In her first series as a crime fiction writer, Sujata Massey created Rei Shimura, who, born of a Japanese father and a white American mother is, for the most part, an antiques expert. The standard, yet not clichéd, motifs that define Japan to a reader elsewhere in the world are fused in what become in Massey’s telling and Rei’s solving, a series of intense and engaging crime novels.

Rei made her first appearance in The Salaryman’s Wife (1997) as a poorly-paid tutor (“kyoushi”) in Tokyo. Torn between independence and a return to financial security to California where her parents live, Rei, on a visit to the town of Shiroyama, site of a historic battle in the 1870s, comes across the body of a woman later identified as the wife of an influential businessman. Rei’s ease with English is a help to the police in the tourist-crowded town. It’s the beginning of a mystery where Rei, increasingly intrigued, pieces together clues, at some point impersonating a bargirl, to infiltrate a sleazy, uxorious world. Here, business – the involvement of the Japanese mafia – and politics – US-Japan relations in the post-World War II period – are strangely interlinked.

Massey’s own background explains much of the cross-cultural references in her books. Of Indian origin, Massey was born in England and moved to the US as a child. She is mainly based in Baltimore, where she worked for some years as a journalist. She has also lived in Japan for several years with her husband.

History and mystery

In the Shimura mysteries that follow her first book, history plays an important shaping factor. In book five, The Bride’s Kimono, Rei, now in charge of several priceless kimonos, finds herself in Washington DC for an exhibition on kimonos. When a fellow passenger on the flight to DC, a Japanese woman, is found dead, with Shimura’s passport conveniently next to the corpse, the latter is of course suspected. But the crime does see resolution of a sort, revealing along the way fascinating details of the history of the kimono, and how the world’s museums work in coordination with each other.

In more recent years, Massey’s historical fiction has moved to India, especially British India. The Sleeping Dictionary features a girl from the 1930s Bengal, Pom, who becomes Sarah, and later Kamala. In the quest to secure her own freedom, Pom (or Kamala), with her gift of languages, is thrown into the independence struggle.

Travails of a pioneering woman lawyer

Perveen Mistry, who features in Massey’s most recent work A Murder on Malabar Hill – published originally as The Widows of Malabar Hill – made her first appearance in a novella titled Outnumbered at Oxford, a narrative that makes up one of four in Massey’s India Gray, published in 2015. Another novella features Kamala of The Sleeping Dictionary. In the novella, Perveen is at St Hilda’s in Oxford, studying law, which was unthinkable then for a woman, especially one from India. It is 1919, and an elderly professor seeks her help in recovering a valuable mathematical treatise. Everything points toward an Indian help who disappears soon after.

Alice Hobson-Jones, the mathematics student with whom Perveen develops a fast friendship, appears in The Widows of Malabar Hill. A mystery Perveen becomes involved in soon after her return to Bombay, having completed her legal studies in London. It is still a difficult time for a woman to be a lawyer, and Perveen works as a solicitor in her father’s firm. She can take on clients and advise them, but cannot appear in court. Perveen of course bears a distinct resemblance of the pioneering woman lawyer who sat for the British law exams in 1892 and was the first to read law at Oxford, Cornelia Sorabji, as is mentioned in Massey’s acknowledgements. The other inspiration, Massey mentions, is Mithan Tata Lam, who also read law and was the first woman admitted to the Bombay Bar in 1923.

Sorabji, on her return, was unable to secure employment in British India, for all the bias that prevailed then, and it was during Lord Curzon’s viceroyalty that she was appointed to assist in and often administer the legal matters of the “pardanashin” – the veiled women of the zenana – especially those in the princely states.

Trust and deception

It is February 1921 when Perveen finds herself involved in a case involving three pardanashin widows of a cotton mill owner, Omar Farid, who has been her father Jamshedji Mistry’s client for some time. What intrigues Perveen about the agreement signed by the widows soon after Farid’s death is not merely the signatures (a cursory cross in an instance) but also its very terms. These imply that the women, Razia, Sakina and Mumtaz, intend to give over their “mahr” – the money given to them by the groom’s family during the wedding – to a waqf to build a madrasa.

Perveen’s gender allows her to interview the women. The discrepancies between their statements and what they know and what they have been offered make her suspicious about the household agent, Faisal Mukri, appointed by Omar Farid shortly before his death. Matters take a complex turn when Mukri is found dead in the house at Malabar Hill, moments after Perveen has left the scene. A murder weapon is found conveniently near the body, and the watchman, Mohsen, was found missing the very moment of the crime. The complexity is compounded when Perveen finds to her consternation that Razia, whom she now represents, admits to having committed the crime.

In due course, and over several pages, Perveen resolves this crime. She finds the real culprit/s, with some timely help from a host of characters: her father, her friend Alice Hobson-Jones (whose knowledge of geometry and architecture come in handy), and Jayanth, a stevedore, whom Jamshedji, just before this present story begins, had successfully represented in court after Jayanth had unfairly lost his job at the Bombay docks. Perveen’s legal acumen invariably helps her get the better of patronising policemen, British and Indian. It also enables her to win the trust of the three women she advises.

Personal and professional

There are considerable detours, especially in the early pages, as Massey details the complexity of Muslim personal law (the difference between dower and mahr, for instance), the history of the Parsis beginning with the Zoroastrians going from Iran to Bombay, and the state of colonial India in the 1920s. The difficulty of imparting such essential background information is apparent when Massey has the long-time family assistant, Mustafa, offer timely and patronising advice about his own community. For instance, he appears disapproving when one of Omar Farid’s widows is casually addressed by her first name (Razia) when protocol demands that “begum” be suffixed to it.

But the intermingling of Perveen’s own past and her personal travails, with the story of the women of Malabar Hill, make for some deft plotting and pacing, and the novel becomes quite a gripping read halfway in. After a heady courtship with the Calcutta-based Cyrus Sodawalla, Perveen marries him – despite some family opposition to the alliance – only to experience heartbreak, and domestic tyranny at the hands of her very orthodox mother in law.

There is again some detailing of the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Laws of the 1860s, and the custom of “binamazi” when a menstruating woman was secluded in a room separated from the rest of the household. How Jamshedji chooses to represent his daughter in the case against the Sodawallas, and how he wins his arguments seeking judicial separation for Perveen, is really one of the highlights of the book. Cyrus reappears five years later, in 1921, for he has promised to exact revenge on Perveen and her family.

The reappearance of these ghosts of her past – a menacing Cyrus and an Alice whose arrival is more complicated but whose help turns out to be timely – all add to the mystery. In the end, of course, things do see a resolution. Perveen ties up most loose ends, as is inevitable in all good crime fiction.

A Murder On Malabar Hill, Sujata Massey, Penguin India.

[Correction and clarification: This review has been updated to include the Indian title and publisher of the same book.]