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Perveen Mistry #1

The Widows of Malabar Hill

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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.

385 pages, Hardcover

First published January 9, 2018

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About the author

Sujata Massey

35 books1,966 followers
Sujata Massey is the author of historical and mystery fiction set in Asia. She is best known for the Perveen Mistry series published in the United States by Soho Press and in India by Penguin Random House India. In June, 2021, THE BOMBAY PRINCE, third book in the series, releases in the US/Canada and Australia/New Zealand; it will be published by Penguin India later the same month.

THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL, the first Perveen novel, was named a Best Mystery/Thriller of 2018 and also an Amazon Best Mystery/Thriller of 2018. Additionally, the book won the Bruce Alexander Best Historical Mystery Award, the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, all in 2019.

The second Perveen novel, THE SATAPUR MOONSTONE, won the Bruce Alexander Best Historical Mystery Award in 2020.

Sujata's other works include THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY (2013) and eleven Rei Shimura mysteries published from 1997-2014. For more about Sujata's books and a full events schedule, subscribe to her newsletter, http://sujatamassey.com/newsletter

Sujata lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her family and two dogs. In addition to writing, she loves to travel, read, cook, garden and walk.

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5 stars
5,696 (23%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,630 reviews
Profile Image for Annet.
570 reviews709 followers
December 28, 2019
Loved this book! What a pleasant surprise and new writer for me, Sujata Massey, talented. I read this book during December and just finished in the days off from work. A great view on India in the 1920s, an interesting and rather grim view on the position of women then and there and a great heroine, the first female lawyer Preveen Mistry in India, handling a sensitive case and trying to solve the murders included. 4.7+ so the first five star this year, what a start. This book was longlisted in the Goodreads 2018 Choice Awards, that's how I actually found it.
Highly recommended and can't wait for the sequel due in February!

India, 1921: Perveen Mistry, daughter of a respected family, just joined her father's law firm. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen has a tragic personal history that makes women's legal rights especially important to her. Misty Law has been appointed to execute the will of Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left behind three widows. But Perveen notices something suspicious in the paperwork: all three wives have signed over their inheritance to a charity. What will they survive on? The widows live in full 'purdah', in strict seclusion, never leaving their quarters or speaking to men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? When Perveen investigates , tensions escalate into murder....
Profile Image for Julie .
3,990 reviews58.9k followers
September 1, 2019
The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey is a 2018 Soho Press publication.

Set in 1920s Bombay, Perveen Mistry, is one of the first female lawyers in India. Although she works in her father’s law firm, as a woman she isn’t allowed to argue a case in court.

But, when a wealthy mill owner dies, his three widows, who are practitioners of Purdah, express a desire to donate their inheritance to charity. As the executor of his will, this development raises Perveen’s suspicions. She decides a visit to the widows is in order so that they fully understand their rights. However, she quickly finds herself embroiled in a genuine murder mystery when the estate trustee is found murdered.

The story moves back and forth between ‘present day’ 1920s and 1916, revealing Perveen's shocking and painful history.

Like most avid readers I have books that languished on my TBR list for ages before I finally got around to reading them. I’ve had my eye on this one for at least a year. I knew it was a book I’d been excited to try, but at this point I can’t remember how the book was marketed. I’m thinking I probably added it because of the cultural and historical aspects, but of course I’m never one to turn down a good mystery.

I have since learned that Perveen’s character was based on two real life trailblazers, Camelia Sorabji and Mithan Tata Lam, which is most interesting and inspiring.

As with any attempt to combine two genres, a skilled balancing act is required. While the story flips back and forth between the 1920s and 1916, the author chose not to alternate the chapters, as is standard with many dual timeline stories. I think there was a reason why the author inserted the flashbacks to 1916 in this manner, but for those who are tuning in strictly for the mystery, the momentum and pacing might feel a bit jarring.

However, as a huge fan of historical fiction, I was very invested in Perveen’s backstory, and didn’t mind taking a break from the mystery in order to understand her personally, to discover the drive behind her passion, her devotion to women’s rights, and her sensitivities to the widows and why she fought to protect them and discover the truth behind the murder.

I love developing an emotional attachment to my crime solvers, whether it be a seasoned detective or an amateur sleuth. As this looks to be the first book in a planned series, the author has laid out a solid foundation to build not only good mysteries, but cultural history and character growth. I'm pretty sure Perveen could become one of my favorite characters!

I found every part of this story fascinating. The cultural landscape and the historical details were incredible. I found myself doing a few Google searches and I will certainly look at the suggested reading the author provided.

The murder mystery is one of the best I’ve read a long while. Recently, it has occurred to me that pure mysteries are not as common as they once were. Unless one turns to the cozy mystery genre for a genuine whodunit, most books falling into the mystery category are more focused on the psychological, action, or suspense elements, than on guessing who the culprit is. So, I’m buoyed by the popularity of this book, and hope it jump starts authentic mysteries back into mainstream popularity again.

Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely. I have the second book on hold at the library right now.

Can’t wait to see our courageous protagonist back in action!

5 stars
Profile Image for Tammy.
494 reviews419 followers
January 12, 2018
This is a very well done old-fashioned historical novel and my first experience with Massey. Perveen is the only female practicing lawyer in 1921 Bombay. She is unable to argue cases in court due to the strictures of the time and instead works as a solicitor for her father’s practice. At its heart, this is a murder mystery and a good one. There is a bit of a dual timeline but it doesn’t occur every other chapter so the novel flows more smoothly than other books that have used this device.

