The first woman lawyer in Bombay solves a baffling mystery

The Widows of Malabar Hill highlights the Parsi minority.

I’ll admit it. I enjoy reading mysteries and thrillers, and I have a special preference for historical fiction. But when an author brings the two genres together and does a superior job in both of them, I’m entranced. And that’s certainly the case with The Widows of Malabar Hill. Sujata Massey‘s brilliant mystery novel is set in Bombay in 1921. And it casts a bright light on the little-known but fascinating Parsi minority in India.

In The Widows, Massey sets the scene for a new series of novels featuring Perveen Mistry, the first and only woman lawyer in Bombay. It’s 1921, when women’s roles in India were far more circumscribed than in Britain or the United States. To study law in her home town, Perveen could gain entry to a law college only with the help of her father, a highly esteemed solicitor. Her family, established in the sixteenth century, belongs to the tiny but powerful Parsi religious minority. But despite the family’s wealth and influence, she could only sit in classes without registering—where she faced the hostility of students and faculty alike. Forced out of the college, she eventually gained her degree in the law at Oxford during the First World War.

The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry #1) by Sujata Massey (2018) 401 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The first woman lawyer in misogynist Bombay

Now, Perveen is six months into her work as a solicitor in her father’s firm, Mistry Law. Because her father is busy elsewhere, she follows up on a puzzling case involving three widows who live in purdah. Their husband had died recently, and it looked as though the young man he had appointed to run the household was trying to cheat the widows out of their inheritance. With great difficulty, Perveen gains entry to the section of the house on Malabar Hill where the widows live. But soon her investigation runs afoul of the head of the household. And then murder enters the scene.

A fascinating look at India’s powerful Parsi minority

Sujata Massey, who is British-American, is of Indian and German extraction. She moved with her parents from England to the United States at the age of five. So her connection to the culture and history of 1920s Bombay can only be tenuous. Which means that she had to do a superior job of research to reproduce the climate and attitudes of that time, nearly a century ago. She relates considerable detail about the religion and culture of the Parsi minority, which is a central theme in the novel. And her portrayal of the tense relations between British colonial administrators and the Indian elite has the ring of truth.

For additional reading

You’ll find this book on The 40 best books of the decade from 2010-19 as well as on my list of The decade’s top 10 historical novels, mysteries & thrillers, and science fiction.

If you’re looking for other exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others) and 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up).

And check out 15 good books about India, past and present.

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