Thursday, September 5, 2019

Review of The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (2018, Soho Crime)

Bombay, 1921. Perveen Mistry, the first female solicitor in the city, takes over the administration of the will of Omar Farid from her father. Having survived a sham marriage and gaining her law degree in Oxford, she is keen to prove her worth to the family business. As she goes through the estate papers of the wealthy Muslim mill owner, she notices that his three wives have signed away their inheritance to a charity. Wanting to be certain of their wishes, she travels to their bungalow in the desirable district of Malabar Hill. The three women are living with their children in strict seclusion, never leaving the women’s quarters, forbidden from talking to or being touched by unknown men. There she is confronted by the guardian appointed by the late-husband to look after the wives’ affairs, who is unhappy that she is questioning how he running the estate. After talking to the women, she is suspicious about the set-up; even more so when there is a murder in the house shortly after she leaves. While the police rush to conclusions, Perveen works with her best friend, Alice Hobson-Jones, the English daughter of a senior government official, and her father to solve the case.

The Widows of Malabar Hill is the first book in Perveen Mistry series set in 1920s Bombay (now Mumbai). After studying for a law degree in Oxford, Perveen has joined her father’s law firm as the city’s first female solicitor. She’s keen to establish herself and build a successful career, hoping to eventually become a lawyer and undertake court cases, though women are barred from such work. In the meantime, she helps her father prepare cases and undertake more routine work relating to family and commercial affairs. In this initial outing, her father asks her to take over the legal aspects of the legacy of a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three wives and a handful of children. Perveen notices some odd things about how the wives’ guardian is administering the estate and shortly after she leaves the family home a murder is committed. Perveen aids the police, but unhappy with how they are handling the case, she starts her own investigation. Massey does a nice job of historically contextualising the tale with respect to the multicultural nature of Indian society, the position and roles of women within these cultures, the laws that shaped different communities, and governance by the British. There’s also a strong emphasis on the workings of family and food and fashion. The characterisation is nicely done, especially Perveen, who is smart, determined, and politically astute, but also a little naïve, and her somewhat bolshie English friend, Alice Hobson-Jones. The plot with respect to the bereaved family and the murder was interesting, and nicely constructed, though there were a little too many coincident holding it together in terms of connections between characters and places. Where the telling suffers, however, is Perveen’s extended back story, which not only broke the flow of the mystery tale but was drawn out. The back story is important for understanding Perveen and her approach to representing women, but its inclusion as a detailed separate strand took the pace out of the story and meant the key part of the investigation doesn’t start until two thirds of the way through. Nonetheless, Perveen, the setup and context are interesting and I look forward to giving the second book in the series a read.

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