Compared to the bustling streets of 1920s Bombay, the secluded zenana of an observant Muslim household would seem the least likely site for a murder. Yet for the three newly widowed wives of a wealthy factory owner, simply keeping men out does nothing to keep motives and means of killing from lurking among them. Settling the tangled strands of the dead man’s estate while respecting the widows’ purdah—strict seclusion from speaking to men—falls almost by default to the only lawyer in Bombay who can speak to the women: Perveen Mistry, one of the few female practicing solicitors in the country, and herself very familiar with the constraints placed on women and wives in particular. Perveen takes on the will settlement as much as a chance to prove her skills to her lawyer father as to fulfill her family law firm’s responsibility to their deceased client. But her gut feeling that not all is right with the Farids is proven when the appointed guardian, who Perveen suspects of bilking the widows of their proper inheritance, is found murdered. With the tensions of a multiple-wife household heightened by threats within and without, it’s up to Perveen to figure out how a murder could through impenetrable walls, before the widows—or herself—becomes the next victim.
The Widows of Malabar Hill launches Sujata Massey’s new historical mystery series in fine style. Based in part on the real woman who was India’s first practicing lawyer, Perveen Mistry is a fascinating, contradictory character that holds great promise. A Zoroastrian by faith, Oxford-educated and Bombay-bred, Perveen moves easily in the cosmopolitan world of Bombay’s Muslim/English/Hindi/Zoroastrian cultures. Yet much like Indian culture of the period, she struggles with honoring traditional values while embracing the modernity that offers opportunities. Perveen’s back story takes up nearly the first half of the book, a frustration for the mystery-minded reader, but since it is a first book and the character well written, a slow start is easily forgiven. Massey obviously did considerable research into historical Bombay and its cultures, for the city seems as much a character as the individuals populating the story. The Widows of Malabar Hill shows that Massey has been inspired both by her newest creation and her setting, with the promise of a great series to come.