I DISCOVERED SUJATA Massey first through her charming Rei Shimura series, and then read the first of her Perveen Mistry series set in 1920s India— The Widows of Malabar Hill (2018)—with great interest and enjoyment. While the subsequent books in the series did not pack the same punch, The Mistress of Bhatia House (Penguin; 432 pages; ₹499), the fourth in the series, more than makes up for it.
Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s only female solicitor attends a lavish fund-raiser tea at Bhatia house for a women’s hospital. The rich patriarch, a self-made industrialist and a powerful presence in the Legislative Assembly, cuts short the tea when his young grandson has an accident—his silk kurta catches fire. A female servant (Sunanda) rushes to save him, and in doing so, suffers serious burns to her stomach. Later, when Perveen goes to the bail court on some other business, she finds Sunanda there, arrested for wilfully aborting her own baby. Perveen steps in, posts bail and has to take her home since Sunanda’s brother and sister-in-law don’t want her back. But other problems abound on Perveen’s home front. She has to cope with a sister-in-law (her school friend), a new mother who is behaving unpleasantly with the family. It doesn’t help that Perveen shares a bedroom wall with the baby, and the constant wails make for sleepless nights. In the midst of seeing herself as a bad aunt for not putting up with the baby’s cries, and feeling resentment that she can never have a baby or give her parents a grandchild, Perveen has to keep Sunanda hidden and tackle her case. The man who registered the complaint against Sunanda has not given an address and nobody seems to know him in the neighbourhood. When the Bhatia patriarch dies of food poisoning, and foul play is suspected, Sunanda’s presence in the Bhatia home makes her a murder suspect. Perveen also acquires a new client — a Jewish-Indian obstetrician (Miriam Penkar) who was the last to treat the patriarch, and is now a suspect. When another fire breaks out, much closer to home, Perveen has to find the killer who is trying to frame Sunanda and do it before her own family is harmed.
Good crime fiction often examines the implications of societal attitudes, and Massey uses Sunanda’s case to explore women’s subjugation, the constant demands made on their bodies for more babies, the laws and societal taboos that cage them and their struggle to break free. Perveen’s motivation for helping Sunanda is not that she feels strongly about abortion. “Sunanda’s crime wasn’t going to be heard in the Hindu court… it was going before the Police Court, which did not recognise religious traditions when meting out justice…If Sunanda lost, the case could be used as an example to sway judges to quickly convict other women who might face similar charges.” There you have the theme of the book. The tone is thoughtful—facts are presented in interesting ways and flow into the organic passage of the story, making us turn the pages to find out more.
Good crime fiction often examines the implications of societal attitudes, and author Sujata Massey uses Sunanda’s (a female servant) case to explore women’s subjugation, the constant demands made on their bodies for more babies, the laws and societal taboos that cage them and their struggle to break free
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Perveen is an attractive character who has been through a lot—a husband from whom she’s separated but can never divorce unless she is branded an adulteress; a taboo relationship with a former civil service English officer; and a daily struggle to be seen as an equal by the legal fraternity. We connect with Perveen’s struggles because she is still finding her feet, her space to grow into as a person, and not simply fit into the category of a daughter, an abandoned wife, and a sister-in-law.
The Mistress of Bhatia House is a perfect blend of historical accuracy, emotional drama, and a beautifully spun mystery.
MURDER UNDER A RED MOON: A 1920s Bangalore Mystery by Harini Nagendra (Constable; 304 pages; ₹499) is the second outing for Mrs Kaveri Murthy, 19, budding mathematician, and now a famous detective who famously or infamously (depending on how conservative one is) solved a difficult murder in the previous Bangalore Detectives Club book. Ever since Kaveri attained local fame as a detective, her orthodox mother-in-law (Bhargavi) has been eyeing her with a sour look—talk of murder and detection Bhargavi considers crass, and in any case, disapproves of most things Kaveri does. But to Kaveri’s surprise, Bhargavi pleads with her to help a relative. Kaveri agrees reluctantly because she wants to forge a better relationship with her mother-in-law.
Bhargavi’s cousin Shanthi is married to a rich and a much older widower. They ask Kaveri to find out who is embezzling funds from their factory and arrange to meet her on the night of the blood moon eclipse in their factory. Only four people have access to the safe’s key: Mr Sharma, Shanthi, Mr Sharma’s unmarried daughter Chitra and her fiancé, Kumar who is Mr Sharma’s right-hand man. When she arrives at the factory, she discovers a body and the fact that someone is trying to frame her.
Kaveri is a well-meaning, idealistic do-gooder who, like Massey’s Parveen, is finding her feet as an intelligent and articulate woman who disapproves of the inequalities around her and tries to do her best to right these ills. “Everyone only has good things to say about her…she only wants to seek the truth” — one character says about Kaveri. Rescuing street dogs, finding odd jobs for street urchins, helping women escape abusive husbands are part of a day’s work— and in this she has a merry band of helpers in the Bangalore Detectives Club: well-meaning friends, nosy neighbours, a former prostitute whom she helped in a previous investigation, a policeman’s wife (and the policeman), and street urchins.
Set against the backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement, a charismatic godman-guru of Kaveri’s mother-in-law, and an opium smuggling ring, this charming historical cosy mystery delivers on its promise. Though we sometimes hop into other characters’ heads, for most part it is Kaveri whose skin we inhabit. The combination of delicious descriptions of lunches and teas, the rhythm of small-town life in a sleepy Bangalore, a dangerous antagonist, and Kaveri’s attempts to think through and make sense of the larger political and social issues roiling 1920s India make for a satisfying read.
CALIFORNIA-BASED Gigi Pandian has a devout fan base among the aficionados of locked-room puzzles. The Raven Thief (Minotaur Books; 320 pages; ₹2,215), the sequel to Under Lock & Skeleton Key (2022) lives up to its reputation. Former magician Tempest Raj now works for her family’s Secret Staircase Construction, which specialises in bringing real-life magic into people’s homes through touches like handcrafted sliding bookcases that open when one pulls out a favourite book from the shelf, hidden levers leading to secret rooms, personalised magic stories to accompany every nook… in short, all the tricks that would gladden the heart of any adventure and mystery lover. Their client, Lavinia Kingsley, starting afresh, and perhaps not alone — but definitely without her cheating ex-husband (a famous mystery author Corbin Colt)—decides to have a party with a seance to banish Colt’s figurative spirit from her house. All in good fun until Colt’s dead body crashes on the seance table. What’s more, the eight suspects are all holding hands, nobody breaking their hold. Howdunnit, and whodunnit? Tempest’s beloved grandfather is arrested — he’d had a fight with Colt and blood is found on him. As Tempest digs deeper, she finds evidence implicating her nearest and dearest including her ex-best friend, her taciturn father and her magician-boyfriend. What’s more, Colt’s death could have a link with her mother’s disappearance a few years ago. With so much of her personal life on the line, can Tempest solve the diabolical puzzle and nab the killer? The clever links between the murderer, a book club, and the Greats in crime fiction like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers add to the charm. Fans of Pandian will definitely read on for a fiendishly difficult mystery, a fast-paced story, and a wacky cast of characters.