Perveen’s experiences in 1916 and 1917 inform the woman that she is in 1921 and you can’t help but like her. She’s intelligent, feisty and thoughtful. Her unique status as a female lawyer allows her to represent and interact directly with three widows practicing purdah. I didn’t know much about the practice of seclusion and found this to be fascinating. Actually, I didn’t know much about Indian culture in general other than that the religious and language differences among the population are many and I came away from this book knowing more than I did. By reading this book, I attended a Parsi wedding and learned a little about food preparation. I never expected to like this book as much as I did.
Profile Image for Ingrid.
1,160 reviews37 followers
January 13, 2019
Five big fat stars for this book that I just LOVED! A whodunnit situated in India in the 1920's with a female lawyer as main character. It's fast paced and has lots of interesting information. I hope #2 will be published very soon!
Profile Image for Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ .
773 reviews552 followers
March 26, 2019
I struggled with this book and it came perilously close to a DNF. Only my interest in the character of Perveen - lawyer/female gumshoe/fighter for women's rights- enabled me to pick up this book again.

This book had a major stylistic fault.I hate flashbacks at this best of times and the flashbacks in this novel overwhelmed the mystery - and the mystery is what I signed up for. Ms Massey may have done this because the whodunnit part of this novel is very slight. Just not enough meat to sustain a whole book. I think Ms Massey would have been better advised to build up both the mystery, give more depth to the supporting characters and have Perveen's back story revealed over the course of several books - sort of like Sue Grafton did with Kinsey Milhouse. In particular,

The writing also had faults. Lots of asking questions, lots of explaining. Made the read very heavy going.

I had an earlier book of Ms Massey's on one of my to-read lists, but deleted it when this story hit a particularly exasperating road bump. But I don't rule out reading the next Perveen story The Satapur Moonstone if I read that the author stays in one time period and doesn't make the next book so much of a history lesson!

Profile Image for Karl.
3,258 reviews256 followers
July 30, 2019
2019 Best Private Eye Novel - Shamus Award Nominees:

• Wrong Light, by Matt Coyle (Oceanview)
• What You Want to See, by Kristen Lepionka (Minotaur)
• The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey (Soho Crime)
• Baby’s First Felony, by John Straley (Soho Crime)
• Cut You Down, by Sam Wiebe (Quercus)

Reading and then reviewing a book are oh so subjective. In Sujata Massey’s book “The Widows of Malabar Hill” Ms. Massey combines mystery with historical fiction giving us the reader an examination of the cultural milieu of Bombay in the 1920s.

My primary problem with the novel, however, lies in its structure. The novel is billed as a “mystery of 1920s Bombay,” but it starts very slowly. It takes Massey 120 pages to lead up to the murder. When the body is discovered, Massey takes us into 70 further pages of back story to explain her protagonist’s troubled past. This section is far too long an interruption in the flow of the story as a mystery to have kept my interest.

Murder is supposed to generate suspense, and asking readers to wait 190 pages for the investigation of the murder even to begin is asking too much. The novel features Perveen Mistry, “the only woman solicitor in Bombay.” The 23-year-old, Oxford-educated Perveen works out of court on behalf of her father’s clients, sometimes assuming the duties of an unofficial detective.

This book is Sujata Massey's 13th novel and the first in the ‘Mystery of 1920s Bombay’ series. The story of Perveen Mistry, a Parsi woman, was partially inspired by a real historical figure, Cornelia Sorabji. In 1921 Bombay, woman were very much third-class citizens, except in the Parsi community, where they’re second-class citizens. The real mystery here is less the identity of the Malabar Hill murderer but how Parveen Mistry, female lawyer, came to be the person she is.

Today, India's Parsi community is endangered. According to a BBC News report of 2016, there are now about 61,000 Parsi in India. In recent history, this population shrinks 12% per census decade, even though India's population increases by over 20% per decade.

Included at the end of the book are some historical notes from the author. It is recommend reading those before reading the book. The notes really set the stage for the book.

Somewhere between two and three stars.
Profile Image for TXGAL1.
244 reviews27 followers
July 12, 2021
Rated 4 Stars: Released 2018 eISBN 978-1-61695-779-7

THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL was a delightful read. It was a wonderful marriage of history and mystery.

The story introduces Perveen Mistry, a solicitor for Mistry Law, in 1921 Bombay, India and interlaces her struggles to be recognized as a lawyer with those she comes into contact and to successfully maneuver her Parsi Muslim customs as a twenty-three-year-old single woman.

It is the very fact that Perveen is female which allows her to act as her father’s emissary when she calls upon the widows to discuss the estate of their former husband and the interests that had been left to each widow per each relevant marriage contract. While in mourning, the access to them is restricted.

This book was very interesting and entertaining. Sujata Massey wrote an engaging mystery with India as a historical background that had me mesmerized. I am sure that I will be reading more by Ms. Massey in the future.

My ebook, published by Soho Press, contained not only two maps but also a wonderful glossary which provided the descriptions and explanations which enhanced the understanding of the story.
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,114 reviews1,978 followers
August 13, 2021
A Murder on Malabar Hill is set in 1921, in Bombay and is worth reading just for the author's descriptions of the setting, the food and the customs of the time. The main character, Perveen Mistry, is the daughter of a well off, Parsi family and is determined to become a lawyer like her father. This in a time when women in India have little or no importance in society and certainly do not put themselves forward in such a way.

