The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

In a time of taut, fast-paced, violent and unrelenting thrillers, this mystery set in Bombay in the 1920s is a welcomed antidote. Massey seems to be as interested in evoking the feel of the time, it’s mores and details, as setting up the puzzle of her mystery. She spends time, too, in establishing her characters, especially her heroine Perveen Mistry – one of the first female lawyers in India. Perveen is not tough and brash but quietly intelligent and determined. Of course, no detective heroine is going to escape a complication on her past (or present) and Perveen’s is a bad marriage that she just manages to escape (some peculiarity of Parsi law – the Mistry’s belong to this sect – is utilised here). In fact marriage la

w, in this case, that involving Muslim women living in Purdah, features in the murder that has Perveen perplexed. She is well-placed to investigate as she is able to interview the secluded women.

There is mention in ‘The Widows of Malabar Hill’ about Perveen’s time studying law in Oxford, and I would have liked to have followed this thread. Here we get a flashback to Perveen studying at an Indian college, where the female students are supposed to hide themselves away in a female common room when not attending lectures. There are only a few of them and Perveen is the only one studying law where she is subjected to the petty cruelties of the male students. Perhaps Perveen’s time at Oxford will be included in a later book, as it appears, this novel is the first in a series. However, if you can’t wait that long, Massey has written a novella called ‘Outnumbered at Oxford’ that introduces Perveen. This is included in a boxed set of four novellas called ‘India Gray’.

I hadn’t heard of Massey before but she has written quite a number of novels, most notably a series of mysteries set in Japan where her heroine, Rei Shimura, is an antiques dealer. The first of these is ‘The Salaryman’s Wife’ published in 1997 and the most recent ‘The Kizuna Coast’ (2014).

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