Most murder books plunge you into the blood and gore in the first chapter, if not the first page. Sujata Massey takes her time. She introduces her detective Perveen Mistry, a young Parsi who wants to be a lawyer following in the footsteps of the redoubtable Cornelia Sorabji.
She works at a partner desk with her father Jamshed Mistry, a well-established lawyer in 1920s Bombay. Perveen is still not officially a lawyer, though she has passed various exams and her father is busy giving her some hands-on experience drafting contracts.
Perveen thinks she’s being followed and then she has the horrible feeling that she has glimpsed someone out of her past, Cyrus Sodawala. However that is something personal — on the professional front there is the issue of the three widows of Omar Farid who claim that they want to give up their inheritance to the family waqt property. The problem is that though they have signed declarations to that effect there is something not quite right about it.
However, because they are in purdah, no man can talk to them and Parveen volunteers to meet the widows and take down their statements — something that Cornelia Sorabji used to do in the princely states where she worked. In the course of that meeting, the trustee of the Farid Estate Mukri, who seems to be a villain, is murdered splattering blood all over Perveen’s expensive Swayne and Addeney briefcase.
The ramifications of Muslim law are fairly complex and the Mistrys are lucky to have Mustafa, an old family retainer on hand to take Perveen and the reader through the details.
Massey, however, interlinks the story of the widows with that of Perveeen’s past so that there are constant flashbacks with details of traditional Zoarastrian customs thrown in like that of binamazi or the segregation of a menstruating woman from the rest of the household. This holds up the pace of the story and requires some deft plot shifts on Massey’s part.
Midway, the plot quickens. There are women isolated within a rambling bungalow with a child for a durwan. Anyone could have committed the murder. There is Perveen’s past hot on her trail and all kinds of dangers threatening.
Muslim marriages laws and Parsi marriage laws are indirectly compared.
Perveen is a woman at risk as the widows are though, unlike them, she has the freedom to go about society and question likely witnesses. The villain in her life is also male, her abusive husband Cyrus Sodawala who vowed revenge on the Mistrys after she left him.
Add to that the fact that lawyers have the knack of making enemies in the course of their profession and the only woman lawyer in British-ruled Bombay is fair game. Perveen has both Indian and British authorities to deal with, though she has a friend from Oxford, Alice Hobson-Jones, to help — who providentially happens to be the daughter of a government official.
The threads, of course, twist together finally in an absorbing run-up to the denouement. Parveen with her wit manages to get the better of the men who look patronisingly down on her for attempting to play lawyer in pearls and embroidered saris. A cup of Darjeeling would go well with this book, though perhaps not the masala.
The reviewer is a freelance contributor