Events surrounding Perveen's life, including flashbacks to some very unpleasant occurrences in 1916, form the most significant part of the book. There is a murder and Perveen does investigate it, but it takes place well into the book and always seems less important than the rest. Events do build towards the end of the book and there is a worthwhile conclusion. One chapter which was not worth including though was the scene in the hospital which was wildly over the top. In my opinion anyway!

I found this to be an interesting book and I liked Parveen enough to want to find out what happens to her in the next book.
Profile Image for Carolyn.
2,092 reviews588 followers
February 18, 2020
Also published as The Widows of Malabar Hill, this is an engaging murder mystery set in Bombay in 1921. Preveen Mistry, the first female solicitor in Bombay has joined her father at Mistry Law. With women not yet admitted to the bar in Bombay, she can't appear in court but is able to prepare contracts and wills and interview witnesses for her father. When a wealthy muslim man with three wives dies, Preveen notices something odd about a letter sent to Mistry Law about what the widows want to do with their inheritances. She worries that the widows' agent is trying to trick them and convinces her father to let her go and talk to the women who live in purdah, in strict isolation from men. However, her involvement in the case leads to a murder and will put her own life at risk.

As well as being a well written mystery, this was an fascinating insight into the lives of Indian women in 1920s India. As well as delving into muslim rules and traditions of the time governing the lives of the widows, the role of women in society is highlighted. Although Preveen is from a liberal Parsi family and is an advocate for women, she is herself subject to strict rules around marriage and her behaviour in society. The novel is rich in the sights and sounds of India, including the food, the docks and streets of Bombay as well as touching on the lives of the poorer castes. Preveen's character as a forward thinking, educated woman in 1920s India is a very engaging one and I look forward to meeting her again in the sequel to this book.

With many thanks to Allen & Unwin for a copy of the book to read.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 3 books162 followers
January 6, 2018
“As the only female lawyer in Bombay, you hold a power that nobody else has,” a British government official tells Perveen Mistry in this first of a refreshingly original mystery series – and he’s right. It’s 1921, and Perveen is a solicitor in her father’s law firm. Even though she can’t appear in court, her position and gender mean she’s the only individual with the means to look into a potential instance of deception and fraud.

A Muslim mill-owner's three widows, who live in purdah with their children in his mansion on Malabar Hill, appear to have given away their rightful dower and inheritance. Perveen suspects they didn’t realize the implications of their signature, and when she visits the three individually, it appears that she’s correct. When she discovers a body on her return visit to the Farid family, she suspects a member of the household did it – but who?

There’s considerably more to the plot than a traditional murder mystery, though. Though only 23, Perveen has a professional, mature demeanor that helps her gain the widows’ confidence, and there’s a reason behind it: she’s been through a lot in her short life. Massey depicts her backstory in chapters set back in 1916. This allows for two stories running in parallel: who committed the crime at Malabar Hill, and what trauma did Perveen endure? While I was struck by the abrupt jump back in time initially, I came to feel that this increased the suspense.

The setting for this story is absolutely key, and from the Mistry residence on the city’s outskirts to the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel along the harborfront, the layout of historical Bombay is described in clear, thorough fashion (the maps at the beginning are helpful but not absolutely necessary). Perveen and her family are Parsis – descendants of immigrants from Iran – and followers of Zoroastrianism, and the novel explores the religion’s traditional and more orthodox beliefs. Bombay contains a multiplicity of cultures, classes, and languages, and I came to admire Perveen’s ability to steer a fine path through it all.

What comes through most strongly in this entertaining work, though, is the status of women, and how much Perveen had to accomplish to get where she is. The Widows of Malabar Hill also makes you think about how critical the support of family and others can be for women in desperation; where would the novel's characters have been without it?

I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

First reviewed at Reading the Past, based on an ARC received at BookExpo last year.
December 21, 2022
Cheesy, boring, poorly executed. While there is indeed a murder and the identity behind the culprit is, supposedly, a ‘mystery’, The Widows of Malabar Hill struck me as something in the realms of a third-rate period drama. The first part of the novel introduces us to Perveen Mistry, our protagonist, and works to establish the setting, which is 1920s Bombay. While the author succeeds in depicting the realities of colonialism, of being female in India at this time in history, and in providing her readers with some degree of insight into Zoroastrian and Muslim traditions, the setting wasn’t particularly vivid. There are some info-dumpings now and again which read like something straight out of a textbook (aimed at younger audiences due to the dumbing down of certain facts). Anyway, Perveen’s family is Zoroastrian and has begun working at her father's law firm. Being the only, or one of the first, female lawyers in India comes with many challenges but thanks to her father’s endless belief in her capabilities and her law degree from Oxford Perveen feels ready for what’s in store. She becomes involved with the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a well-off Muslim man who had three wives. As these recently widowed women reside in a purdah, a secluded and strictly, children aside, strictly female space, Perveen is the ideal go-between. Perveen is worried that they are being taken advantage of as they seemed to have signed over their inheritance. We also read of Perveen’s British friend Alice who has returned to India after spending time abroad.
The flat if occasionally ridiculous writing (at one point Perveen is telling someone not to touch her briefcase and instead of having her ‘shout’, to indicate her panic, this happens: “It’s mine!” she bleated. what is she? a goat?!) was bearable but the slow-moving plot was a chore to get through. When the murder finally happens we get a flashback related to Perveen’s past lasting 50+ pages or so that bares little revelance to what had so far happened. The author paints a sloppy picture of an abusive marriage which seemed very much soap opera material. The abusive husband is one of the most one-dimensional characters that I’ve come across in a while, and that’s saying something.

