Review: A Murder at Malabar Hill is a new kind of crime novel

Crime week: Chris Cessford welcomes a sumptuous crime story starring a ‘rule-breaking badass in a sari’. 

Sujata Massey kicks off the decade with the first book in a fresh new crime series – the historical, award-winning whodunnit A Murder at Malabar Hill. She introduces Perveen Mistry, in 1921 Bombay’s only woman lawyer and an amateur sleuth. In the spirit of Alexander McCall Smith’s likable Precious Ramotswe from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series set in Botswana, A Murder at Malabar Hill celebrates women solving crimes and getting shit done. 

Perveen Mistry is a rule-breaking badass in a sari. She has emotional intelligence and a thirst for women’s rights. She can pick a lock with a hairclip and save the day with the sharpened nib of a fountain pen and a bottle of pungent rose oil. She is smart and determined, a good friend and a loving daughter.

And she’s not afraid to eat. A Murder at Malabar Hill made me hungry: “John had worked hard preparing lamb koftas, a tamarind chicken curry, a thick yellow dal with mustard greens, and caramelised rice. He’d also sent tangy vegetable pickles, fragrant wheat rotlis, and a tin of almond-honey brittle large enough to last a week.” And that’s just lunch.

The story takes us into the heart of Bombay under the rule of the British Raj 100 years ago with details of elaborate dinners, dazzling outfits, fancy tea parties and well-mannered society, alongside desperate poverty, racism and entrenched misogyny. We are served up a banquet of fraud, murder and kidnapping with a side of family violence, a smear of imperialism and a dipping sauce of illicit sex.

Tensions are high – the Indian independence movement wants the British out, but Perveen’s middle-class Parsi community is divided on the issue. The Parsi, who fled Persia in the 10th century seeking freedom to practice their Zoroastrian religion, mostly do well under the British. In 1921 the Brits rule on with a masterly racist disregard for anyone who isn’t white or rich. At home in the UK, women are fighting for the vote and ripples from their campaign for equality make it across the water to India.

But women in India have a long haul to equality ahead of them. We meet Perveen as an Oxford-educated lawyer, single, and employed at her father’s firm. She’s working on the estate of Mr. Omar Farid who left behind three widows, all of whom live together as purdahnashins – women in strict seclusion from the outside world and having no contact with men. The agent who their husband left in charge of his estate is a dodgy dude called Mr. Mukri. (Massey has a gift for naming her characters.) Mr. Mukri has the power to rip off the widows and find new husbands for all of them – as well as for the 11-year-old daughter of the first wife. Perveen is on his case: “The widows had lived a life at the mercy of men who were supposed to serve them.”

Massey plays around with time. Flashback to 1916 and Perveen is the only women at the Government Law School, but she’s dropping out, unable to take the bullying and harassment from her fellow students. Into this drama struts the gorgeous, hazel-eyed and curly-haired Cyrus Sodawalla, king of the Calcutta fizzy drink industry and a hero for Perveen’s troubled times. She talks her reluctant parents into letting her get hitched, and soon Perveen is Mrs. Sodawalla. Cyrus is attentive, charming and excellent in the sack, but how he came to be such an expert has unhappy consequences for his loved-up wife.

Married life and menstruation prevent her from resuming her study. Her in-laws are old-school Parsi and when she’s not stuck in her mother-in-law’s kitchen sorting stones out of the dal, she’s trapped in a dark, stinking cell for eight days each month while she bleeds – kept away from her husband and his family who believe her period will not only bring disease, it will also attract the devil.

Massey builds plenty of mystery, hints at dark secrets, then throws in a murder and the threat of more grisly deaths. There are shades of Agatha Christie’s great crime investigations as Perveen figures things out, dissects the evidence and hounds the suspects. Miss Marple would be proud.

Perveen Mistry and the period charm of 20th century Bombay sticks in the memory long after the story is told. More mystery for Miss. Mistry is promised in further books. Bring it on.

A Murder at Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (Allen & Unwin, $32.99) is available from Unity Books


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