If I’m not reading romance, then my genre fiction of choice is the murder mystery, not too gory, or too puzzle-y. For the past few weeks, in tandem with the Bowen romance I reviewed, I read Dorothy Sayers’s Strong Poison, Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill and, in audio, the second and third Ruth Galloway mysteries, Elly Griffiths’s The Janus Stone and The House at Sea’s End. I enjoyed the three, four really, and recommend them to any reader who, like me, likes to torment herself by following series, awaiting, anticipating each volume (at least the Sayers are, um, finite). The slower the writer, the greater the agony. Of the three, Sayers’s Strong Poison is sheer wit and genius; the Massey took a while to get into, but once I gave it a “second chance”, I was engrossed. The Galloways are catnip: I adore the main character, Ruth, an archaeologist who lends her “bone” expertise to the police and ends up working with Norfolk police’s dour and sexy DCI Harry Nelson. In the course of reading and listening, I thought about what I find compelling about crime fiction: it isn’t the mystery, its inception, progression, or resolution. As I’ve said before, I cannot for the life of me recall who died, why, or whodunnit. What I remember and enjoy is the inter-play and inter-weaving of the central crime/mystery and the detecting figures’ personal lives, the messier the better.
Of the three, Massey’s Perveen Mistry series is a mere two books in; ah, much to anticipate as I grew to love Perveen, her Parsi family, and Massey’s 1920s Bombay setting. (Honestly, it took me a while to get through the novel because I frequently googled images of the food. YUM! A book with food descriptions often wins me over and these are magnificent.) What kept me reading, often late into the night and up early before the work-set alarm, was Perveen’s story as it intersected with the eponymous widows and women’s status in Bombay’s complex society (Brits, Parsis, Hindus, and Muslims).
In her author’s note, Massey says she modelled Perveen after Bombay’s first female solicitors. Masterfully, while Perveen cannot enter a courtroom (because woman!), she can enter the Muslim widows’ secluded world. When the women’s husband dies, their story becomes a complicated intrigue of women’s property and child rights, with three sets of claims, an adherence to Islamic religious edict as to division, and male greed over women who cannot move within society to ensure their rights, Perveen is their perfect champion, with the help of her mercurial solicitor father, Jamshedji, and supportive family, mother, brother, and sister-in-law. What made the novel even more compelling is Perveen’s personal history (spoilers incoming).
The novel alternates between its 1921 “present-day” setting to Perveen’s teen years in 1916-17. At the time, Perveen, against her parents’ wishes, who wanted her to continue her schooling, fell in love. Cyrus, her “boyfriend,” was of an up-and-coming Calcutta family, the Parsi version of “nouveau riche” if I understood correctly, and urged marriage. With Perveen’s reluctant parents’ agreement, she married Cyrus and moved to Calcutta where their promised idyllic marriage soon thereafter turned nightmare. Her mother-in-law forced Perveen into seclusion during menstruation, forbidding her to bathe and keeping her in a disgusting tiny room; her husband turned out a philandering, negligent reprobate. Perveen’s indomitable spirit, determination, and sheer chutzpah permeate the novel as we learn, piecemeal, of her escape, with her family’s help. Like Jane Eyre (thus far, Rochester turned nightmare), she learns to curb her impulsivity and become a measured, clever, and only occasionally impetuous sleuth (no TSTL moments for our Perveen: Cyrus was her coming-of-age moment and she’s never going back). I loved Perveen, her family, and the Bombay setting and can’t wait to see where Massey takes her feminist message, fascinating context, and loveable detective next. (P.S. It’s in the TBR, stay tuned.)
To follow, my next posts will be about Sayers’s Strong Poison and Elly Griffiths’s numbers two and three Ruth Galloway mysteries, The Janus Stone and The House At Sea’s End.