Perveen is portrayed as Not Like Other Girls because she’s smart and interested in the law. The murder mystery is a mere blip in this melodrama-driven narrative. We don’t even get to spend that much time with the widows and their characters suffer because of it. The last scene was pure cheese (“To the power of women!” Alice toasted. “To the power of women” Perveen answered as their glasses clinked.).
I was hoping that this would be something in the realms of Agatha Christie or Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries but this book was anything but. It was more focused on Perveen’s married life and it wasted a lot of page-time in rehashing how it started and how it ended. As I found the author’s general delivery to be dry I had a hard time caring about anything that was happening or that was being recounted. Perveen grated on my nerves as she acted without thinking and did not strike me as particularly clever or caring. Alice's personality was being English and gay. Perveen's mother plays barely a role in the story, her father is largely overlooked, and her uni friends we briefly meet in that first flashback, well, they were mere background figures.
If you are interested in reading this I recommend you check out more positive reviews. I, for one, will be giving its sequels a large berth.

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Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 56 books7,646 followers
December 27, 2018
A really cracking atmospheric historical murder mystery set in 1920s Bombay with an Oxford-educated female solicitor dealing with three widows and the man who's trying to exploit them. Lots of atmosphere and local colour, fascinating and horrifying on the many traditions besetting women of all religions, and a nice murder plot along with a haunting backstory for our heroine. Terrific stuff, I hope there will be many more in this series.
Profile Image for Brenda.
3,973 reviews2,585 followers
May 21, 2020
Perveen Mistry, one of the first female lawyers in India, had recently joined her father’s law firm. It was Bombay, 1921 and Perveen felt justified after all she had been through, in finally achieving her dream. Mistry Law was handling the affairs of Mr Omar Farid who had not long passed, and Perveen was drawn into helping her father deal with the three widows and their children who’d been left on Farid’s death. Her suspicions were roused by certain abnormalities in the papers she was going through; Perveen needed to speak to the women herself to ascertain the truth.

When Perveen discovered she was correct, she immediately felt wary of danger for the women. But it was the shock of murder on the grounds at Malabar Hill that brought danger to Perveen. What had happened to cause the murder? And would Perveen be able to locate the killer before others were in danger?

A Murder at Malabar Hill is the 1st in the Perveen Mistry series by Sujata Massey. Set over two timeframes – 1916 and 1921 – and mostly in Bombay, I found it to be an intriguing mystery with plenty of twists and lots of cultural influences. The support of women’s rights by Perveen and her ability and knowledge of the law gave her many advantages, also some disadvantages. I enjoyed A Murder at Malabar Hill and look forward to book 2 in the not too distant future. Recommended.
Profile Image for Kavita.
752 reviews361 followers
March 19, 2020
Perveen Mistry is a solicitor, preparing herself for the day when women would be allowed to the Bar. Working with her father, she comes across a mysterious case in which three Muslim women, widows of the same man, want to donate away their inheritance to a wakf (Islamic trust). Curious about the case and worried about the women, who lived behind the purdah and had no contact with the outside world, Perveen decides to explore the case deeply. This gets her into a lot of trouble, and embroils her in murder.

The setting is Bombay in the 1920s. The Parsis are progressive, but not as progressive as they appear. Perveen has a background, which comes out in bits and pieces throughout the book. The book deals with women's past and their limitations and hurdles, irrespective of religion or race. While the secluded Muslim women were prey for any man (including, I would say, their husband!), Perveen herself had to face immense struggles in her life. From being harassed in college by male students to being abused by her husband's family, Perveen herself understands the gender power equations quite well.

The character of Perveen Mistry is loosely based on Cornelia Sorabji, India's first woman lawyer. She was the first Indian to study in a British university, and also holds the distinction of being the first woman to study law in Oxford University. Sorabji helped many women through her work and was an outspoken pioneer of women's rights in India and England. With such an inspiration, it is no wonder that the heroine of this book is interesting. Despite the fact that the book does not focus on an extraordinary life, it does focus on an ordinary life and the extraordinary struggles in it.

One of the things that really made an impact on me was the way female seclusion during menstruation among Parsis was depicted. I have suffered from this custom, but I did not realise that Parsis had it too. It was interesting to read about how women would be locked up in a dirty room for an entire week and not allowed to wash themselves with water. It's ridiculous! I wonder how prevalent these menstrual taboos are today. I, for one, know they are alive and kicking in my own family. It's a horrendous custom and should be outlawed, irrespective of religion.

I found this book to be very well-researched regarding the time frame, and well-researched regarding the small cultural distinctions that must have been more prevalent at the time in which it is set. Kudos to Massey for doing a brilliant job on both the historical fiction and the murder mystery angle, with a good splash of women's stories and struggles thrown in to make it all the more better.
Profile Image for Kari Ann Sweeney.
878 reviews265 followers
May 21, 2018
I loved the setting and time period- 1920's Bombay. The main character was a strong, smart, complicated female and the first female lawyer to boot. The mystery kept me guessing as well. Perhaps what I appreciated most was the education I received about Indian culture and laws during this time period.

