A Necessary Evil (Sam Wyndham 2) by Abir Mukherjee

Royal shenanigans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the son and heir of the Maharaja of Sambalpore is assassinated in front of him, Calcutta police captain Sam Wyndham quickly manages to catch the assassin, but unfortunately the man dies before he can be questioned. Although the authorities and even the Maharaja are willing to let the matter rest as the work of a fanatic, Sam isn’t so sure, so he manages to get himself and his sergeant, Surrender-not Bannerjee, invited to the prince’s funeral so he can do a bit of investigating. Soon they are both sucked into the skulduggery going on beneath the glittering surface in this fabulously wealthy kingdom…

This is another excellent historical crime novel following on from Mukherjee’s début, A Rising Man, which was one of my top books from last year. The year is 1920, the power of the Raj is in decline and the British need the support of the Maharajas to give a veneer of Indian participation in the rule of the country, so Sam has to handle things sensitively so as not to ruffle any political feathers.

Within Sambalpore, the Maharaja is still the ultimate power – the British police hold no official sway there. But the Maharaja is old and it’s rumoured that he may be dying, so his family and subjects are beginning to look to the future and to jostle for positions of power when the kingdom passes to the next in line. And with three wives, vast numbers of concubines and hundreds of children, there’s plenty of scope for trouble just in the Maharaja’s family alone. Throw in some dodgy politicians, a couple of princes who insist on falling in love with unsuitable women, some diamond mines and an avaricious businessman or two and it’s no wonder I didn’t have a clue what was going on for the bulk of the book! But happily, neither did Sam, and once he finally worked it out it all made sense in the end.

The book is narrated by Sam in the past tense and he’s a likeable character. He has a strong desire to get to the truth and, more than that, to see that justice is done. But, though he may not always like it, he understands that sometimes politics will get in the way. He relies on Surrender-not for knowledge of local customs and religious practices. Surrender-not is more than just a guide though – he comes from a wealthy, high caste family and was educated in England, so he’s often as much of a partner as a subordinate.

Lord Jagganath Chariot Parade, Puri

There’s not quite so much about the politics of the Raj in this one. Instead, Mukherjee gives a picture of what life was like in one of the many small kingdoms that still existed within the country at this time – a curious mix of modernity and tradition. The royals are opulently, ostentatiously wealthy and are revered as godlike by their people. The royal wives and concubines live in seclusion in the zenana – the women’s quarters – but Mukherjee suggests that they had plenty of power to influence things within the kingdom, and the wives, at least, had their own roles to play in the many traditions surrounding the court. Mukherjee also shows some of the religious rituals of the Hindus, especially the cult of the deity Lord Jagganath, all of which adds to the interest.

Abir Mukherjee

For me, this book had a couple of slight weaknesses. In the first book, Sam occasionally indulged in opium – in this book, that seems to have become an addiction, and I got a little tired of being told about his withdrawal symptoms and then about how wonderful he felt whenever he had a hit. I find all the many addicted detectives of current crime fiction tedious, whether their addiction is to drugs or alcohol, so I’m seriously hoping Sam can get himself clean soon. I also felt that there were occasional anachronisms, not in the history or setting, but in the language. Would anyone from that period really talk about someone being “hands on”? Were paper cups so commonplace they would be used as part of a simile? These anomalies weren’t frequent or major enough to spoil the book but they did tend to throw me out of the story for a few moments each time, and a more careful revision and edit could have easily got rid of them.

Overall, though, an excellent second book that assures this series its continued place among my must-reads. It could be read as a standalone, but to understand the relationships among the characters, I’d recommend reading in order.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.

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37 thoughts on “A Necessary Evil (Sam Wyndham 2) by Abir Mukherjee

  1. Wow. This book sounded fabulous until the mention of the opium addiction. I know characters need flaws. But I feel the same as you do. Thanks for another great review. I’ll table reading this book for now.


    • It is a great series, but the opium addiction could destroy it for me – it’s so tedious. I find all these fictional drunks and druggies about as much fun as real-life ones! Oh, well!


  2. Why do so many detectives have substance-abuse problems?? It’s becoming an annoying stereotype. Maybe it’s a hat tip to Sherlock, but still. I can see where reading about a cycle of hits/withdraws would soon become repetitive. I have less of an issue with detectives who drink because most writers don’t devote repetitive scenes to drinking. It’s pretty easy to add an ever-present glass of scotch or bourbon to a scene without bringing everything to a standstill.


