Back to top

Detecting and derring-do

Cover of Murder in Old Bombay
A review of Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March

Jim Agnihotri can’t shake the image of the two women falling from his mind. A former captain in Her Majesty’s forces, Agnihotri has read of the case while recuperating from terrible injuries to mind and body from a skirmish in 1891 Karachi, but it is the perplexing mystery surrounding the deaths of two wealthy Parsee women who apparently jumped from a Bombay clock tower on their own accord that haunts him. Why would the Framji women jump at such an interval apart? And why would two young women seemingly happy with their lives choose to end them so violently? Taking a cue from his newest favorite hero, Sherlock Holmes, Jim decides to attempt to solve the puzzle himself in Nev March’s debut novel Murder in Old Bombay.

While Jim can draw on his military past and half-British/half-Brahmin birth to plum lines of inquiry closed to others, he soon finds that the crime—as it is undoubtedly murder--is far more complicated than he assumed. Witnesses swear to one account, only to deny knowledge in follow up interviews, mysterious ‘accidents’ nearly kill him multiple times, and it soon becomes clear to Jim that the tangled web of English/Indian relations are deeply entwined with the murders. The threads of the case lead him to war-torn Lahore, the glittering palace of a Rani and the haunted confines of a remote British garrison. Like his idol Holmes, it gives Jim many opportunities to don disguises—the near-sighted English missionary is a nice comic touch--while requiring of him the sort of adventures that seem to defy real life. And the orphaned Jim’s growing attachment to the grief-stricken Framji family—and especially the lovely and spirited Lady Diana Framji—raises longings for a home and family that feel forever out of his reach.

Nev March, a Parsee Zoroastrian herself, won the Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award for Murder in Old Bombay, and it’s easy to see the appeal. (It’s also been nominated for a 2020 Edgar Award in the First Novel category.)  March creates a dynamic portrait of late nineteenth century India, and the novel as a whole has a bit of that Holmes-flavored mix of derring-do and adventure. That can be a liability though—March almost packs too much into Jim’s adventures, leading some plot points and deductions to come out in exposition or off-stage, and some of the action to move past in a blur. Some word choices and odd phrasing that hinders immersion in the story also betrays the novel’s debut status. On the whole, though, March is off to a promising writing career, and fans of older-fashioned mysteries with greater emphasis on action over deduction will find much to like here. Fans of other historical mysteries that capture the complexities of colonial India, such as Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry series and Abir Mukherjee’s Sam Wyndham books, should also take notice.


Mar 3, 2021