Was this a knock-my-socks off book? No. But it sure was an escape! And it would make for great conversation.
Profile Image for Susan.
2,575 reviews601 followers
March 13, 2019
This novel is set in India, in 1921, although the story also goes back a few years, to 1916. The main character is Perveen Mistry, one of the first female lawyers in India, who works for her father’s law firm. Normally, Perveen works in the office, but when there is a case with three widows, who seem all too willing to sign over their inheritance, and who live in secluded purdah, then Perveen seems to be perfectly placed to infiltrate that most female world and investigate what is going on, while protecting the interests of the women.

I enjoyed the mystery part of this novel, but there is much about Perveen’s life and her disastrous marriage (the phrase, ‘marry in haste, repent in leisure,’ certainly seems valid in this storyline). Obviously, with the historical setting, I can see why the author thought it would be a good idea to discuss the role, and rights, of women, during this period and within the confines of culture. As well as Perveen, there is her friend, Alice Hobson-Jones, who is also under pressure to marry and conform to the demands of society. Dare I say, though, that I found much of this fairly standard and not very enlightening.

There was much in this novel to enjoy. I liked the period and the author brought Bombay to life. Perveen was a little too perfect to come alive on the page, but the author has written a sequel. Unfortunately, it is a little too obvious where the characters, and possible romances, are going. I do prefer novels that surprise me and this just seemed a little too obvious, and standard, to really impress, or make me want to read on.

Profile Image for Charlsa.
529 reviews21 followers
May 28, 2018
I can see how many people would enjoy this series. It fell a bit flat for me. It read like a Nancy Drew mystery to me. I've upgraded my rating from two to three stars. I started thinking about it more, and I realized that because I listened to this book, I was influenced by the narrator's voice for the characters. As I said, it felt like a Nancy Drew mystery to me. I think that was due to the narrator. If I had read it, I think that the story of the widows and Perveen's own story of oppression would have melded better. So....I would definitely read it, not listen to it.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
410 reviews40 followers
September 5, 2018
Will refrain from rating as I abandoned mission on this one. Can see how others might find the time, setting, plot line and premise delightful (think Maise-Dobbs-Goes-to-India), but I found the writing too light and trite when there are a gazillion wonderful books waiting for me.
Profile Image for Cathy Cole.
1,992 reviews60 followers
January 7, 2018
Having been a fan of Sujata Massey's award-winning Rei Shimura mystery series, I was thrilled to hear about this first Perveen Mistry mystery set in 1920s Bombay, India. There are two interwoven timelines in The Widows of Malabar Hill. One is present-day Bombay in 1921 which shows us Perveen working hard to become an integral part of her father's law firm. The second timeline takes us back to 1916 so we can learn what happened to Perveen to make her the woman she is five years later.

The story itself is a version of the locked room mystery. The widows live in purdah on Sea View Street. They stay in the women's section of the house, they do not leave their home, and they do not speak to any man who is not part of the immediate household. When a man dies inside a house where few people are admitted, it's going to take knowledge of the interior workings of the place to learn the truth. As a woman, Perveen is perfect for the role of investigator. She's also perfect in another way: she's become a feminist who's passionate about the rights of women and children. She shows us how such restricted lives are led and the intricate maneuverings that must be done in order to conduct an investigation. (Some policemen are much less willing to conduct themselves according to the beliefs of those who have become a part of their investigation.)

The mystery is a strong one because readers must acquaint themselves with this unfamiliar world in order to piece together what happened. And what can I say about the setting? Massey pulled me right into this world, and I was almost on sensory overload. The old ways versus the new. Bombay's rapid growth into a vibrant major city. The various political, religious, and social factions that chafed against each other on a daily basis. And one woman, with the support of her parents, who's strong enough to stand up for what's right.

I can't wait to get my hands on the next book in the series!
Profile Image for Amy.
2,542 reviews380 followers
January 18, 2020

I really like this book and I am not entirely sure why. It walks a fine line between a slightly corny cozy mystery and extremely intense historical fiction. At times the contrast gave me whiplash. But in the end, I think it works. Which is quite impressive.

The story follows Perveen Mistry, the only female solicitor in 1920s Bombay, India. She works with her supportive Father and mostly does paperwork. When she notices some irregularities in a letter allegedly written by a recently deceased Muslim man's three widows, she decides to check it out. The women are in purdah and cannot leave their home or see any men. But when a murder occurs, their circumstances become extremely dangerous and it is up to Bombay's only female lawyer to walk the line between the (male) law and the endangered women.

Alongside the murder-mystery, the story occasionally involves flashbacks to Perveen's early and subsequently disastrous marriage. Where the murder-mystery involves some sexism but otherwise standard cozy fare, the flashbacks go dark. Imprisonment, STDs, abuse, etc. It is not an easy combination.

There is also the inevitable problem facing a modern author writing about something that took place a hundred years ago, especially in India--how to reconcile modern views with customs and religions completely contra to them? It is the problem of modern politics and not limited to this book: how to claim all worldviews equally valid while also saying some things are just wrong. With India, suttee of course comes to mind. But I'm getting off track. The point is, it is hard to write a politically correct book about a time where a lot of horrible things occurred. And as easy as it is to blame it all on the British, you can't.
The author tries to walk the line. In fact, I would say she succeeds more than I would expect. But when basing the entire danger around these women in purdah without ever coming out and calling purdah wrong...it just creates this weird double-speak. Respect the women and their personal choice to remain in seclusion. Feel horror that these women in seclusion cannot leave or seek help and find themselves entirely dependent on the corrupt males in their life.
Same with the flashbacks to Perveen's marriage. Respect her willingness to enter a traditional Zoroastrian family and act as a dutiful daughter-in-law. Cheer her on when she flees the horrible conditions that come with being a dutiful daughter-in-law.
I'm not saying I know the solution. I am just saying it creates a tension in the story that gets danced around but never entirely resolved.

