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A NECESSARY EVIL by Abir Mukherjee: Book Review

In 1920 India, everything is political.  The British, still rulers of “the jewel in the crown,” were desperate to keep this country, incredibly rich in spices, cotton, and cheap labor, to say nothing of its geographical location, valuable for trading.  In order to do so, they were willing to pretend that the over five hundred princes in the country were still in charge of their mini-kingdoms; the Indian princes joined in this deceit so that they could maintain nominal control of the vast areas that had been in their families for uncounted years.

Twenty of these princes are meeting with the Viceroy, and Captain Sam Wyndham and his assistant, Sergeant “Surrender-not” Banerjee, are there as well.  Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai had gone to school in England with Surrender-not, and when the prince sees his former schoolmate in the crowd, he invites the detectives back to his hotel to discuss a troubling matter.

His Highness is opposed to what the British are calling the Chamber of Princes.  Adhir tells Sam and Banerjee that most of his fellow rulers are in favor of the British idea, being content with “a few fine words, fancy titles, and scraps from your table.”  Despite the fact that his father, the Maharaja of Sambalpore, wants to join the group, the prince has made his opposition to the plan well known.

Adhir is probably only months away from ascending the throne, given that the Maharaja is very ill, so his stubbornness and recalcitrance in resisting the Chamber have earned him enemies in the government and in his own family as well.  Is there a connection between his opposition and the two anonymous notes that he found in his private chambers?

The prince wants to discuss this issue, so he, Sam, and Surrender-not get into His Highness’s silver-topped Rolls Royce to drive to Adhir’s hotel suite to talk about it.  But as they approach the hotel, a man in the robes of a Hindu priest steps out in front of the Rolls, so suddenly that the chauffeur is barely able to stop.  The car lurches to a halt, the driver opening the door to see if the priest has been injured.  Suddenly the priest pulls a gun from inside his robes, shoots through the car’s windscreen, and the prince dies instantly, two bullets lodged in his chest.

Sam Wyndham had left London a year earlier, after a series of traumatic events, and is working hard to adjust to his new home in Calcutta.  But his life here is proving just as difficult as the one he left behind.  He is only really comfortable in his relationship with his sergeant which, given the inherent inequality of the races in India, may have reached an unbreakable barrier.  Added to the mix is his interest in Annie Grant, an Anglo-Indian woman who, for the second time, has become involved in one of Sam’s cases.

Like its predecessor, A Necessary Evil is a rich description of India nearly a century ago, showcasing the enormous disparity between the royalty and the underclass, the racial and the political issues, and the politics that are never far from its surface.  This novel is an outstanding follow-up to Abir Mukherjee’s equally brilliant A Rising Man, which I reviewed earlier this year.

You can read more about Abir Mukherjee at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

THE LAST KASHMIRI ROSE by Barbara Cleverly: Book Review

The Last Kashmiri Rose is a terrific mix of multiple murders, sexual tension, and exotic atmosphere.   It’s a cozy read that holds your interest to the end.

It’s 1922, four years after the end of the Great War, and Commander Joseph Sandilands of Scotland Yard is on his way home from India.  He’d been assigned to Calcutta for six months to help the Bengal Police and is more than anxious to return to London.  But on the day before he is to leave, a formal request comes to him from the acting governor of Bengal to come to his office at once.

The governor’s niece, Nancy Drummond, is there waiting for Joe.  She brings photographs of the bloody corpse of her close friend, Peggy Somersham, who was found a week earlier in her bath with her wrists cut.  Nancy insists that Peggy was happy in India, happy in her new marriage, and would have had no reason to kill herself.  Nancy, who had been a nurse during the War, thinks it would have been nearly impossible for Peggy to have cut her own wrists the way they were cut.

Even stranger, according to Nancy, is that in addition to Peggy, four other officers’ wives in the Greys regiment have died in various types of accidents over a period of years, each during the month of March.  One was killed in a fire, one thrown from a horse, one bitten by a snake, one drowned while crossing a river in a boat, and now Peggy has been found dead.  Those are too many bodies for Nancy to believe that they all were accidents, and she wants Joe Sandilands to investigate before he returns home.

The area’s police superintendent clearly believes Peggy’s death was a suicide, and he’s obviously annoyed that Joe has been called in.  He’s not eager to offer much help, but he does assign an Indian officer, Naurung Singh, to assist.  That’s as far as he’ll go because he believes that simply telling the other officers’ wives “not to worry their pretty little heads” about this case is all the attention it deserves.

But Naurung agrees with Nancy that the deaths of these five women are not accidents, and Joe starts looking into the case.  And it doesn’t hurt that his interest in the charming, vivacious Nancy Drummond, wife of the Collector of Panikhat (a title that meant administrator and revenue officer in the former British Civil Service) is returned.

Pre-independent India is a fascinating place.  The Last Kashmiri Rose takes us to a place that no longer exists and will never exist again.  The British were the rulers, the natives the servants.  The army officers and civil servants and their families lived an almost fairy tale life.  The men paraded daily in their uniforms, the women visited each other and did small charitable deeds for the villagers while their food was prepared and served, their clothing washed and ironed, their children looked after, and their household details taken care of without their noticing.  Whether you think this was good or bad might depend on whether you envision yourself as a British civil servant or an Indian house servant.

Regardless of one’s opinion, the novel makes this life alive again.  The Last Kashmiri Rose is the first in the Joe Sandilands series; there are nine others.  But the first novel is a great place to start.

You can read more about Barbara Cleverly at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at this web site.