Sujata Massey – A Murder at Malabar Hill

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2019

Every time I meet an author new to me, I am struck by how many thousands of writers I do not know of whose work awaits as a new delight. So much to read and how can we ever do it all?

Sujata Massey Sujata writes mystery and suspense fiction set in pre-independence India, as well as a modern mystery series set in Japan. She is the author of 14 novels and numerous short stories published in 18 countries, and yet this is the first of hers I have read! I will certainly read more – in fact, I am now bursting to read the second of the Perveen Mistry series, The Satapur Moonstone.

A Murder at Malabar Hill is published elsewhere under the title The Widows of Malabar Hill and is the winner of the Agatha, the Mary Higgins Clark and the Lefty Award.

Set between 1916 and 1921, mostly in Bombay, this is a murder mystery which also gives us insight into many fascinating historical and cultural matters. Our highly appealing heroine is Perveen Mistry, who has studied law in Oxford and now works in her father’s law firm – one of the first female lawyers in India. The character is inspired in part by a real woman who made history by becoming India’s first woman lawyer.

We see very clearly in this story the divisions wrought by the continuing (arrogant and privileged) presence and dominance of the English colonists. It also deals frankly with change and culture in relation to women and matters like their rights in divorce and the family home, the skewed law, differences between the practices of religious groups  – Muslims, Hindis, Parsi – and the changes that modernisation of thinking enabled. Domestic abuse of many kinds is sensitively and honestly explored.

Perveen comes from a Zoroastrian background and is a member of a progressive Parsi family where cruel old practices, like forced seclusion under awful conditions during menstruation, have been overthrown. She is a bold and intelligent heroine reminiscent of my beloved Phryne Fisher in her willingness to put herself in the way of danger for the sake of what is right and just – but all the time with a consciousness of her cultural obligations. Her family is a huge strength – they are kind, caring and practical in their support, wise in their advice and practice, guiding but not controlling.

Perveen’s relationship with her English university friend Alice is more than a plot device and a vehicle to show up differences and the less pleasant side of English rule. It is another example of Perveen’s great capacity to tactfully and insightfully navigate cross-cultural landscapes and the emotional needs of others.

This was such a marvellous read and I thank ACT Writers and Harper Collins for the gift of the book.

You can find Sujata Massey and read about her other work at https://sujatamassey.com/