The Widows Of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

The Blurb On The Back:

Inspired in part by the woman who made history as India’s first female attorney, The Widows Of Malabar Hill is a richly wrought story of multicultural 1920s Bombay as well as the debut of a sharp and promising new sleuth.

Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father’s law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India.  Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes women’s legal rights especially important to her.

Mistry Law has been appointed to execute the will of Mr Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind.  But as Perveen examines the paperwork, she notices something strange: all three of the wives have signed over their full inheritance to a charity.  What will they live on?  Perveen is suspicious, especially since one of the widows has signed her form with an X – meaning she probably couldn’t even read the document.  The Farid widows live in full purdah – in strict seclusion, never leaving the women’s quarters or speaking to any men.  Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian?  Perveen tries to investigate, and realises her instincts were correct when tensions escalate to murder.  Now it is her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that no innocent women or children are in further danger. 

You can order The Widows Of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s Bombay, February 1921.

Perveen Mistry recently started working at her father’s law firm after studying law at Oxford University.  But female solicitors are a rarity in India and despite her qualifications, she is not permitted to appear in court on behalf of clients, so she performs discovery for her father’s court cases and manages the non-litigious work such as contracts and wills.  

Perveen is currently administering the estate of the late Omar Farid, a wealthy factory owner who died leaving 3 widows (Razia, Sakina and Mumtaz) and several children.  The widows live in a house on Malabar Hill, an exclusive enclave in Bombay, where they live in purdah (essentially segregated to one side of the house and forbidden from speaking or interacting with men).  Their only contact with the outside world is through Faisal Mukri, the family’s agent.

Malabar Hill is also home to Perveen’s best friend, Alice Hobson-Jones who has just arrived in Bombay to join her parents, Sir David (who works as a senior aide to the Governor of India) and Lady Gwendolyn.  Alice is a brilliant mathematician and radical liberal who campaigns for women’s rights and supports communism but it’s her attraction to women that most bothers her parents, who wish to keep her in India so she can find a husband and settle down.

When Perveen receives a document from Mukri instructing her to pay each of the widow’s entire share of their inheritance into a charity she knows nothing about, she is suspicious and when she realises that there’s a problem with two of the widows’ signatures, she resolves to speak with them.  But Mukri (a bumptious, bullying man with a tremendous sense of entitlement) is reluctant to let her do her job and she soon discovers that the widows are entirely dependent on him with Razia and Sakina in particular, unprepared for dealing with the outside world.  Worse, the widows have been keeping secrets from each other – secrets that Razia’s intelligent and curious daughter, Amina, seems to have knowledge of and which has lead to tensions between them.

When Mukri is found murdered in the house Perveen is concerned for the widows’ safety – the more so when the Bombay police seem keen to pin the murder on the family’s durwan (guard).  But as she goes deeper into the family’s affairs, she’s reminded of events from her own life and a marriage that she’d much rather forget …

Sujata Massey’s historical crime novel (the first in a series) is a well constructed affair that does an excellent job of portraying 1920s multicultural Bombay, what the rise of the independence movement means for the city’s various religious and cultural groups and the problems faced by women, but the murderer is a little easy to guess and I wanted more of Alice and Perveen’s friendship than what’s on the page.

I came into this book pretty ignorant of India’s history and culture and knew  absolutely nothing of Parsi culture.  What Massey does well is set all this out within the context of the plot and the development of Parveen’s character so it all feels very natural rather than just info-dumping – especially with regard to Parsi law and custom, which is well drawn out in the flashbacks to Parveen’s marriage.  There’s also an excellent sense of Bombay as a city here as well with Massey conveying the different cultural and religious groups and the tensions and contrasts between the local Indian population and the British governing class.  Massey doesn’t shy away from the corruption that’s a constant in daily life but nor does she shy away from the condescension, privilege and fear that the British displayed (most specifically through Lady Gwendolyn whose prejudices are driven by fear).

Parveen as a character is inspired by Cornelia Sorabji (the first Indian woman to read law at Oxford) and Mithan Tata Lam (first woman admitted to the Bombay Bar).  Massey conveys the sexism and misogyny that these women would have faced at the time but I also liked how Parveen has advantages that male solicitors don’t have, specifically when it comes to being able to deal with women without offending local customs and also through being underestimated and being able to turn chauvinism around at times to give her an advantage.  The relationship between Parveen and her father is well drawn and I enjoyed how Parveen can be critical of the disregard he has shown to certain matters while also clearly respecting his opinion.  I also liked how while her father is a man ahead of his time in some ways, there are also occasions where he falls back on more traditional attitudes, which helps retain a sense of authenticity.  The only duff note in their characterisation comes in a flashback scene where Parveen queries his skills as a lawyer, which I didn’t quite feel rang true given everything we’ve seen him do up to that point. 

I should also say that while I liked how the flashbacks to Parveen’s marriage help to flesh out both her character and why she is the way she is while also being used to draw Parsi culture and attitudes of the time, I wasn’t wholly convinced by her relationship with Cyrus. For starters, it didn’t quite ring true to me that a woman like Parveen would be so carried away so quickly by his charms and she’s also quite slow to see what’s happening once she moves in with him and his family in Calcutta.  Also disappointing is the way the Cyrus storyline plays out in the 1921 timeline – for me it was all a bit anticlimactic and seemed purely there to set up a potential storyline in the future.

The mystery element itself rolls along at a good pace, although I did find the killer to be pretty easy to guess.  What does work well though is the internal dynamics of the Bombay police force and the role not only of colonial rule but also the internal snobberies regarding who is in charge and what their background is.  I really hope this is something that comes back into play in later books as it is something with a lot of potential, not just because of Parveen’s role but also because of the opportunities this gives vis Alice whose father has specific sway with the police force.

Regarding Alice, there’s a lot of set up here regarding her and her abilities but not a huge amount of pay-off.  That’s a little disappointing given that she’s such a modern-feeling character, but I hope to see more of her in later books as the dynamic between her and her parents holds much promise, as does her mathematical skills (dare I hope for some code breaking in later books?)

Criticisms aside, I think there’s a huge amount of promise in this series – the history feels right, the characters have enough for modern audiences to relate to and the mystery is sufficiently entertaining for me to want to read more.  I look forward to reading the sequel.

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