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Oxford-educated Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first female solicitor, is a clever, spirited young woman working for her father’s respected law firm in 1921 Bombay. Unable to fully practice because a woman can’t earn a law degree, her father relies on her exacting skills with contract law and her nimble mind for additional legal assistance. Introduced to readers in Sujata Massey’s 2015 novella, Outnumbered at Oxford, then launched in The Widows of Malabar Hill (Book 1) of the author’s Mystery of 1920s India series, the success of the second and third installments shows no sign of Perveen’s career being dismissed.
October 1921. Despite being supportive of Gandhi, Perveen accepts a one-time case on behalf of the Kohlapur Agency and the British government in The Satapur Moonstone (Book 2). Like her interaction with the widows in Book 1, the Agency’s clients live in purdah and cannot speak to male outsiders. Her task is to hear both sides of a contentious debate between two maharanis—the dowager and the mother of the 10-year-old crown prince—and make a recommendation for the prince’s education.
The catch is, however, she must travel to the princely state of Satapur in the isolated Sahyadri mountains where transportation is by palanquin or horseback. Upon arrival at her lodgings, the circuit house, she meets Colin Sandringham, the political agent overseeing the area. Quickly, Perveen feels uncomfortable. Sandringham is a bachelor who recalls meeting her one evening at Oxford; she is the only woman at the circuit house; and the environment is breathtaking but treacherous even in daylight. In turn, unnerving details come to light as she undertakes her assignment. She learns the crown prince’s father and older brother recently died; the palace teems with backstabbing personalities; and the royal children are at risk. Consequently, Perveen finds herself trapped in a deadly royal situation and unable to keep from falling for Sandringham against her better judgment.
November 1921. Perveen finds herself caught in an explosive political situation at home in newly-published Book 3, The Bombay Prince. Anti-British sentiments are in the air, and Edward, Prince of Wales, is set to arrive in Bombay. Days before, college student Freny Cuttingmaster asks Perveen for guidance on behalf of an activist group: Would there be consequences for being absent from school in protest on the day of Edward’s arrival? For the parade, Perveen joins her best friend Alice, an instructor at the college, in the school’s viewing area. Following a disruptive protest by another student, Freny’s body is discovered on the college grounds. The supposition is that she had fallen and suffered injuries similar to an incident 30 years prior at another school.
Because Freny sought her counsel, Perveen vows to untangle the reason for Freny’s death. But without eyewitnesses, Perveen faces major hurdles. Her father restricts her movements by booking them in the Taj Hotel because of the increasing violence. There, she is stunned to encounter Colin Sandringham, who is accompanying Edward on his tour. Meanwhile, police are uncooperative, the press is relentless, and the arrested protester’s lawyer is incompetent. Nevertheless, Perveen forges ahead with her own investigation, questioning everyone’s motives, and becoming a target herself.
In all three books, Massey brilliantly sets up challenges, tension, and danger mixed with reasonable doubt about many characters and their possible motives. Those reasonable doubts are the products of Perveen’s questioning mind and focused labor to fit puzzle pieces together. Without modern investigative methods, equipment, or resources, Massey makes certain her legal sleuth remains firmly within all the boundaries of the 1920s.
Around the mysteries, Massey gracefully weaves India’s diverse cultures, religions, and societal expectations into the novels. She recreates 1920s Bombay with precise attention to detail, drawing out the tantalizing smell of foods, the vibrant colors of clothing, the friction caused by political beliefs, the strict Parsi matrimonial laws, the warmth and loyalty between family and friends, the textures and architecture of the city, the lushness of the mountainous jungle in The Satapur Moonstone, and the Parsi funeral customs in Bombay Prince. Massey’s awareness of time, place, and community results in Bombay a century ago so vividly that the reader is effortlessly transported.
It is Perveen herself that makes this series such delightful reading. She is rendered with great humanness as a caring, generous role model. Occasionally outspoken, she knows when to reveal her anger or maintain the decorum expected of her.
“Two of India’s early women lawyers, barrister Mithan Tata Lam and solicitor Cornelia Sorabji, were inspirational for my research,” Massey told me. “Both of them fought for the physical safety and property rights of women. Cornelia went through the jungle to meet female clients who lived in seclusion at palaces and similar locations. Mithan was the guiding force in rewriting the punitive divorce law for Parsi people, but it wasn’t accomplished until 1936.”
Massey is writing Book 4 now, about which she revealed, “I’ve explored British-Indian political themes in Books 2 and 3, and Book 4 is very strongly a woman’s rights themed book.”
Although women still face many struggles in 2021, it was a century’s worth more difficult in 1921. For Perveen, she endures immeasurable pressure as an upper-class Parsi woman who is separated from an abusive husband and who is Bombay’s only female lawyer. Perveen is an early 20th-century champion of truth and justice, women’s rights, and equality. In this way, she easily translates to today.
For mystery devotees, this series is unlike any other. For historical fiction aficionados, the author provides a rich representation of the world in which Perveen lives and works. Bombay in the 1920s, the Parsi community, and the recurring and familiar lovable characters all combine to give the reader a complete and enduring experience.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen splits her time between homes in both Carolinas and is a long-time contributor to India Currents, a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association, and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee.