Mysteries are one of my defaults when I’m looking for a new book. I had started Michelle McNamara’s nonfiction about the search for the Golden State Killer I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, but while it was engrossing, it also gave me literal nightmares. I shelved it a little over a third of the way through. Not the right book for right now.
Fortunately, Modern Mrs. Darcy had a blog post with a list of gentle mysteries (not too gruesome or disturbing) that came out right as I was casting about for new reading material. On the list was The Widows of Malabar Hill (by Sujata Massey) centering on a female solicitor in 1920s India. Truthfully, I picked it up initially because it was the first one on the list available at the library for e-book borrowing, but I was pulled into the story almost immediately and glad that I had been able to nab it.
Protagonist Perveen Mistry is a young Parsi woman who studied law at Oxford and now an associate in her father’s law office. While she cannot present cases in court as a barrister, she works as the first female solicitor in Bombay. When the law office is presented with three Muslim widows who wish to put their inheritance into a specialized trust, Perveen is sent to speak to the women who live in purdah, an enclosed life where no males outside of the family are permitted. Within the house, Perveen finds secrets, simmering rivalries, and, eventually, the murder of the women’s male protector.
One of the qualities I really enjoyed about The Widows of Malabar Hill was author Massey’s deft ability to make India’s pluralism and society in the 1920s comprehensible to someone like me who knows relatively little about India. Perveen and her family are Parsi: descended from Iranians who fled religious persecution to India somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries CE and practicing Zoroastrianism. Massey also brings Muslims, Hindus, and the British into the story, picking through the social distinctions and interactions. These differences bear heavily on the story as Perveen must understand Muslim law surrounding inheritance to work with her clients, navigate the social conventions around her friendship with Alice Hobson-Jones (the daughter of a high-ranking British official), and the Parsi marriage laws that have personal significance for Perveen.
Perveen is a compelling character to anchor the story. Massey gives her protagonist realistic strengths and weaknesses – Perveen is upper class, well-educated, and intelligent, but Massey doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of being a trailblazer or the exhausting, constant explanations Perveen has to give around what she does for a living. Perveen doesn’t fall entirely into the “plucky heroine” convention that often happens with women in novels. Her path to becoming a solicitor is more complicated and the triumph of becoming a solicitor is more muted than just the usual sexism and misogyny to overcome (though these certainly factor in). Massey also makes Perveen’s sex an asset as well as a liability; as a female, she is the only solicitor who can go behind the screens to meet the women clients in purdah. I also really liked the fact that Perveen has a genuinely supportive and kind family who love her and want to see her happy and successful.
The novel had two distinct plotlines: the mystery itself, which kept me guessing, but also Perveen’s backstory. While sometimes fleshing out a character as an equal storyline can detract in a mystery, in this case, it blends well with the central plot.
I really enjoyed The Widows of Malabar Hill and am excited to pick up the second book in the series, The Satapur Moonstone. It’s wonderful to find a new series that is as promising as this one!