Despite my complaints, the author obviously did a ton of research. The story is beautifully grounded and truly entertaining. The descriptions of buildings, food, social dynamics, etc. really jump off the page. It is part of the reason the two stories blend so well despite their very different feels. The characters were well-developed and I look forward to more growth from all of them. I like that no love interest is introduced. We truly have a strong, independent woman working to build a niche for herself. And she's got the support team to do it. I think this definitely has the possibility to become a great series.

(I feel like there should be a gif here ending this thought but just straight up shots of Benedict Cumberbatch smiling are kind of creepy intense for that thought so...)

Of course there is.
I could not take the legal stuff seriously. Maybe this won't be a problem for non-lawyers. But I just could not swallow how faithfully Perveen follows modern Model Rules of Professional Conduct. The legal bar would be so proud of her.
I would bet all my law school loans that attorneys in the United States did not follow those rules in 1920 and certainly they did not follow them in India. While it pushed the plot along to have her refuse to break confidentiality and warn potential clients that any conflict in their double representation would mean they would need to find outside legal counsel, I just...didn't buy it. For a moment. It was laugh out loud unbelievable. Especially when you consider how also unbelievably not corrupt everyone is in this story.
I half expected the police to give the suspects a Miranda warning.
I don't want to sound dismissive. I truly appreciate the author taking the time to learn about appropriate lawyer conduct. It is all part of her intensive research. I was hoping in the notes at the back she'd provide more details. Like, did India even have licensed lawyers as we know them today?
She does provide some notes. I gave a little shout of surprise when I saw Dr. Sharafi's name. (She teaches at my school!) And then the author adds, "I also learned about common law and a lawyer's professional responsibilities from Robert Rubinson, professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law."
Which immediately confirmed my suspicion that she, for some unknown reason, decided to give her character the ethical responsibilities of a 21st century lawyer. (But she used the appropriate 'solicitor'/'barrister' distinction which is something they use in England and not in the United States so she clearly did more research and I'm just left confused again. Why the emphasis on legal ethics???)

My weird legal qualms aside, this was a surprisingly good read and I do recommend it (with the caveat about all the serious subjects selectively covered.) I'll definitely keep an eye out for the sequel.
Profile Image for Pallavi.
910 reviews165 followers
March 2, 2021

Set in pre-independence era India, Preveen Mistry is the first female lawyer. But she can't go to court to fight for a case as females are denied such privilege. So she works for her father's firm.

Law firm's old client , a Muslim Mill owner dies leaving behind three widows. These widows follow the tradition of "Purdah" that involves the seclusion of women from public observation by means of concealing clothing (including the veil) and by the use of high-walled enclosures, screens, and curtains within the home. And now they want to donate their inheritance to charity. This leads Parveen to grow suspicious and she decides to give a visit to the widows to know if they fully understand their rights. And thus the mystery begins.

There is also a flash back story running along where we come to know about Parveen and how she became a Lawyer. Her parents are a adorable set of parents. A good depiction of India in 1920's which I have read very less. It is a historical fiction-murder mystery book. I do like amateur detectives.

A fun read and I would like to call it a soft mystery ( a cozy kind). I loved the plot and kept my attention through out. A thoroughly entertaining read.

Happy Reading!!
Profile Image for Sujata Massey.
Author 35 books1,966 followers
Currently reading
March 14, 2021
Perveen Mistry is the only woman lawyer practicing in 1921 Bombay. As she works to defend the rights of three widows, she must preserve her family's honor and face hard truths about her own past. "A first rate performance inaugurating a most promising series."--THE WASHINGTON POST. Winner of the Agatha, Macavity, Bruce Alexander Memorial, and Mary Higgins Clark prizes for mystery fiction. A Publishers Weekly Best Mystery/Thriller of 2019 and an Amazon Best Mystery/Thriller of the Year.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,166 reviews541 followers
February 6, 2018
This is a difficult review/ reaction to compose. Because I wanted to give this one more than a 3 star. Perveen Mistry is a terrific character. She's multi faceted and interesting in both a self-identity and expressive style sense. She's logical, and very smart. And up against severe and diverse restriction, tradition, culture, tribal based and religious finely drawn strictures. All of those.

And it also taught me quite a bit within this length of read about the Parsi minority populations in India, and in Bombay particularly in the 10 years after WWI. But moreover it also did something else that I rarely glimpse in fiction novels any longer. And that is the insight, parsing of what it takes for any human (it doesn't have to be a female young human either) when they transit their worldview or mindset from one set of beliefs or customs or cultural strict rules of manners from one world to another. Usually because of a work related or avocation or progress in economic class "move". And the move doesn't have to be by a marriage or relationship or immigration process to changing geographic local either. It could be one that is only moving into a different sphere of learning description or terms or logic within a study. Like Perveen learning "the law" here. Whose law? The law of India's province, or the law of her DNA inheritance group, or the law of her majority population of home town, or the law of her clients only? There is a question and problem in all of this. When so many different humans are seeing "the law" so differently. That was ultimately enthralling in this book. Because how can you "serve and protect" under the constant use of terrible criminal acts (thieving widows' inheritances, murder, ownership, custody of children etc. etc. etc.) when the consequences of each set of "laws" is so different within the population parts as a whole. You really can't.

