Book Club Review: “The Widows of Malabar Hill”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey

Publishing Info: Soho Press, January 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Genre/Format: Cozy/Historical Mystery

Book Description: 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.

Kate’s Thoughts

I keep saying this over and over again and yet never really follow through, but I always feel like I’m in on the look out for a new mystery series to follow. While Kathy Reichs has returned to her Temperance Brennan mysteries after an illness, one series doesn’t seem like enough. So thank you to Book Club for introducing me to the Perveen Mistry series with the first book “The Widows of Malabar Hill”! Because I found this first entry in this historical/cozy (debatable to me) mystery collection to be exactly what I wanted!

For one thing, I really liked the setting, being in 1920s Bombay, when British Colonialism was still a thing, and our heroine Perveen is living life as an attorney in her father’s practice after her marriage fell through. I have very little knowledge of this time period in India specifically, and I really enjoyed getting some context into the many different people and cultures who lived there at the time, sometimes to great conflict. I loved Perveen as a main character, as she is determined and spunky, but still felt realistic for the time period based on the knowledge that I did have previously and what we learn in the story itself. There are two timelines here, the present day one in which Perveen is investigating the will of a man who left three wives behind after his death, and then finds herself involved in a murder investigation. This storyline was well done, with well plotted out intrigue and a mystery that kept me guessing. But it was the other storyline that really got my attention, in whcih we see Perveen’s previous doomed marriage, and how she came to be working for her attorney father in the first place. I thought that the situation she found herself in was deeply upsetting and fascinating, and it really gave her a good amount of depth and characterization that suited her in the present day storyline.

Overall, I really enjoyed “The Widows of Malabar Hill”, and am definitely going to continue reading the Perveen Mistry mysteries!

Serena’s Thoughts

Like Kate, I’ve also read many of the Temperance Brennan series. I’m pretty behind now, but it is also one of my favorite mystery series. But I also currently read a few historical mystery series, so it’s a genre that I’m still fairly involved with in my general reading. That said, most of the historical mysteries I’ve been reading for the last two years have been set in Britain in similar time periods in the last 1800s. So I was excited to read another historical mystery (a genre I clearly enjoy), but one set in a very different location and period of time.

Most of the praise that Kate has already covered I would second. Perveen, herself, is a really excellent character. I imagine it was difficult to write a character that takes on the roles she does (lawyer/detective) but who must also feel true to her time and deal with the many roadblocks that were present in women’s lives. I think the author does an excellent job of making Perveen a very believable character in this way. Her history, as we see it play out in the portion of the story set in the past, lays out a nice foundation for Perveen to find herself in the position she does in the present. And for her perspective that shapes her approach to tackling the mystery and murders at the heart of the story.

I also really liked the time period and setting. I, too, only knew a little about India during this time period. I’d read “A Passage to India” way back in college, but that was about it. So I really enjoyed the immersion in the culture and history that served as the backdrop and landscape for Perveen’s story.

The mystery itself was also very good. This book was chosen as a “cozy mystery” type story, so while there is tension and mystery throughout, it’s not as gruesome or scary as some of the other mysteries series you may read. If you enjoy historical mysteries this will probably be a good fit!

Kate’s Rating 8: A well plotted mystery and a compelling backstory combine along with a unique setting to make “The Widows of Malabar Hill” an intriguing start to a series I plan to continue!

Serena’s Rating 8: An excellent start to a new series with a compelling heroine at its heart!

Book Club Questions:

  1. What kind of mystery sub genre would you think this is? Does it feel more historical, or cozy?
  2. What did you think of the writing style? Do you think it matched the story tone and themes?
  3. What did you know about the various themes of the sotry, be it the setting, culture, religion, society?
  4. What did you think of the narrative structure of the two time periods that we follow in this book? Did you prefer one over the other?
  5. Who was your favorite character outside of Perveen? Who was your least favorite character?
  6. Do you think you’ll keep going in the series? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Widows of Malabar Hill” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Historical Mystery Series”, and “India: Fiction”.

Find “The Widows of Malabar Hill” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “The Right Swipe”

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