Murder in Old Bombay: A Mystery
“If you yearn for an escape from these short, chilly days of autumn, Murder in Old Bombay is a breath of sweet bougainvillea. It will intoxicate you and linger in your memory long after the clever puzzle has been solved.”
Books are like time machines, transporting us to faraway places that stir our imagination. Murder in Old Bombay, the thrilling debut mystery by Nev March, is one such novel. It conjures the exotic fragrances of sandalwood, jasmine, and meats roasting at the local bazaars, images of women in shimmering silk saris, and the gunfire of military skirmishes to carry us back to 1892 Imperial Bombay. It is a time when political tensions run high as India challenges Victorian England’s rule over its sovereignty.
Captain James Agnihotri is recuperating in the hospital from war wounds when he spies a letter in the local newspaper. A young, well-to-do widower, Adi Framji, is lamenting the loss of his wife, Lady Bacha, and his sister, Pilloo, who have plunged to their deaths from Bombay’s highest clock tower six months earlier.
The brutal incident intrigues Jim, and after his discharge from the hospital and the cavalry, he’s employed as a journalist to investigate the accident. Noting his commitment to the case, Adi Framji entices him to work for him because he seeks closure. He wants Jim to discover whether the ladies committed suicide, as determined by the court, or whether the women were murdered. Jim channels his hero, Sherlock Holmes, and quickly discovers that his prying inquiries can lead to danger—and romance.
It is no spoiler that Jim establishes proof that the women were murdered at the tower, and that a secret correspondence may have caused their demise. What was in the letter, and why were the women willing to sacrifice their lives for it? And who killed them and why? Secret alliances, caste prejudices, and hidden agendas contribute to the perils Jim encounters down every dark, winding street of old Bombay and its outskirts.
What begins as a Holmesque murder mystery sharply detours into a Rudyard Kipling action-adventure. Jim’s investigation lead to travels throughout the conflict stricken nation, where he becomes entangled in political espionage threatening the Raj’s (England’s rule) over India.
During one quest, Jim is trapped in the rebel-occupied ancient Hindu city of Lahore, and he’s forced to make his way homeward on foot. Surrounded by the enemy, he accumulates a rag-tag troop of children—three boys, an injured girl, and a baby—who follow him like lovable Baloo from The Jungle Book. A confirmed bachelor, he becomes as attached to them as they are to him, and love and generosity suffuse his role as their protector.
The reader can’t help but wonder about Jim’s motivations to assist Adi and his family to solve the mystery. Jim is a mixed-breed orphan, born to an Indian mother and unknown British father, so his status has alienated him from proper Indian and British society. In the Framjis, a Parsee merchantile family, Jim observes the family he’s never known. The Parsees, a race expelled from Persia, are people also wedged between two worlds. The Framjis embrace him when he proves his dedication to uncovering the truth behind the murders by selflessly risking his own life. When lively Lady Diana Framji joins in the hunt as his “Watson,” Jim’s heart is faced with as much danger as the rest of him.
Revelations about Jim’s mysterious past are sprinkled throughout the novel, making him a sympathetic and likeable protagonist. After fleeing an orphanage as a teen, the military had become his life. Trapped in a skirmish with the Pathans in Karachi, he remains haunted by nightmares of the attack, and feels responsible for the slaughter of his men. He believes that if he can locate Lady Bacha and Poolli’s killer that might compensate for his failure as an officer and a gentleman.
It is easy to understand why Murder in Old Bombay won the 2019 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award. Inspired by real events, Nev March captures the tense period of India’s past with historical reference to battles and a society steeped in the British Raj. Intertwining military clashes, the rising political tensions, and a romance with a mystery, March has built a captivating world inhabited by compelling characters. Wisely, she has included a prologue dictionary to assist readers navigating her universe.
If you yearn for an escape from these short, chilly days of autumn, Murder in Old Bombay is a breath of sweet bougainvillea. It will intoxicate you and linger in your memory long after the clever puzzle has been solved.