Reading mysteries that feature smart, resourceful and bold lady detectives is one of my favorite pastimes. I have quite a few favorites, including Phryne Fisher, Miss Jane Marple, Precious Ramotswe, Agatha Raisin, and Maisie Dobbs, to name a few. I’m always on the lookout for more fabulous femmes of detection. Meet Perveen Mistry, daughter of a wealthy and prominent Zorastrian family and the first woman solicitor (British for lawyer) in 1920s Bombay (modern-day Mumbai), India. India was controlled by the British government in the 1920s. The period of direct British rule over the Indian subcontinent from 1858 until the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 is known as the British raj. Perveen is truly a woman ahead of her time. She’s single and employed by her progressive and supportive father at his firm, Mistry Law. Perveen is regulated to paperwork and assisting her father since she’s not recognized by the Bombay bar and can’t ligate cases in court. Perveen reads a letter from Mr. Faisal Mukri, an appointed estate trustee and household agent of their recently deceased longtime client, Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy textile-mill owner with three wives and four children. Mr. Murki wants Perveen’s father to make a change to the existing estate settlement of Mr. Farid’s widows, who all want to donate their inheritance to the family’s wakf (charitable trust). The letter was signed by all three widows, but on closer inspection of the legal documents, Perveen notices discrepancies. Perveen is suspicious that the widows are being swindled into forfeiting their financial security. Perveen and Jamshedji are anxious to do right by Mr. Farid and his surviving family. There’s just one cultural and social complication. The Farid widows observe purdah– a religious and social practice that involves strict seclusion of Muslim women from public observation and interactions with men outside of their families. They never leave their zenana (women’s quarters). The women rely on the household agent, Mr. Murki, for money and to communicate with the outside world. Perveen seizes on the opportunity to widen her scope and become an advocate for women. She sets up private interviews with each widow to explain their legal and financial rights and make sure they understand the ramifications of Mr. Murki’s plans. During the private interviews, Perveen discovers jealousy and secrets among the widows and Mr. Murki’s abuse of power. Mr. Murki even threatens Perveen for advising the widows. All the household strife culminates in Mr. Murki being brutally stabbed outside of the zenana. Perveen must solve the murder before anyone else in the Farid household comes to harm. There’s also a secondary mystery. Perveen sees a stranger from Caclutta outside Mistery Law, a place that holds painful memories from her ill-fated marriage. Who is this man and what connection does he have with Perveen’s former husband?
The novel deftly switches back and forth between Perveen’s present-day adventures as a solicitor and glimpses of the past during her courtship and brief marriage and the challenges she faced while studying law. Her experiences explain her dedication to defending vulnerable women. Perveen is a superb detective. She’s a women’s rights activist in a time where women didn’t have a voice, resourceful, intelligent, logical, impulsive, a defender of justice and fairness, proficient in the law, brave, confident, and has zero tolerance for disrespect or abuse. Perveen is assisted by her best friend Alice Hobson-Jones, daughter of Sir David Hobson-Jones (governor assigned to India), brilliant in mathematics and openly lesbian. The two friends met while studying at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England. Alice was a fun and non-traditional character and friend for Perveen. I love how she wants to become a mathematician and forgo traditional matrimony and homemaking. Her parents’ denial of her sexuality highlights the challenges of being a lesbian in the 1920s. At first, I wished Perveen had a friend from her own community, rather than from the colonizing class, but I think it shows how accepting and forward thinking she is and her talent for mingling across cultures.
Sujata doesn’t delve heavily into the political intrigue of the British colonial period, but the reader does get a sense of the emotional and social tension felt by Indians and the British. The British characters are an interesting mix of those who are curious about the surrounding culture and the indifferent and entitled elite who only want to conquer and control. I normally read novels about British detectives, so it was a nice change in locale to explore 1920s India, a cultural hybrid of Indian and British customs.
Author, Sujata Massey skillfully blends elements of Indian culture, religion, politics and law with British influences and the mystery plot. Her research for this story was impeccable. According to Sujata’s official website: https://sujatamassey.com/, Perveen Mistry was partially inspired by a real historical figure, Cornelia Sorabji, who overcame numerous obstacles to become the first woman to practice law in India and legal advocate for women in purdah.
I highly recommend perusing the website for the Perveen Mistry Series Recipe Collection, Sujata’s bio, her other books, blog and more. As a foodie, I really appreciated the mouth-watering descriptions of Parsi cuisine throughout the novel, such as Sali boti (meat with potatoes sticks), Patra ni Machi (fish with coconut spice paste wrapped in a banana leaf) and falooda (fruit-and-milk punch); and spices like cardamom, coriander and cinnamon.
It is challenging to write a story about a different culture for a western audience and time period and not explain every little nuance. Massey defines terms where appropriate and leaves others to be gleaned from context or researched on your own. Anyone of any race can relate to the overall themes, such as women’s empowerment and jealousy. My favorite part of the story was the women’s issues. Women in the 1920s had a lot of social, cultural and legal limitations that boggled my mind, such as the antiquated practice of the monthly seclusion of women during menstruation, denial of accreditation by the Bar Association even though you earned a law degree, denial of the right to prosecute or defend a case in court, inequities in divorce laws and general sexism, neglect and abuse. I admire women who carve out spaces of power, no matter how limited.
The whodunit is decent, but the murder suspects were not as plentiful or ambiguous as I would like. Despite the shortlist of suspects and motives, this novel was very satisfying. I look forward to reading the second Perveen Mistry novel, The Satapur Moonstone. I’m a mystery snob, so my endorsement is not easily won. And I’m not the only one. The Widows of Malabar Hill has won some prestigious awards: the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel, the 2019 Edgar Allan Poe Awards: Mary Higgins Clark Award, and the 2019 Macavity Awards: Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award. Do consider checking out this cozy mystery infused with the aromatic tastes, smells, sounds and heritage of India. Curl up to read with a cup of Darjleeng tea or masala chai (spiced tea) and the Indian dish of your choice.