Sujata Massey takes her readers back to 1920s Bombay, India in this intriguing legal mystery. Our heroine is Perveen Mistry, a young woman who’s broken with societal norms and gotten a law degree from Oxford. She’s working in the menial aspects of her father’s law practice. No court appearances for her—it would be entirely too radical!
So, when she finds that the widows of one of the firm’s clients are living in full purdah, it seems like the perfect opportunity to stretch her responsibilities. Full purdah means they don’t speak face-to-face with men outside of their family members. Ever. So that means it would be infinitely harder for Perveen’s father to work with them. And she sees a possible niche for her legal work as well.
Perveen’s task seems relatively simple. Just confirm their wishes for part of their inheritance to go to a family philanthropic organization. Until it’s not.
Perveen, who is Parsi, needs to navigate complex Mohammaden law. And gain the trust of three women not used to outsiders. Plus, there’s an unexpected death in the household. So Perveen becomes detective, guardian, interpreter, and lawyer.
Because Massey builds heroines with layered character, Perveen’s past experiences inform her reaction to current events. We learn about how she happened to attend Oxford, among other things.
I like Sujata Massey’s writing style. She balances the current story with the back story. And the plot moves forward at a friendly clip that kept me on the edge of my seat.
Massey includes cultural commentary in her stories without simply spouting information. The characters and plot illustrate race relations, religious beliefs, and women’s issues. None of this gets in the way of a good whodunit.
Last year I read Shantaram, which is set in more modern times, right when Bombay was becoming Mumbai. Then I read Behind The Beautiful Forevers, nonfiction set in the Mumbai slums. This is an interesting complement to those two books, as its setting predates them. But unlike those other two, Massey uses Bombay as the location only, rather than making it a beloved character in the book. This approach is effective because it allows her to focus on Perveen and the widows.
Several years ago I started reading Massey’s Rei Shimura series, and liked it as well. But I only read the first few books. Perhaps I’ll head back into it while I wait for the next installment of Perveen Mistry.
Give The Widows of Malabar Hill a read if you like independent women who break through the cultural norms of their time.