books, Historical Fiction, Reading, Women Writers

“The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey

unnamed-11          “‘How dare you speak of being in charge?’ Mukri’s gaze was contemptuous. ‘You are not even accredited by the Bombay Bar. You have no power in the court.’
          Perveen realized he must have looked into her background and had prepared to fight. His insulting declaration was intended to scare the begums into thinking she couldn’t defend them. Drawing herself up to her full five feet three inches, Perveen said, ‘The women on the other side of the jali are not weak. They hold more power in their six hands than you have in two.'”

I am not, generally, a crime/mystery/thriller, kind of a reader, but I can appreciate refreshing dips in those genre-pools every once in a while, particularly as I continue to try to push myself to read more broadly. So when I got wind of a new mystery series featuring a brown female protagonist, written by an accomplished, cosmopolitan female writer, and set among the conflicting ethnic communities of 1920s Bombay, all I could say was ‘Yes, please.’

In the first installment of Sujata Massey’s newest series, “The Widows of Malabar Hill”, we meet Perveen Mistry, a young woman who has fought to study law at a time when women are discouraged from doing any such thing and are excluded from the Bar. Perveen works with her father Jamshedji in his law practice, primarily doing legwork and paperwork to serve their clientele. When Perveen discovers that the widows of a recently deceased client, women who are purdahnashins living in strict seclusion, wish to dramatically restructure their finances and donate most of their inheritance to the family wakf, a charitable trust managed by a former employee of their husband, she has concerns about their motivation and their well-being. Mystery and intrigue ensue.

Massey’s exploration of some of the communities and cultures within 1920s India was the strength of this work for me. I particularly appreciated the exploration of the Mistry’s Parsi circle – Zoroastrian, long-ago immigrants from Persia to India who comprise a small, insular community in India.

Massey certainly had moments of pith and clever phrase, such as the following dialogue between Perveen and one of the widows:

“‘Razia-begum, it seems that you are chained to some people and a large old house that you cannot fully enjoy.’
Razia looked warily at Perveen. ‘Is that not the meaning of family?'”

However, this wasn’t a book that was deeply quotable, that called out to be dog-earred or re-read, that contained poetic prose or lyrical passages. It was an enjoyable, unexceptionally crafted work in which the novelties of the culture and history carried the day. Unfortunately, I suppose, that played into my prejudices about the genre – factual details tend to be more interesting than (often predictable) plot twists and more memorable than (often prosaic) turns of phrase.

Thank you to Soho Crime for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

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