Sujata Massey describes her new thriller as a feminist mystery series meant for everyone

A legal eagle

March 27, 2018 04:08 pm | Updated January 27, 2020 02:41 pm IST

Sujata Massey’s A Murder on Malabar Hill (Penguin Random House) tells the story of young Perveen Mistry who in 1921 Mumbai is one of India’s first female lawyers. The death of a wealthy mill owner and the complicated terms of his will, for which Perveen’s father’s law firm is the executor, is a precursor to a brutal murder. Perveen is determined to solve the mystery even as she grapples with her own secret past.

The inspiration for Perveen was Cornelia Sorabji. “She was the first solicitor in the British Empire, and Mithan Tata Lam was the first woman to work as a barrister in India,” Massey says. “Both were Maharashtrians with ethnic Parsi heritage whose biographies contributed to the making of Perveen. She had to be Parsi because the community was very active in sending their daughters into the professions in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Perveen works in Bombay, which is different from Cornelia’s experience in different parts of India, and she is not a barrister like Mithan. The greatest similarity between Perveen and the two women lawyers is a passion for women’s rights.

“Cornelia and Mithan worked hard to convince the colonial government and the Parsi establishment to change laws that repressed women. Perveen is at the point where she’s only able to help women clients facing particular legal challenges. That works well for mysteries. This is a feminist mystery series meant for everyone.”

Back in time

On choosing to set the novel in 1920s Mumbai, the 54-year-old author says, “the city is such a treasure chest for a writer. So many old buildings are still standing and in everyday use. It is not like I have to imagine a forgottten world. I can go into the old clubs and colleges and gardens and see things through my characters’ eyes.”

The Baltimore, Maryland based author is best known for her Rei Shimura novels. The Japanese-American sleuth debuted in 1997 and last appeared in The Kizuna Coast in 2014. Massey says he is “likely to re-appear in a variety of fiction options that could include short stories and novellas. At the moment, I am deep into 1920s Bombay and can’t plan Rei’s next adventure. In a few years time, I may write another Rei book to refresh my writing energy.”

Serial thriller

A Murder on Malabar Hill is the first in the Perveen Mistry Investigates series. On the pros and cons of having a serial character, Massey comments, “Building a genuinely compelling protagonist takes a lot of time, and by the book’s end I understand the person I’ve made. Being able to write another story with that same character is a wonderful treat. The letters and comments I get support the idea that readers deeply care about the protagonist and the recurring characters. That is the most obvious reason for me to write serial novels. However, a serial character needs to grow to make each story work. The relationships she might enjoy in the first book — and here I’m especially thinking of romantic relationships — may not be as interesting in later books. There is a tension when characters come together for the first time that can’t be present in each book. My advice to mystery writers is to keep your main character single!”

Follow the reader

Massey’s The City of Palaces is set in Colonial India between 1930 and 1947. Talking of her research process, Massey comments, “When I research historical periods, I tend to examine what women were doing during these times, and also what was happening in terms of social change. Inevitably, I become so excited by the brave actions of women that the ideas for books drop like gifts into my brain. And the beauty is, I know the story is realistic. In the acknowledgements of A Murder on Malabar Hill , I list many sources for further reading, ranging from a terrific book on Parsi slang to an entertaining scholarly book on the history of law in India. This was the most wonderful reading research imaginable for me.”

Talking of the joys of research, Massey says, “I would enjoy researching every book for a year and spending three more years in writing if I didn’t have a publisher guiding me. I’ve actually done this twice, with my first Japanese novel, The Salaryman’s Wife , and my first Indian novel, The City of Palaces . What I’ve learned from these experiences is that I always create a book that is too long. And then I have to start snipping out large parts, which is miserable for a writer. I find that if I research a couple of months, start writing, and then go to India to fill in the missing gaps with personal interviews and location visits, I write a book that’s much more readable.”

Daddy dearest

Perveen reminds one of a grown-up version of Nancy Drew, whose father was also a lawyer. “I had not thought about the similarity of lawyer fathers until this point. I made Perveen’s father a lawyer because I didn’t believe anyone but a proud papa would employ a female lawyer in 1921.”

Massey admits to a weakness for good crime fiction. “I don’t go for extremely violent books or thrillers, although I like the psychological suspense of writers such as Barbara Vine and Paula Hawkins. My most favourite mysteries are old ones by writers like Agatha Christie, Barbara Pym and Josephine Tey. Interestingly, my great-great-uncle was Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay, regarded as India’s first detective fiction author. I admire his protagonist, Byomkesh Bakshi, and Perveen Mistry would have been thrilled to collaborate with him on a case.”

Fashion forward

The evocation of 1920s Bombay would not be complete without a description of the clothes. “I enjoyed looking at classic gara sari designs for the Parsi characters. When I dressed my characters, I had to think about subtlety that comes with being comfortable with oneself versus wanting to make a big impression. These are themes that continue to influence people today. Also, with male characters, it was interesting because there are different ways of dressing in the same city, not just based on profession but also region and religion. There is a detail about stockings worn with dhotis that I learned about in an old book on Bengal.”

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