From this 1921 opening, Massey takes the story back five years, to when this "modern" Parsi teen lost her half-under-the-table place at a law school in Bombay, fell in love, and abruptly married a young man from an "orthodox" Parsi family. Her excruciating struggles in this situation become the forceful background for how she develops into a problem-solving and competent adult who'll tackle an unjust situation when she discovers it.
Here's a taste of Mistry family life as Perveen argues for a chance to marry, sooner than her older brother:
Grandfather Mistry cleared his throat and said, "If a younger sister marries before her older brother, people will believe she had to marry for reasons of pregnancy. Every bead of her reputation will be sold."Count on needing the insight Perveen is gaining here, for when she attempts to unravel the mystery of the widows of Malabar Hill!
"We aren't like that." Perveen struggled to keep her voice level. "And what else can I do with myself now that I am not a student, except get married?"
"The one who digs a whole falls into it," Grandfather Mistry replied dourly, and Rustom snorted.
[Perveen's mother] pressed her hands together as if she was nervous. "You were always such a dear, agreeable daughter. You appreciated what you were given, not like some others in town. How can you do this to us?"
"I didn't do anything to you! His parents have asked for a meeting. Won't you at least give them the respect they deserve by going?" she pleaded.
Perhaps today's best known crime fiction series set in India (in some titles; others simply deal with India as background) is Barbara Cleverly's Commander Joe Sandilands series (post World War I). But that set of titles works from the point of view of an English military man who's sympathetic but not of the culture. Massey's series, framed in a young woman's perspective and playing various cultures within India's melting pot against each other, is eye-opening and intriguing.
Well written, highly detailed, and engaging, THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL shows Massey's extensive writing experience, as well as an acute eye for human frailty and conflict. I'm glad to note from her material that there's a sequel on the way. The series is published by Soho Crime, which also publishes the Cleverly series -- I recommend both.
PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.