Sujata Massey has won a number of awards for her Rei Shimura mystery series, which is set in Japan. In The Widows of Malabar Hill, she starts a new series taking place in 1920s Bombay. The main character, Perveen Mistry, is based on a real person: Cornelia Surabji, who became one of India’s first female lawyers. Like her real-world counterpart, Perveen is a pioneer in a historically male-dominated profession. While her gender presents some obstacles to advancement in her chosen profession, it also gives her an advantage in dealing with some clients. Some of Bombay’s conservative Muslim women refuse to interact with men from outside their families, but as a woman, Perveen can speak to them and obtain testimony. This takes on a great deal of importance when a local man is murdered and the only witnesses are three widows who observe a custom of religious seclusion, or purdah.
Massey does an excellent job portraying the complex cultural divisions of India at the time. Perveen is Parsi, a Zoroastrian born in India. Her clients are Muslim, many of her fellow Bombay citizens are Hindu, and her best friend is the daughter of an official in the British colonial government. Political undercurrents run through the story: Perveen’s law firm defends a man accused of fomenting “unrest” by advocating for better working conditions, her friend advocates for women’s suffrage, and there are mentions of a movement for Indian self-rule.
The central part of the story, of course, is the mystery, and this is well-written. Most of the people connected to the victim have secrets and potential motives. Each of the three widows who figures most prominently in the story has a distinct personality and past. Perveen’s attempts to find the truth show her to be intelligent and determined, but Massey doesn’t let things become too easy for her. And the reader is kept guessing about who the murderer is and what’s really going on. It’s not clear whether Massey is intending to write more stories about this character, but I hope she does.