A Necessary Evil by Abir Muhkerjee (Historical Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5

Book two in the Captain Sam Wyndham series. Sam is a white Scotland Yard Calcutta police import with a pesky Opium habit. In this book he investigates the murder of the forward thinking heir of Sambalpore — one of the Indian “native states” not formally part of British India. Accompanied by his trusty (and well-educated and far more sympathetic character) sidekick Surrender-not, they unravel the knots of displeasure that might have led to this murder (and a few others as well).

These books always include a lot of interesting history and culture focussed on lesser known parts of what after all is a huge and populous country. It’s always just enough to get me to look up additional detail. Most interesting to me in this one — the whole concept of the “native states” and the Council of Princes the Viceroy was trying to put together; Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu; and the use of elephants as a means of execution. There are also many references to the spoken and unspoken rules regarding the roles and interactions between different castes, ethnicities, and colors.

The writing is good — very crisp and clear — and I like the characters. My only complaint might be that I honestly don’t see the point of his even having an opium addiction. It doesn’t really play into the stories at all, and he doesn’t (thankfully) make stupid mistakes because of it. I believe it is to make him more human but really the story would be exactly the same without it.

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

A family drama steeped in a colorful Punjabi travelogue.

The three Shergill sisters reluctantly make a summer pilgrimage to India to fulfill their mother’s dying request. Plodding through an extensive and detailed itinerary, each is simultaneously dealing with a personal crisis she is unwilling to share with the others. Hyper-responsible Rajni is reeling from the discovery that her 18-year old son has vowed to marry a woman twice his age; Wild Jezmeen is suspended from her role as DisasterTube host due to an unfortunate interaction with a highly sensitive Arowana fish (the fish didn’t make it); and Shirina, who arranged her own marriage to a traditional Indian man and his controlling mother, has a particularly distressing secret mission for the trip.

Good writing with some interesting and topical social commentary. I consider it chick-lit — disasters are all successfully avoided and it willingly supplies the mandatory happy ending. The family is Sikh and there was some information on Sikh heritage, practices, and monuments, though not as much as I would have liked. It did spur a quick Wikipedia check which I found useful and interesting.

Many of the story threads address different issues faced by women in this region of India and traditional Sikh communities around the world. These affect the story in multiple ways, though primarily from the outside (our heroines are second generation British immigrants with little identification with their Indian heritage).

Overall an interesting read.