Abir Mukherjee's A Necessary Evil is shortlisted for 2018's Best Published Novel. Growing up in the West of Scotland, the child of immigrants from India, his debut novel A Rising Man was inspired by a desire to learn more about this crucial period in Anglo-Indian history that seems to have been almost forgotten. Here Abir discusses this progression in A Necessary Evil and how books can open a reader's eyes.
WNSF: What does adventure writing mean to you? Would you have considered yourself an adventure writer before being shortlisted for the prize?
Abir: Adventure writing is the sort of fiction that I’ve always enjoyed, from childhood classics such as Treasure Island and The Thirty Nine Steps, to current day best sellers such as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. Growing up in a small town in Scotland, adventure writing opened my eyes to places and people I’d never encountered before. It broadened my horizons.
I’ve never thought of myself as an adventure writer, simply because I’ve always just assumed I was writing crime fiction. However, now I come to think about it, much of crime fiction, as well as thrillers, can be classified as adventure writing. Going forward, I’ll be proud to describe myself as a writer of adventure stories.
WNSF: A Necessary Evil is set in the British Raj of the 1920s, not a period of history often discussed. Why did you choose to write about this time and how do you go about your research?
Abir: I find the period of British rule in India a particularly fascinating place and time, unique in many respects and one that’s been overlooked, especially in terms of crime or adventure fiction. I think that period in history has contributed so much to modern India and Britain, and it was a time that saw the best and the worst of both peoples.
Unfortunately, the Raj period isn’t really taught in British schools, at least it wasn’t when I was at school. My impetus to write this book came from a desire to tell the story of a time and place which I felt neither British nor Indian sources did justice to.
At the same time, I didn’t want to write a history book, but rather a thriller that would tell its own story, set against the backdrop of that historical period.
As for research, I tend to do this is three phases. My initial research consists of a lot of time spent in the British Library, reading source material and books on the period. I then make trips out to India to get a real feel for the settings in the books. Desktop research is one thing, but for me, there’s no substitute for time spent on the ground. Finally, there’s the micro-research – answering the small questions that crop up as I’m writing the story – the little things that are so important in terms of authenticity and keeping the reader in that bubble where they are caught up in the story.
WNSF: In the early pages of A Necessary Evil, Wyndham and Banerjee make their way from the metropolis of Calcutta to the small, provincial yet incredibly wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore. Why did you choose to send your characters on a journey, to solve their mystery in an unfamiliar place?
Abir: I made a conscious decision to set the Wyndham and Banerjee series in Calcutta, partly because it was the place my parents came from, but also because it’s a fascinating city, unique in many respects and in the period that the series is set, it was the premier city in Asia, as glamorous and exotic a location as anywhere in the world. But it was a city undergoing immense change and it was the centre of the freedom movement, a hotbed of agitation against British rule. The history of Calcutta is the history of the British in India. Their presence still cries out from its streets, its buildings and in its outlook.
While my first novel, A Rising Man, was set entirely in the city, for A Necessary Evil, I wanted to move the action to somewhere new. I wanted to explore the world of the Indian maharajas, who in their day, were the richest men in the world. I started researching the period and quickly discovered that the role of women in these princely states was something that had been overlooked. I came across the story of the Begums of Bhopal, Muslim queens who ruled the kingdom of Bhopal for most of the period between 1819 and 1926, despite staunch opposition from powerful neighbours and male claimants. The British East India Company also opposed female rule in Bhopal until the Begums quoted Queen Victoria as their Queen. They became the inspiration for the novel.
I decided to create my own princely state, but to root it as much in real history as possible. The kingdom of Sambalpore actually existed but was annexed by the British in the mid nineteenth century. It had everything I needed for my novel from correct geographical location, to diamond mines and the worship of the deity, Lord Jagannath, whose name is the root of our word ‘juggernaut’. I had a lot of fun resurrecting the kingdom to make it the setting for the novel.
WNSF: We find that adventure often crosses into other genres, including crime and historical fiction. What kind of books do you like to read? Are there any in particular that set you on the path to becoming an author?
Abir: There are certain books which have left a great impression on me. At the top of that list would come George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’ve always been drawn to dystopian views of the future and this is, in my opinion, the finest dystopian novel. I’ve read this book more times than I can remember and it’s a joy every time. The characterization of Winston and Julia’s relationship, set against the backdrop of this all-powerful totalitarian society is just fantastic.
Other great works include Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, a story about the travails of a Bengali couple who immigrate from Calcutta to Boston and raise a family. My wife first introduced me to this book and I was just bowled over by it. The writing is sublime and I could relate to it in a way I haven’t with many other books.
In terms of books and authors who set me on a path to becoming a writer, top of the list has to be Ian Rankin - I’m a huge Rebus fan, but also love the stand alone novels too. His novel, Doors Open, about a group of Edinburgh men who plan the perfect heist, was the book that first made me think, ‘I want to do that’.
Finally, I owe a debt to writers such as Philip Kerr and Martin Cruz Smith, both of whose novels feature conflicted anti-heroes and are shot through with wit and an intelligence, something which I love.
WNSF: What would you say is the hardest thing about writing? And the easiest?
Abir: For me, the hardest thing is having confidence that what I write is any good or that people will be interested in reading it. I think most, if not all, writers suffer from a degree of imposter syndrome, and I have that in spades. I’m now writing my fourth novel but just overcoming that lack of self-belief is still difficult.
I couldn’t honestly say what’s the easiest thing, but I can tell you for me, the most fulfilling thing is when people write to tell me that they’ve enjoyed the books or that my writing has helped them through a difficult period in their lives. It’s nice to feel as though you’ve made a difference to others.
If you enjoyed A Necessary Evil, Smoke and Ashes - the third book in the Wyndham and Banerjee series - is already available.
The winner of this year's Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize will be revealed at a special ceremony in London on 20th September 2018.