Sujata Massey starts a new crime fiction series with A Murder in Malabar Hill. Set predominantly in Bombay in the early 1920s (with plenty of flashbacks), her new book is a bit of a genre mash of historical, crime and romance. Such that a reader’s level of satisfaction might depend on how much they are seeking any or all of those three elements. Interestingly, the book has been published under the title The Widows of Malabar Hill with a name change perhaps designed to pique the interest of crime lovers.
Perveen Mistry is one of the first female lawyers in India. Working for her father’s firm, she is unable to appear in court but can do all of the usual contract, property and estate work of other solicitors. She becomes interested in the will of Omar Farid, a man with three wives who have all seemingly signed over their inheritance to a Muslim charity. The women live in purdah, or strict seclusion, but as a woman Perveen can attend to them. When she does she finds that circumstances are not as straightforward as the paperwork suggests. And when Mr Mukri, the man who is managing the household seemingly for his own benefit and the benefit of the charity, is killed, the mystery deepens.
A Murder on Malabar Hill is rich in period detail. Massey brings the bustle of 1920s Bombay to life through Perveen and her well-heeled English friend Alice. In particular, she highlights the difficulties for women to move beyond the gendered roles that were expected of them. This ranges from Perveen being hounded out of law school by mysoginistic classmates and teachers, to the practical and legal difficulties faced by Farid’s three wives. There is also plenty of detail about Muslim laws of charity, succession and inheritance which can be a little heavy going but become important to the plot.
There is not much to this book as a crime novel. There is a murder and, later a missing child, and it is ultimately solved with a little bit of detective work by Perveen. But the crime elements here are more of a framework on which Massey hangs stories of characters and place. As an example, after the body is initially found there is a lengthy flashback to Perveen’s doomed romance which provides plenty of detail about her troubled history but in the end adds little to the plot.
A Murder on Malabar Hill provides plenty for those who enjoy detail-rich historical crime fiction. Perveen is an engaging heroine with a little bit of a tragic backstory and moxie to burn. And there will be plenty of room for her to move beyond that backstory in the teased sequel The Satapur Moonstone.