“Bombay, 1921: Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father’s law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes her especially devoted to championing and protecting women’s rights.
Mistry Law is handling the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen goes through the papers, she notices something strange: all three have signed over their inheritance to a charity. What will they live on if they forefeit what their husband left them? Perveen is suspicious.
The Farid widows live in purdah: strict seclusion, never leaving the women’s quarters or speaking to any men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? Perveen tries to investigate and realizes her instincts about the will were correct when tensions escalate to murder. It’s her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that nobody is in further danger.”
Well this was a nice change of pace! I don’t often read mystery fiction that doesn’t have a speculative fiction twist to it, but this summer I’m pushing myself to read outside my typical authors and genres. When this showed up on a list by my local library of recommended books, it sounded too intriguing to pass up. And I’m so glad I checked it out.
There are two overlapping mysteries at play in The Widows of Malabar Hill. The main one deals with the eponymous widows – the stoic senior wife Razia, the welcoming middle wife Sakia, and the outsider third wife Mumtaz – and their shady house agent, Faisal Mukri. Perveen is pulled deeper and deeper into their lives as she tries to figure out if Mukri is scamming the widows out of their inheritance. Then, once someone is murdered and a child goes missing, Perveen is the only one who can solve the case. Partly because she’s the only person involved who is simultaneously curious about what happened, smart enough to see past platitudes and misdirection, looking out for the sheltered women, and determined to make sure the right person is punished for the crimes rather than let the English let some random Indian man take the fall. But also because as a woman she is the only person who can interact with the widows face-to-face.
The second has to do with Perveen’s past. Interspersed with the main plot is a subplot set five years prior. In it she meets and marries an older man who turns out to not be the man she thought he was. The mystery is slight and mostly about learning what Perveen had to do to get to her present situation. Her past parallels the widows’ present but contrasts their willing seclusion with her forced isolation. We see how religious beliefs and cultural traditions can be used as a tool or a weapon depending on who is wielding it.
I hate it when reviewers blame fiction authors for not “educating” their readers about their culture. No fiction author should be held responsible for what a reviewer learns or doesn’t learn. That being said, I actually did learn a lot about early 20th century India and its various cultures and communities. I admit not knowing much about India, past or present. But I appreciated how Sujata Massey imparted knowledge about what non-Indian audiences needed to know in order to keep up with the plot and better understand the characters. I also loved how she was able to push back on contemporary Western stereotypes about Islam and India and Indian Muslim women in particular by exploring historical context.
On top of all that, Massey is an excellent writer who is very good at crafting a thrilling mystery and compelling characters. I came into The Widows of Malabar Hill without knowing much about it beyond the back cover description, and by the end of the first chapter I was hooked.
On the morning Perveen saw the stranger, they’d almost collided. Perveen had come upon him half-hidden in the portico entrance to Mistry House. The unshaven, middle-aged man appeared as if he’d slept for several days and nights in his broadcloth shirt and the grimey cotton dhoti that hung in a thousand creases from his waist to his ankles. His small, squinting eyes were tired and he exuded a rank odor of sweat mixed with betel nut.
A visitor to Mistry Law this early was rare. The firm was located in Fort, Bombay’s first settlement. Although the old wall had been taken down, the district was still a fortress of law and banking, with most openings between nine and ten.
Assuming the man was a sad-sack client, Perveen glanced down, not wanting him to feel overly scrutinized. The idea of a woman solicitor was a shock to many. But when Perveen glanced down she was disconcerted to see the man wasn’t poor at all. His thin legs were covered by black stockings, and his feet were laced into scuffed black leather brogues.
The only place men wore British shoes and stocking with their dhotis was Calcutta, about twelve hundred miles away. Calcutta was the city that would always remind her of Cyrus.