Sometimes what the mystery genre needs is a completely new slant to illuminate the things that are best and most fun about the genre. Mysteries have their tropes, the usual settings, the usual issues, the usual cast of shady characters, and after you’ve read a certain number of Sherlock Holmes imitations, or Dashiell Hammett imitators, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all the same stuff. Even the addition of women to the ranks of detectives, which has brought us the late Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky’s V. I Warshawski, has led to more versions of the same or similar characters and situations. Sometimes you just need to move the whole ball of wax to a different place and a different time to see things anew.
Enter The Widows of Malabar Hill, a new book by Sujata Massey. The story is set in 1920’s Bombay, India, and the protagonist, Perveen Mistry, is one of the first female attorneys in the whole country. Admit it, you’re already kind of intrigued about the setting and the character, and the mystery she finds herself investigating isn’t the usual American murder story transferred to India, but a problem arising uniquely out of Perveen’s character and the setting she finds herself in.
Perveen is a Zoroastrian young woman, daughter of a respected attorney, who got her legal training in Oxford, England, and is now working in her father’s law firm, trying to prove herself. Because she’s a female solicitor, she’s only going to get paperwork, the kind of behind the scenes material that won’t attract much outside attention.
The firm is given the last will and testament of a prominent Muslim mill owner with three widows to probate, and Perveen notices some oddities about the widows’ situation. All three of them have signed over their entire inheritances to the same charity, leaving them nothing to live on. One of the widows signed with an x, indicating that she wasn’t even able to read or write her own name, and maybe not understand what exactly she was signing away.
Because these widows live in strict purdah, few outsiders are going to be able to investigate and figure out what might have happened and whether they are being taken advantage of. The women remain inside the zenana, women’s quarters, with their children, and do not have any contact with men who are not part of the household. Here Perveen has an advantage over the men in her firm, and over the police: being a woman herself, she can enter the household and talk to the women and try to figure out what’s really going on. She has another advantage as well, one not so obvious: Perveen has had her own encounters with the sexism of the Indian marriage system and as a result, she’s well aware of how women can be silenced, and determined to protect other women from the kind of abuse she is well aware is possible and even probable. The suspicious death of a man who’s the guardian of one of the widows, and the disappearance of a child, only make Perveen more devoted to finding justice, no matter what danger she might be putting herself into in the process.
Join Perveen in the multicultural, vividly rendered world of 1920’s Bombay, and settle in for the beginning of a new and different mystery series.