The Widows of Malabar Hill
The year is 1921, and the place is Bombay, India. Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father’s law firm as a solicitor, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India.
Her father’s firm, Mistry Law, has been retained to execute the will of a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind in their bungalow in Malabar Hill. As she processes the paperwork and meets with the women, who live in complete seclusion under the system of purdah that restricts their contact with men, Perveen becomes increasingly suspicious that the situation is being manipulated to the disadvantage of the client. When the family agent is murdered within the house and a widow’s daughter disappears, Perveen realizes her own safety may now also be at risk.
Sujata Massey’s first novel, The Salaryman’s Wife (1997), won an Agatha Award and was a finalist for Barry, Macavity, and Anthony Awards. Zen Attitude (1998), the next installment in her Rei Shimura series set in Japan, was a finalist for Edgar and Anthony Awards. The third, The Flower Master (1999), won the Macavity Award and was a finalist for the Agatha Award.
After eight more novels in this highly-decorated series, Massey now shifts her focus to India, combining mystery with historical fiction and a fascinating examination of the cultural milieu of Bombay in the 1920s. Perveen Mistry, a courageous young woman with a very difficult past, was previously featured in the shorter piece “Outnumbered At Oxford,” published in the collection India Gray (2015), before stepping out as the protagonist in this debut novel in Massey’s new series.
Massey’s stories tend to fall into the “cozy” subgenre, focusing on subject matter such as historical ceramics, fashion, food, and romance. Adding the elements of historical fiction and early 20th-century Indian culture, however, does not overburden The Widows of Malabar at all. The author does a very good job of blending this material into the story in a way that doesn’t intrude on or detract from the story.
Once again, Soho Crime, whose mandate is to publish “atmospheric crime fiction set all over the world,” has made an excellent addition to their list with this novel, and book designer Janine Agro has created a very attractive frame for Massey’s work.
The primary problem with the novel, however, lies in its structure. Soho Crime is the imprint, after all, and the novel is billed as a “mystery of 1920s Bombay,” but it starts very slowly. It takes Massey 120 pages to lead up to the murder, somewhat forgivable because she’s doing such a good job of developing Perveen as a protagonist and exploring the personal and legal situations of the mill owner’s three widows.
However, the very next page after Perveen discovers the body, Massey whips us off into 70 pages of back story to explain her protagonist’s troubled past. While very interesting in terms of Parsi culture and the Bombay-Calcutta social conventions of that era, and as important as the material is to understanding Perveen as a character, this section is far too long an interruption in the flow of the story as a mystery. It should have been drastically shortened, or the plot should have been restructured so as to accommodate the material without creating such a problematic hiatus. Murder generates suspense, and asking readers immediately to wait 70 pages for the investigation of the murder even to begin is asking too much.
Nevertheless, The Widows of Malabar Hill is a novel that deserves to be read and enjoyed. Perveen Mistry is a terrific heroine, her father Jamshedji Mistry and her best friend Alice Hobson-Jones are excellent foils, and the promise of subsequent installments in this new series by Sujata Massey will definitely bring us back for more.