A Necessary Evil

Written by Abir Mukherjee

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

A Necessary Evil
Harvill Secker
RRP: £12.99
Released: June 1 2017

India 1920: high summer, and in the steamy heat of Calcutta the Crown Prince of Sambalpore is shot dead in the presence of two officers of the Imperial Police. Chased and cornered, the assassin shoots himself, leaving no clue concerning motivation, nor a hope of discovering who might have hired him. However, the prince, heir to a small but fabulously wealthy kingdom (with its own diamond mines) had been receiving notes warning him of impending danger. Since these can be traced back to his own country, the cops already involved in the case board the royal train carrying the coffin, intent on following the trail to Sambalpore.

The police are an unlikely pair: Sergeant Banerjee is a Bengali, Harrow-educated. With a good grounding in the classics he is rather more astute than his boss, Captain Wyndham, who is rough, something of a bumbler and a pushover for a pretty face. Neither man is at home in the vulgar opulence of Sambalpore’s  royal court where – as representatives of the Raj – they are not generally welcome. Moreover, in their ignorance of an alien world, each, in his varying way, finds its nuances incomprehensible. They distrust even those who appear cooperative whether native or expatriate.

The court seethes with intrigue. The old Maharaja is dying. Among his two surviving wives and 126 concubines there are innumerable children but only two of them can succeed to the throne: the son of the dead Second Maharani who is a playboy, and the child whose mother is the third wife.  The First Maharani is childless, an amiable old lady and one of the few people who are not hostile to the police.

Wyndham, although socially confused, accepts that any royal court must be riddled with power-seekers and their sycophants but, in searching for the person who hired an assassin to kill the Crown Prince, he’s following the money. He’s focussed on the diamond mines. An Anglo Indian company is sniffing around, evidently with the intention of acquiring them but it appears that someone is anxious to de-rail the process. The crux is that Sambalpore is dependent on its diamonds; they are a resource to die for.

Whether it’s power or greed, or both, at the heart of several crimes, past and present,  women are involved: all beautiful, all femmes fatales. The mother of the assassinated prince is said to have been  poisoned for preferring Paris to the seclusion of the harem while, incarcerated in the dungeons is  Bidika, a fiery subversive who suffers not for her politics but her rejection of the new Crown Prince’s advances. He is now courting Annie Grant, who happens to be the love of Wyndham’s life. And there is Katherine Kimberley from Bolton who met the murdered prince in London and followed him to India. Now, as a bereaved mistress, she is packing to go home to Lancashire: less glamorous but safer.

There is a neat twist at the end along with words of wisdom regarding truth and justice and a sly reference to the title. But the meat of the book, the intrigues, the diamonds, the doomed splendour of the court, even Wyndham’s addiction to opium – all the promise of colour and action falls flat, leaving one with a wry sense of disappointment.

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