For the Joy of Reading: A Necessary Evil

Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not Banerjee are back.   For the readers of “A Rising Man” this will be enough for you to know that this is a “must read” book.   The rest of you need to discover the joy that is Abir Mukherjee’s writing.   It is a discovery that is worth making.

The story begins with the assassination of the Yuvraj, Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai, heir to the princely state of Sambalpore at the start of the festival of the Lord Jagannath.   [This is the festival that gave English the word juggernaut because of the size of the chariot, bearing the image of the god, being pulled by thousands of devotees through the streets.]   Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not have the misfortune of being in the car with the Prince when he is shot by a devotee of the god Vishnu.   I should also explain, and this point is as good a place as any, that Surrender-Not is not Sergeant Banerjee’s real name.   It is Surendranath, but Surrender-Not is the closest that the officers of the Raj can get to pronouncing a Bengali name.   So the book is off to a rip-roaring start, and Sam and Surrender-Not inevitably get dragged into the investigation.

From this moment, the pace does not slacken at all.   This is a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery set in Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, but with a fine understanding of the inherent and racist politics of the British Raj.   The relationship between Sam Wyndham and Annie Grant has echoes of John Masters’ “Bhowani Junction”.

We enter the world of the princely state of Sambalpore, where the intrigues of the court are Byzantine in their complexity, with a dying Maharaja, a scheming Prime Minister, a revolutionary teacher, squabbling princes and, looming over it all, a Viceroy who needs the assistance of Sambalpore in his scheme to ensure the continuation of British rule in India. The murder of the Crown Prince throws all this into confusion.   Suddenly there is everything to play for, and Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not take it upon themselves to find out who was behind the assassination of the Crown Prince.

And this is one of the strengths of the book.   The characters are well-drawn.   Sam Wyndham was traumatized by his experiences in the trenches during the First World War.   He has developed his own strategy for dealing with this, and it is more than a little unorthodox for someone working as a police officer for the British Raj.   Even more unorthodox is his relationship with Annie Grant, an Anglo-Indian.   Nowadays, of course, we would not bat an eyelid, but this is British India in the 1920s.   Then, there is the fact that he shares his accommodation with Surrender-Not.   So Sam Wyndham is a truly unusual man for his time.   All you have to do is think of Paul Scott’s “The Raj Quartet” to realise just how unusual he is.

Surrender-Not is also unusual.   He comes from a Brahmin family wealthy enough to have him educated at Harrow.   This is how he came to know Prince Adhir, who was a few years above him at the school.   As you may imagine, his family are not too happy about him working as a police sergeant and it is a sort of running joke between him and Sam Wyndham that his mother is searching for a potential bride.   This would be a sort of Holmes and Watson pairing, except that it is Surrender-Not who has the eye for detail.

Annie Grant is not the caricature love interest either.   She is a woman of ambition, with a mind of her own, and knowing perfectly well what she wants from life and how she is going to achieve it.   She is quite aware that Sam is infatuated with her, and she is quite capable of exploiting that.

So you have strong characters and a fast-moving plot.   What else could you require from a thriller?   Oh yes, a motive for the murder that explains the title “A Necessary Evil”.   You get that as well, but telling you what it is would involve giving away the plot, and that would spoil it.

So give yourself a real treat and read this book.

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