A Murder at Malabar Hill: murder, marriages and the power of women

What is this about?: Perveen Mistry is the first — and only — female solictor in Bombay, and takes on the case of the Farid widows to ensure they are not unwittingly signing away the money their husband left to them. Instead, she finds herself trying to solve a murder and clear the names of the widows.

What else is this about?: This is an introduction to Perveen Mistry, a woman who has a more complex history than you’d expect. Never mind being the only female solicitor in Bombay, there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye.

Blurb

Bombay, 1921: Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father’s law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes her especially devoted to championing and protecting women’s rights.

Mistry Law is handling the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen goes through the papers, she notices something strange: all three have signed over their inheritance to a charity. What will they live on if they forefeit what their husband left them? Perveen is suspicious.

The Farid widows live in purdah: strict seclusion, never leaving the women’s quarters or speaking to any men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? Perveen tries to investigate and realizes her instincts about the will were correct when tensions escalate to murder. It’s her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that nobody is in further danger.

A Murder at Malabar Hill (AKA The Widows of Malabar Hill, which personally I think is the better name)

Perveen Mistry was nothing like I expected. Let me rewind, as much as I was curious about this book, I weirdly really didn’t expect to adore Perveen as much as I did. 

Before I get carried away about everything else, here’s the mystery

When Omar Farid dies, his agent Mr Mukri comes to Perveen’s father, Jamshedji, to arrange for his widows to give up the money he left them to a wakf, a charitable foundation.

Perveen examines the documents he’s brought that indicate their willingness to give up the money, and sees enough to make her suspicious of Mr Mukri’s motives. From there, she talks her way into the widows’ household, learning about them and their situation and then finding herself in the middle of a murder investigation.

But all of that really wouldn’t have kept me engrossed like I was if it wasn’t for Perveen Mistry.

So who is Perveen Mistry?

She’s a devoted daughter, exasperated sister and kind of a soft touch. She’s grown up studying hard, under the encouragement of both her parents and works well with her father in his law office — well sort of. They’re working on it.

Set in 1920s Bombay, there was a lot that I found hard to relate to at first — the way women are treated is a big one (the only one really), but then I followed Perveen as she navigates this world, determined to help the widows, and I kind of found myself engrossed without even realising it.

There are so many rules for the women to follow, right down to the widows sitting behind a screen in their home when men come to visit. While her parents are forward thinking for the time, there are moments when Perveen has to abide by their rules for her — and it frustrates her.

But as a reader, what captivated me more is how Perveen navigates these rules, using her intelligence and knowledge of the law to get her where she needs to go. In the case of the Widows, it helps them relate to her, letting them share truths they would not normally.

As the murder case progresses, Massey takes readers into Perveen’s past, to her time as a law student, and her marriage.

When that begins, it’s a love story, but coupled with circumstances that she did not see coming, readers will understand why Perveen is working so hard to protect the widows and their future.

I will admit, it took a bit of time for me to appreciate this second timeline, and to understand how it shaped Perveen, but when I did, it all made a beautiful and heartbreaking kind of sense. Massey has also used this, the first book in the series, to lay her past bare and kind of lay it to rest. Perveen’s future is what matters now.

That’s the strength of this book, I think. Massey has injected Perveen and the secondary characters (and the widows) in this book with fantastic and fascinating characterisation, giving us such insight into Perveen, her past and her family.

There’s such a complexity to her relationship with her father — with a man who is angry with her for the decisions she’s made about her education, but still wants her married to a good man of his choice. He’ll let her marry for love though, and he’ll do everything he can to help her when she needs it, encouraging her when she needs it

Their work together, the push and pull of their relationship in the office was too brief a part of this, so I am hoping for more in the next book.

Her mother isn’t as big a part of this as I’d hoped either, but what is present is just enough to whet my appetite for more. This is a woman who will accede to her husband wishes, but chooses her battles well. I actually would like to know much more about them, I think!

The widows themselves are so different, and how they relate to Perveen and each other is sooo good. I am trying really hard not to spoil the goodness of this book!

The book is a journey for them to find out that they are more than they thought they were, and it’s fantastic. 

A Murder at Malabar Hill is, I think, a little bit of an ode to the women of 1920s Bombay, who did what was expected of them, but found ways to do what they needed, around those expectations.

I should add that Massey has created a vivid world of 1920s Bombay, drawing readers in to the place and the culture.

Essentially, I — who do not like historical fiction — adored this book.

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