Midnight At Malabar House (2020) by Vaseem Khan

Bombay, New Year’s Eve, 1949

Inspector Persis Wadia is the first female police detective in India, and given that an awful lot of people don’t see that as a good thing, she has been assigned to Malabar House, with all of the rest of the unwanted officers who are put there to basically be ignored. The officers at Malabar House are the last people to call – so why, when a prominent English diplomat is murdered at New Year’s Eve party, do they receive the call to investigate?

Regardless, Persis sees this as a way to make her mark, but she may have underestimated the importance of the case. India is preparing to become a republic and it soon becomes clear that the case is more than a little politic. With the higher echelons on the force keen to accept an easy answer when it presents itself, Persis finds herself on her own – apart from Archie Blackfinch, a Scotland Yard criminologist – and is determined to find the truth. But even finding it will not be the end of the story…

I think I need to read more books that have won the CWA Historical Dagger. I’ve read two this month – this, and The Devil In The Marshalsea – and have loved them both. I’ve grumbled in the past that the notion of “historical” is a little too broad. I wouldn’t generally have called a book set in 1950 an historical novel – I tend to reserve that for books set in eras that are a world away from what we know and accept now – but 1950 in India certainly is a world away. I’ve mentioned before about how much I enjoy reading Paul Doherty’s and Michael Jecks’ work as it’s set in a time period that is never really covered in school in this country and the same is true of the partition of British India into India and Pakistan, along with India becoming a republic in 1950. Basically, in my History class, it basically went “World War II, Russia, Cuban Missile Crisis, Grassy Knoll. Oh, did I mention there was a bloke called Gandhi and a bloke called Nehru?” So my knowledge, to my shame, is basically zero.

Setting a murder mystery against this backdrop is right up my street. Coming out of it, I feel I know a little more without having received an history lecture, and I certainly intend to do some more reading on the subject. Khan does a great job of presenting the background honestly as well, with some other events/atrocities in Indian history, such as the Amritsar massacre, playing a part in the background to some of the characters. It never sensationalises these events, but makes them an integral part of the story as well as informing the reader about things that they really ought to know about. Oh and it’s also an outstanding mystery novel as well. It’s basically win-win.

The characters are great, especially Persis, determined to succeed, but to an extent out of her depth when it comes to the political machinations that are out to hinder her. Don’t panic if you feel that giving her a male sidekick/love interest weakens the character as Archie is charming, but very much a supporting character, rather than a joint lead. This is Persis’ show and she is fantastic lead character who I already want to read more of.

This is also a proper mystery novel as well. Odd occurrences at the crime scene, such as a coded message and the fact that the corpse is missing their trousers, give the tale more than a whiff of the Golden Age, as does the detective listing out the critical points at the midpoint of the tale and an unreliable confession to the crime. With several disparate motives knocking around, for a good while the reader won’t know which way to look.

If I had to criticise the plotting (and that’s sort of what I’m here for), I’d say that a few of the clues are pretty visual, and the coded message, well, don’t spend any time trying to decipher it. It didn’t quite feel as if the reader was being asked to play along, despite the summing up of the clues at the halfway point. However, and this has been a rarity in mysteries that I’ve read recently, virtually all of the characters are there for a reason in the plot. Everyone has something to do, everyone has something to reveal. It’s not like These Names Make Clues where there is a dinner party of twelve people, six of which are just window dressing. Every character has a narrative arc that ties in somehow to the case which is very satisfying.

That’s the second book that’s been sitting hidden in a corner on my Kindle for too long – I really must start looking in those corners more often if there are treasures like these hidden there…

3 comments

  1. Thank you for putting me on to this. I took your recommendation and have been so impressed. Haven’t even finished – currently at chapter 25 with a clear sense of the who and the why – but on the strength of what I’ve covered this will surely go down as one of if not the best read of my 2021. It’s made me stop and reconsider my reading choices up to this point and shown that I needn’t limit myself to GAD/locked room mysteries, as clearly there is hope for me with respect to conventional whodunnits penned by contemporary authors, especially those that have a period backdrop as rich and fascinating as this.

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