Books & Literature

Book Review: The Bombay Prince, by Sujata Massey

HISTORICAL FICTION: The redoubtable Perveen Mistry makes her triumphant return to solve a shocking murder on the streets of 1920s Bombay.

I won’t be searching out books one and two in the Parveen Mistry series—book three was more than enough.

Author Sujata Massey was born in England of Indian and German heritage and now lives in America. She is an award-winning author and this is the third book in the Perveen Mistry series. I have not read the previous two novels and found working out who was who and how they fitted in was a little difficult. I should also point out to readers there is a Glossary of Terms at the end of the book—the usual place—but moving it to the front or at least informing readers of its existence would have been extremely useful.

Massey’s detective, Perveen Mistry, comes from a wealthy Parsi family and is Bombay’s first female lawyer, having joined her father’s law firm. The action revolves around the visit to India of the Prince of Wales, the future ruler of India as King Emperor, Edward VIII, in 1921. By this date, Ghandi was already head of the Indian National Congress party, had eschewed western dress and was campaigning for a Free India. Thus, the Prince’s visit took place in already troubled times, with different religious and political groups pulling in different directions. Massey writes that the mass of historical material available on the visit—which ran for four months—was a major factor in the theme of this novel.

Lawyer Perveen Mistry enjoys a privileged position, and her best female friend is an English woman who teaches at a prestigious Presbyterian college in Bombay. On the day before the Prince’s parade through Bombay, Perveen is consulted by Freny Cuttingmaster, a female student from the college. The college has cancelled classes so all students can attend the parade but Freny, a Parsi who is on the fringes of opposition to British rule in India, wants to know whether the college can punish or even expel students for not attending the parade.

Through Freny’s concerns, the reader can see the somewhat ambivalent attitudes of opposition to British rule in India. On the one hand, students such as Freny wish to protest British rule by not attending the parade but on the other, they value a ‘British’ education, even to the extent of attending a Christian college, and worry this will be denied to them if they protest. But before the issue can be resolved, Freny is dead—not because of an accidental fall from a balcony as the college wants to believe—but murdered, setting Perveen on the hunt for the killer.  

In narrative terms, the plot follows the standard ‘Who dunnit?’ including red herrings, the wrongly accused, and a surprising hero. However, there is little depth to the narrative or the characters being created by the author, particularly given the ‘trove’ of research material which she says prompted her to write the novel, while lawyer and detective, Perveen, is using her privileged position and contacts to get to the truth. I found her privileged life, such as being driven everywhere in a Daimler or access to people, information, and locations not usually available to young Indian women, tiresome and annoying. The book’s blurb suggests anyone who enjoys Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries would be equally thrilled by this book. I disagree. Miss Fisher is a far more rounded, interesting and complex woman than Miss Mistry.  

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: June 2021
RRP: $29.99

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