So this book tends to depict the situations of those lack of consequences. Not only for the widows either. It brings the bigger questions into play about any sense of fairness or law support for the weak and unprotected within such "wonderful diversity" of living styles. Because in practical applications, there really exists very little protection or apt consequences for this Babel set of varying definitions of evil users and their ploys.

But the way this book was written! That's the problem here and I could not give that a 4 star. Her repetitiveness in language and constant redundancy in the February 2016 and 2017 sections were TWICE (at least) to the length of copy that they should have been. It did not give us as much background to what and where Preveen is and has become in the "present" 1921 sections, as it just droned on and on about her Cyrus situation. So just tell it already. You don't need to repeat this kind of terrible relationship experience within a culture that really does not allow for an "out" (not one that doesn't hold a heavy long term burden against the innocent party to it) in any minor way over and over and over to get across what the impact must have had on her. It would have been SO MUCH better to do it quick and sharp and real and succinct; as small and as miserable and stinking as that tiny airless room that they put her in for 8 days a month when she had her period.

So the book was mixed. But I was glad I read it. And it was NOT an easy read because of all the law and lawyer talk. And words in other Indian languages that had all kinds of law related connotations that I could not really grasp either. But the read at points became so plodding and a slog in this kind of talk with her father and with the widows too, that I almost DNF. But I did. And also read the ending chapters slowly, nearly twice. Some of it was ridiculous overkill, IMHO. Like the last scene with Cyrus which I thought was pure Dickens quality melodrama jumping the shark kind of ploy. But I can't really reveal that at all without spoilers.

So my last thought on this. No more behind the screen or purdu or any other conscription or prison or "protection" situations for me in reads for quite some time. UGH! I've had two or three of this kind of tightness books in the last 2 months. At least in a Victorian prison everyone in there and out of there acknowledged it was bad in some way. Also polygamy is the pits under maximum health and monetary positions or whatever. It's rife with neglect.
Profile Image for Judith E.
522 reviews186 followers
May 5, 2019
This mystery is a perfect vehicle to learn about the diverse cultures, religious sects, marriage traditions, treatment of women, legal system, and delicious-sounding Indian cuisine, in Bombay and Calcutta, India.

A quick read revolving around three Muslim widows practicing purdah and the confusing inheritance of their late husband’s estate. The plot and characters are a means to the presentation of the very interesting historical platform. Enjoyable and recommended. 3.75 stars.
Profile Image for Lady Clementina ffinch-ffarowmore.
732 reviews159 followers
March 11, 2019
This is the first in a mystery series featuring Perveen Mistry, the first female lawyer in Bombay (based on the real firsts, Camelia Sorabji and Mithan Tata Lam) set in the 1920s. Perveen is 23, has read law at Oxford, and is employed in her father’s firm as no one else would employ her. She isn’t a member of the Bar since this is still not permitted at that point. Her father’s firm is appointed to execute the will of one Omar Farid, a wealthy mill-owner who was their client. On his death, he has left behind three widows, all of whom are purdahnashin, that is they live in seclusion with no contact with men from outside their family. As a woman lawyer, Perveen is the only one who can speak to them, find out what their wishes are regarding their money, and communicate to them what the law is, and how it can help them. But her efforts aren’t appreciated by all, especially the guardian of the estate, who is clearly not acting fairly, and this spells trouble for Perveen (since he thinks he can intimidate a ‘mere woman’. But when a murder takes place and she continues to investigate, Perveen finds her own life also in danger. Alongside, a second thread of the story takes place taking us into Perveen’s past including the struggles she faced as the only female student in the Government Law College in Bombay, and the decisions in her personal life that had unforeseen consequences that was affect her life in the long run.

This was such an enjoyable read for me. I thought the author captured the whole atmosphere of 1920s Bombay and life in the Parsi community as it would have been back then really well. It felt really authentic, especially some of the customs, mannerisms and language. I also really liked Perveen as a character. She is an intelligent young woman, but also very human—she takes decisions that aren’t always the right ones as all of us do, and also acts impetuously at times. But still she is a likeable character, and a strong one considering all she has borne in her past, as well as feisty in how she deals with the dangers that she faces when investigating the case at hand. She is also confident in the way she conducts herself, not allowing much to intimidate her. I also loved that her family, especially her parents are so supportive of her, are with her every step of the way and taking care even when she is unaware that they are. The mystery was interesting, and also brought forth how life would have been for women in the position that the widows were in—unable to operate in the real world, unable to be safe when their husband was no longer with them, and vulnerable to be taken advantage of by even those who were left to care for them (servants pilfering money and such). I really loved this book and am looking forward to the second in the series which comes out sometime in May.
Profile Image for Cheryl James.
258 reviews165 followers
August 28, 2021
My first historical fiction mystery read that features an India author. The book was very entertaining and always engaging. The narrator did an excellent job. The dialect was clear and percise. I am not sure how much of the story is true in the India culture but the story was very interesting. I am looking forward to the next book in this short series!!
Profile Image for Marianne.
3,267 reviews115 followers
May 19, 2020
A Murder At Malabar Hill, also titled The Widows of Malabar Hill, is the first book in the Perveen Mistry series by award-winning British-born American author, Sujata Massey. Bombay in 1921 may not be ready for a female lawyer, but Jamshedji Mistry has given his daughter an education and Preveen Mistry is determined to contribute to Mistry Law. If catering to women needing legal services gives their firm an edge, then she will embrace that.

