A Murder at Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey. Allen and Unwin. $29.99.
Although Sujata Massey was born in England to parents from India and Germany, she has lived in America since the age of five and worked as a journalist for the Baltimore Evening Sun, before becoming a full-time novelist. A Murder at Malabar Hill was originally published under the title The Widows of Malabar Hill in the US in 2018 and has already won the Mary Higgins Clark Award, the Left Award for Best Historical Mystery Novel and the Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel.
The reasoning behind the title change is unclear, although perhaps murder in the title suggest that the novel will appeal to readers of crime.
A Murder at Malabar Hill, set in 1920's Bombay, is the first in a series to feature the courageous and determined Parveen Mistry, whose character was inspired by Cornelia Sorabji, one of India's earliest female lawyers and the first woman to read law at Oxford in 1892.
Oxford-educated Parveen is the only female lawyer in Bombay. Although not allowed in court, she works as a solicitor in her father's law firm. One of their clients, Omar Farid, a textile mill owner, has died and left three widows, who live together in purdah on Malabar Hill with their four children.
Farid's appointed estate trustee, Faisal Mukri, wants to make changes to the estate settlement. The widows want to give their inheritance to the family's 'wakf', a charitable trust that provides funds for the needy, while paying a dividend to specified relatives - the widows. Parveen has her suspicions because one of the widows has signed with an X, and she wonders if they realise what they have signed away.
The women live in strict seclusion, never leaving their side of the house or speaking to men. Only the garden gives them some freedom. Parveen believes, however, they would be willing to speak to a female lawyer. Her father is concerned because Parveen "is impatient and impetuous . . . [and has] said more than most are ready to hear about women's rights".
Interspersed with Parveen's interactions with the widows are her memories of her own horrific experiences of marriage and life with in-laws, remote from her family. Pareveen knows first hand how marriage can remove a woman's right to justice.
Inevitably there's a murder in the house on Malabar Hill and Parveen is relentless in her search for the truth.
The success of A Murder at Malabar Hill is well deserved because Massey tells a convincing story that may be set in the past but resonates in the present day. The second in the series, The Satapur Moonstone, is already available. I hope it fulfills the promise of the first.
The Case of the Wandering Scholar, by Kate Saunders. Bloomsbury. $29.99
Kate Saunders is a British journalist and author who has also been a regular contributor to both radio and TV. In 2016 her historical crime novel, The Secrets of Wishtide was published, the first of six Laetitia Rodd Mysteries, featuring a Victorian "private detective of the utmost discretion". Mrs Rodd is the impoverished widow of an Anglican Archdeacon, aged in her early 50s, who lives in reduced circumstances in Hampstead with her landlady, Mrs Bentley.
The Case of the Wandering Scholar, the second in the series, begins with Mrs Rodd's brother, Frederick Tyson, "one of the most celebrated criminal barristers in London", introducing her to Jacob Welland a wealthy, self-made industrialist dying of consumption. He wants Mrs Rodd to find his brother, Joshua, his only living relative because he wants to see him before he dies.
Joshua had been a poor scholar at Oxford, but 10 years ago "poverty broke his heart . . . he simply walked out of his college into the countryside, and has lived there ever since".
Mrs Rodd, using her "clerical connections", contacts her husband's old curate Arthur Somers and his wife Rachel. Somers is now the vicar of Hardinsett, five miles outside Oxford, a perfect base for Mrs Rodd's enquiries. She discovers that Somers spends a lot of time at Swinford, a controversial parish nearby. The vicar, the charismatic Gerald Fogle has turned his stables into a monastic retreat "where numerous earnest young men led a medieval life of prayer, fasting and chastity".
Swinford is a symbol of the effect of the Oxford Movement on the Church of England and Mrs Rodd disapproves, although many of the young clerics find the 'Roman" influences attractive. Her investigations take her into Oxford and the surrounding countryside revealing a complex story of love, deception and a secret from the past, which inevitably leads to murder and the arrival of Inspector Blackheath from Scotland Yard.
Saunders employs both Dickensian and Trollopian undertones in her novel to good effect, especially in her characters, while at the same time exploring the effect of Victorian morality on women's lives. It's an absorbing read.