierarchical and racial hegemonies.
Looking forward to your review of the third novel. 🤓
I do take your point – the second book certainly does not progress that relationship much further than the first although I do think Sam comes to understand Bannerjee’s social status a little better. I would certainly have liked to see the pair interact more during the novel – my memory is that once they arrive in Sambalpore Surrender-Not features less frequently in the narrative.
I am excited to read the third book too. I just have to go ahead and acquire a copy! I am hoping that we will see their relationship tested more as we head into the next few decades.