Some of the most compelling new mystery series have been coming out of India in recent years. They’re arriving thick and fast these days. Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry novels about the first woman lawyer in Bombay. The Wyndham and Banerjee novels by Abir Mukherjee, about an odd couple of police detectives in post-WWI Calcutta. Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri series, featuring “India’s #1 private detective.” And, more lately, Vaseem Khan’s Malabar House books, the latest of which is the brilliant detective thriller, The Lost Man of Bombay.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
A thriller set in an eventful time and place
Like the Perveen Mistry stories, the Malabar House series is set in Bombay (now Mumbai) early in the 1950s. And that’s no accident. India had gained its independence just a few years earlier. Partition and the bloodbath that followed continued to cast a pall over the land. The country was still taking shape, absorbing the 584 independent princely states that had occupied forty percent of the subcontinent’s land for centuries. Meanwhile, both in Delhi and in state capitals throughout India, politicians were sorting out how to govern the second most populous country on the planet across lines of caste, class, and religion. Historical novelists would be hard-pressed to find another time and place for a more eventful setting.
The Lost Man of Bombay (Malabar House #3) by Vaseem Khan (2022) 379 pages ★★★★★
A body in the Himalayas opens a seemingly unsolvable case
The Lost Man of Bombay opens high in the Himalayas in 1950. Two mountaineers have stumbled across the body of a European in a cave. The man is naked and appears to have been crushed by a rockfall. Of course, the autopsy will show that he was murdered before the walls caved in on him. And a newspaper clipping in a notebook lying beside the body will make clear that (a) there is some tie to Bombay, and (b) the man died as many as seven years ago.
“The Ice Man,” as the press insists on calling him, represents an unwanted challenge for the Bombay Police. It’s a seemingly unsolvable case. Thus it is that eventually the powers that be dump the case on Malabar House, “the runt of Bombay’s constabulary, a station where those in ill favor were sent—some as a penance, others because there was nowhere else to put them.” And that is how the case lands on the desk of Persis Wadia, the first—and to date, only—female inspector to have qualified for the Indian Police Service.”
A wide-ranging investigation
Three pages are missing from the notebook, and a page at the end reads in entirety, “Caesar’s Triumph holds the key.” Working solely on the basis of these “meager” clues, Persis launches her investigation. Over the months ahead, she will confront not one murder, but four. The case will take her into the World War II archives of the Indian Army and one of the country’s oldest and most storied Hindu temples. Meanwhile, she must struggle against the misogyny that is so widespread and deeply seated in the police, protected only by a supportive boss. All the while evading her aunt’s constant efforts to marry her off. Khan deftly balances the personal and professional dimensions of Persis’s life. And in the process he paints a convincing picture of life in Bombay as it must have been seventy years ago.
About the author
Vaseem Khan is the author of eleven detective novels set in India. Seven are in the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series set in modern Mumbai, and four—one of which is not yet available—features Inspector Persis Wadia of Malabar House in 1950s Bombay. Both series have won awards. Khan notes on his author website that “I was born in London in 1973, went on to gain a Bachelors degree in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics, before spending a decade on the subcontinent helping one of India’s premier hotel groups establish a chain of five-star environmentally friendly ‘ecotels’ around the country.
“I returned to the UK in 2006 and have since worked at University College London for the Department of Security and Crime Science where I am continually amazed at the way modern science is being used to tackle crime. Elephants are third on my list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, not always in that order.”
He adds: “Crime science is an approach to crime prevention, reduction and detection that attempts to use science from a range of disciplines – both engineering sciences and social sciences – to tackle crime. I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by brilliant colleagues all working on crime and security topics ranging from new forensic science techniques to developing the next generation of cyber-security measures. My role involves managing large-scale research projects. I spend a lot of time with academic colleagues and partners from the worlds of policing and security, as we seek to bring that research into the public domain.”
For more reading
Previously I reviewed the first book in the Malabar House series, Midnight at Malabar House (A compelling murder mystery set in India after Partition).
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