Title: Murder in Old Bombay
Author: Nev March
Publisher: Minotaur Books
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
It’s always a delight to read a book set in a locale one is familiar with. And this book is not only set in my beloved city, it is even set at a time when it was still Bombay, long before its name was changed and its cosmopolitan vibrancy obliterated forever.
It is 1892 and the strange case of a double suicide has rocked the city. Two young Parsi women, 19-year-old Bacha Framji and her husband’s 15-year-old cousin, Pilloo, jump down to their deaths from the Bombay University clock tower within minutes of each other. Three men, the Parsi Maneck Fitter and two Muslims, Seth Akbar and Saapir Behg, are arrested for the murders and subsequently acquitted for lack of evidence.
Captain James Agnihotri, son of an Indian mother and an absent British father, has no family, nothing to belong to. Raised in an orphanage by Fr Thomas, he is unwelcome on both sides of his heritage. But it also works to his advantage, as he can fit in anywhere. If one fits into the picture, few people looked closer.
He has retired from the army after his unit is disbanded. Recuperating from his injuries, he reads about the clock tower deaths in the newspaper. He is haunted by a letter that Bacha’s husband, Adi, has written to the editor of the newspaper. The last line of the letter, “They are gone, but I remain,” haunts him and he decides to help.
James suffers the same guilt, at knowing that his fellow comrades in the army are dead, but he has survived. He feels compelled to solve the mystery behind the deaths and help Adi Framji to find closure. A fan of Sherlock Holmes, James is hired by Adi to solve the mystery. He becomes a private investigator.
Adi cannot believe that his wife could have killed herself. Employing Holmes’ methods, James sets about investigating the murder. But early in his investigation, he is viciously attacked. And the attacks continue. Clearly, somebody is afraid of the truth coming out.
James’ investigation takes him to Kasim, Pilloo’s father’s servant, and to the fictional princely state of Ranjpoot, and to the nephew of the queen, Prince Nur Suleiman. There’s another game afoot and the British are watching, and it seems that James might be just a pawn in the scheme of things.
Will James help Adi to find the answers he seeks?
Meanwhile there is a slowly brewing romance between James and Adi’s feisty younger sister, Diana, and there’s a sweet little subplot relating to whether that romance has any future or whether it is doomed from the start.
At first, the author describes Diana as Her eyes were brown velvet and then her laugh as water tumbling over river stones. I liked the metaphor, and perhaps James did too because many pages later he is back to describing her laugh, as water gurgling over river stones.
The story is written in the first-person past tense PoV of James. James was a great character. His needs, fears and compulsions were all believable. His self-deprecatory humour and his other character traits help us to warm to him.
I have always been intrigued by stories of India during the time of the British Raj. This story brings to life the culture of the Parsis, the life of privilege and wealth that many of them enjoyed by virtue of their industriousness and innovativeness.
The narrative is beautiful. The references to Chor Bazaar, Hanging Gardens, Bandera as also the University etc made for enjoyable reading. The author has recreated the period, in terms of the conveniences that were available then. For instance, the use of words like secretary for bureau etc. It feels natural to slip into 1892, and imagine oneself there in that long-ago time. The use of spellings like Cawnpore, Bandera etc also help to root the book in that time. The historical information is presented as fact without colouring it with any kind of sentiment.
The only word that didn't quite fit in was patsy, which is an Americanism dating back to the early 20th century, and therefore out of place in the India of 1892.
The characters all grew on me. Adi, Diana, Burjor, Mrs Framji, Chutki, Fr Thomas.
There are plenty of references to AC Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, who also happens to be one of my favourite characters. Also, to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
The book brings out the conflicted loyalties of the times. About how some people identified with the Indian freedom struggle while others enjoyed privilege
What I didn’t like so much was the amount of time spent away from the core mystery of the novel. The Karachi battle and all the other skirmishes in Pakistan should have been toned down further. I didn’t grudge the five children as they showed James’ nobility and goodness.
The murder mystery promised a fair bit of intrigue, but it was stretched out too long. The writing was good and so the book held interest, but James’ battle scarred past intruded far too much into the present. The book should have kept its focus on what the title promised us.
James’ back story, the battlefield skirmishes were good, but they should have been cut down further. I wanted to read more about the murder. It took the focus away from Bombay.
I loved the cover, with its sepia tones, so reminiscent of the heat and dust of the city.
I was prepared to like this book from the title itself.
Nev, you had me at Bombay.
(I read this book through NetGalley. Thank you, NetGalley, the author and the publisher.)