    • Because they all copy each other? Bitter, perhaps, but I do find crime novels in particular work to trends – it’s so tedious. The thing about Holmes was that his drug-taking was rarely mentioned in the books – it’s all the adaptations that have made a big thing of it. I don’t mind them having a drink, or even taking drugs, so long as it doesn’t become an addiction that’s mentioned constantly. In this one, he was always either in withdrawal or talking about how great he felt after a hit – I was beginning to wonder if the book was sponsored by the opium industry!


      • True. I liked the way ACD handled Holmes’ problems. I wonder if a modern author could get away with mentioning a main character’s drug use so sparingly… I expect some folks might accuse him/her of being flippant and underestimating the effects of hard drugs. Also, too many people think ugly/brutal details make a story “real.” :/


        • Yes, I have issues with “real” – namely, that if I’m reading fiction, then real shouldn’t really come into it! If I want to read “real” then there are zillions of factual books out there, plus the newspapers. That doesn’t mean I don’t want “realistic” but I think a lot of authors don’t get the subtle difference… 😉


  3. I’m so glad you liked this one, FIctionFan, even if there were one or two minor quibbles. It sounds as though the atmosphere and the mystery itself are well-done, and that’s a big part of the appeal of historical crime fiction for me. I do know what you mean about sleuths/protagonists with addictions. To be honest, I’m getting a bit tired of that, too. I’m with you in hoping that Sam cleans up. To me, anyway, it doesn’t add anything to the character.


    • Yes, the addiction thing gets a bit wearisome, and frankly in this one at least it’s entirely unnecessary since there’s so much else going on. But the setting and period make up for it – he really does create an excellent sense of place and time. Definitely a series worth watching… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Woo-Hoo, finally you’re able to end a week on a high note!! This one sounds interesting, but I’m with you on the addicted detectives. What’s with that? You’d never think of Poirot or Miss Marple having such problems! I think it comes from publishers who push to have “conflicted” and “relatable” protagonists. Do they really believe a typical reader identifies more readily with those things? I think not! Okay, I’ll back gently off my soapbox and wish you a spectacular weekend!!


    • Haha – I normally just keep my negative reviews for Fridays because I get far fewer visitors at weekends, but I didn’t have any negative ones ready this week! I know – I really wish more authors would read some of the books that still sell decades after they were written and maybe then they’d realise we like quirky detectives, not alcoholics or junkies! I agree totally – I don’t identify with addicts (except chocolate addicts obviously) and frankly don’t want to! (And I can’t say I identify with either Poirot or Holmes either, but it doesn’t stop them being favourites.) Having worked in heathcare I know as much as I want to about drug abuse, and don’t really relish being told how wonderful the protagonist feels after a hit… oops! I seem to have stolen your soapbox… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! I’m a horribly picky reader – I don’t know why publishers let me have books! But I do find these little anachronisms stop me being able to feel fully invested somehow. Thank you! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m shortly about to embark on the first in this series, so I’m glad this one is a goodie.
    We need better editors!


    • I loved the first one – the political storyline meant it appealed more to me than the story in this one, though this is excellent too. Yep! And writers should take more care too – sometimes I think they underestimate their readership and think we just won’t notice… Anyway, enjoy! A great series despite my criticisms!


  6. Neither you nor the main character had a clue what was going on and yet you loved it is a great recommendation! So is the name, Surrender-not, might have to add this one to the list.


  7. Excellent review — thoroughly enjoyed it. I have never been to West Bengal of which Calcutta (now Kolkata) is the capital, but the characters, the setting, the period, and the atmosphere resonated with me enough to want to read the author’s work.


    • Thank you! I only know anything about India at that time from reading fiction and history, but he does always give me a feeling of authenticity, and I like that he shows the iniquities of British rule without overdoing the contempt for the British individuals who were there, if that makes sense. I’d love to hear what you think of his books if you read them… 🙂


  8. Some people, like you and my friend Katrina, always have an eye out for historical inaccuracies, and I always seem to miss them! Even stupid things like whether or a not an item of clothing would have a zipper. Is that just knowledge you have all tucked away?? *jealous*


    • Haha! I don’t know – years of reading, I suppose! I kinda wish I didn’t notice them, but they throw me right out of the story, and frankly I think both authors and editors should do better at keeping them out – it’s their job, after all!

      Liked by 1 person

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