A Necessary Evil is the second book in an excellent historical mystery series.

For centuries the country we know as India today was a patchwork quilt of kingdoms and princely states. Even under the British Raj, more than 500 of them were scattered about the land. It was not until 1947 that the newly independent nation of India persuaded most of their rulers to cede sovereignty through brilliant negotiations, implicit threats, and expensive bribes.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Though the princely states of India are no more, royalty lives on there. Today, most descendants of the maharajas and princes have left their palaces and diamond-encrusted crowns behind, but a few live on in sybaritic splendor. Once they numbered some of the richest families in the world. (One ruler, the Nizam of Hyderabad, was widely recognized as the wealthiest man on the planet.) And one such family is the focus of Abir Mukherjee’s brilliant second entry in his historical mystery series, A Necessary Evil.

A Necessary Evil (Wyndham and Banerjee #2) by Abir Mukherjee (2018) 381 pages ★★★★★ 

Assassination! A crown prince dies in Calcutta

Captain Sam Wyndham and his brilliant sidekick, Sergeant Surendranath (“Surrender-Not”) Banerjee witness first-hand the assassination of the crown prince of Sambalpore. Although their bosses wish otherwise, they insert themselves into the thicket of deadly court politics. Did religious fanatics kill the prince, as it appears? Or are there darker motives behind the act, somehow rooted in the royal palace? Might his younger brother covet the throne? Or is the British company that buys the kingdom’s diamonds somehow involved? To investigate the murder, Sam defies their boss’s boss, the Viceroy of India, and travels with Surrender-Not to the fabulously wealthy kingdom.

In this second entry in an excellent historical mystery series, there are hundreds of suspects

Sam and Surrender-Not have little time to solve the complex case. (The Viceroy doesn’t want them in Sambalpore at all.) And the politics of the royal family is Byzantine in its complexity. The ailing, 76-year-old Maharaja, “the fifth richest man in India,” has fathered three legitimate children by two of his three wives. But he has also sired 258 illegitimate offspring with the more than 100 women in his harem. Unsurprisingly, then, Sam and Surrender-Not believe the killer lives in the palace: the prince’s younger brother, one of the three wives or the  more than 100 women in the harem. But which one? They will face danger, again and again, as they dig ever more deeply into the politics and religious practices of the troubled kingdom.

About the author

Abir Mukherjee is the young Scottish-Indian author of the three Wyndham and Banerjee historical mysteries published to date in 2019. He lives in London with his wife and two sons. Mukherjee has won several literary awards for the first two novels in the series. And he won them both as historical fiction and as mysteries. All three books reflect historical reality. For example, the kingdom of Sambalpore (spelled Sambalpur in the history books) did exist, and it did contain reserves of both diamonds and coal, as the novel reveals.

I’m reviewing all the novels in the Wyndham and Banerjee series at The Wyndham and Banerjee historical detective novels set in colonial India. And for similar titles, see The best Indian detective novels reviewed here.

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