When Omar Farid dies, he leaves three widows. Perveen is dealing with the will when a request comes in from the household agent/guardian regards the family’s wakf that rouses her suspicion: all three widows have signed over their endowments to the wakf (family charity trust). However, the documents give cause for concern.

When she visits these women in purdah, she finds discrepancies in what they know about their gift to the wakf and the intended use of the funds; quite a few secrets between the women; and a distinct lack of harmony. Perveen is, nonetheless, resolute about her duty to the women and their interests. But, shortly after her visit, there is a brutal murder at the house…

A welcome distraction is the arrival of her college friend Alice Hobson-Jones, whose parents live on Malabar Hill, next to the Farid house. While Alice has her own problems, and issues of confidentiality preclude Perveen from sharing too much, she’s grateful to have Alice’s perspective.

She wishes, too, that she could share her concern about a disturbing glimpse of a man she had thought far away in Calcutta, Cyrus Sodawalla, with whom she has an unhappy history. As the story unfolds, each tidbit of information reveals another plausible motive for the murder and, more than once, Perveen has to check for possible conflicts of interest before she acts.

Perveen is a plucky and very likeable protagonist. Her backstory is told in flashbacks to 1916, describing how she came to be a lawyer and illustrating also her parents’ unfailing support. Her interactions with others indicate she needs to work on her poker-face and, at one point, she has fingers in so many pies that when she is kidnapped, she runs through a list of possible assailants.

Massey manages to include plenty of humour in this series debut, as well as a wealth of fascinating snippets of Indian social history. The restrictions that women faced at the time, both in law and through religion are demonstrated, and the practical concerns for women choosing to live in Purdah are shown. This is a very enjoyable read and another encounter with Perveen Mistry in The Satapur Moonstone will be eagerly awaited.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy.
January 21, 2020
It took me a while to become invested in The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey, but, thanks to a little encouragement from Julie, I persevered - and I'm so glad I did! There are two separate and interesting stories to be followed - both involving a young Parsi Solicitor, Perveen Mistry, the first woman Solicitor in Bombay, circa 1920. Perveen joins her father’s successful law practice after studying in Oxford. TWMH describes two religious law cases. The first case involves the will of a deceased Muslim husband who bequeathed a fortune to his three widows. The widows seem to have been manipulated into relinquishing all of their inheritance claims (and personal fortunes) to a religious Muslim Waqf fund for the welfare and education of young boys, managed by none other than the man who has been entrusted in looking after the welfare of his wives (and basically robs them blind). The wives live in religiously mandated seclusion from men and therefore Perveen takes it upon herself to interview the wives and explain the conditions of the will and the content of the documents which she believes they may have been duped into signing. When the wives come to see the apparent duplicity of the guardian, and when the guardian discovers to his chagrin that the Perveen has stirred things up among the wives – a murder takes place (this is the mystery to be resolved). The second, intriguing story is more personal, dealing with a Parsi Divorce Law case: Very young girl falls head over heels in love with a rake who proposes in one day, and receives her parents’ grudging blessing to wed, against their better judgement. Not surprisingly, thereafter, she learns that she made a HUGE mistake. As an attorney I found both storylines interesting, each affirming my conviction that religious law is universally bad law which generally favors the interests of men and subjugates the interests of women. Perveen and her father successfully champion the legal interests of women in this novel.

I've wanted to read this book for well over a year, but my libraries do not carry the audio. I have borrowed the book on kindle from my library at least three times, but whispersync just doesn't cut it for me and I have virtually no time to sit and read for pleasure. Finally, on a short road trip I discovered (to my horror) that I had forgotten to put my earphones in my pocket and could not continue listening to my current read (grumpy designated driver does not like to hear my audiobooks); I quickly downloaded the TWMH to kindle and started READING the book. I was instantly transported to a time and place, smells and tastes....this is clearly a book for reading and not listening. That being said, I just don't have the leisure time to sit and read, so I had to compromise and eventually broke down and ordered the audible. If unlike me, you have the luxury of hours to spend blissfully lolling in the printed word, you should probably opt for the book or kindle – in this case, the audio pales by comparison.
Profile Image for Lynn.
515 reviews5 followers
February 6, 2018
Sujata Massey was a new author for me. I enjoyed The Widows of Malabar Hill very much. The location is Bombay, India in 1921 to flashbacks to Calcutta 1916-1917. Perveen Mistry is the first female lawyer in India. She was educated in Oxford but can not represent clients in court. She works in her father law office.

Her father is representing the estate of Omar Farid who is a wealthy Muslim mill owner. He has left three widows who are living in purdah which is total seclusion. They do not leave their living quarters and do not speak to men.

A male household guardian who lives apart from the widows and their children but in the same house has ask them to sign over their inheritance to a boys school charity. Perveen because she is female can meet with the widows and see if they understand what the sign over to the charity means to them in the future. It needs their agreement in legal form. Perveen is representing her father's law firm. There are surprises with the widows, tensions and eventually a murder. It is somewhat like a closed off manor house mystery. Who inside the house committed the murder and are the families in danger.

The book was rich in local sights, sounds, foods and customs. There were surprises along the way for the reader. Perveen was a strong women's right advocate in an era that did not recognize women's rights at all. One element that I thought enriched the book too was her intelligent and loving parents who stood by her through everything. This will be one of my best reads for 2018.
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