Book Review: The Perveen Mistry series by Sujata Massey

I love a good crime novel and throw in the setting of India under British rule and I just can’t help myself. That’s probably why I love this new series by Sujata Massey. Her sleuth is Bombay solicitor, Perveen Mistry, the only female lawyer in town – this is the 1920s, after all. She works for her father, has put a terrible marriage behind her and just wants to get on with her career.

The first book, A Murder at Malabar Hill, sees Perveen get involved with three widows of a wealthy mill owner whose estate is being managed by an employee from the firm. Studying the documents which show the women have signed over their inheritance to a trust, Perveen smells a rat, and decides to talk to the widows in person. That’s the advantage of being a female lawyer – the women live in strict seclusion, a male lawyer would never be admitted. Tensions mount as Perveen learns more about the family, and then a murder takes place.

Perveen’s snooping is interrupted by fears for her safety when she thinks she recognises her estranged husband all the way from Calcutta. The story of her ill-fated marriage is woven through the main plot in flashbacks with some resonances with the main story, both revealing the difficulties for women living in very traditional family settings. It’s just as well Perveen’s own family – her parents, brother and sister-in-law, are more forward thinking and loving.

Along for the ride is Perveen’s old friend from her Oxford days, Alice Hobson-Jones, bored and restless to use her fierce mathematical brain now she’s back home with her well-healed parents. Her mother’s keen to see her daughter settle down with a suitable husband, as if that’s ever going to happen. Another woman eager to shape her destiny in a society that would rather she didn’t.

Massey recreates 1920s Bombay with lots of colour, some wonderful meal descriptions, and interesting characters. Perveen is feisty when she needs to be and also has a good memory when it comes to the law – the reader gets lots of insight into the relevant legislature without being too bogged down in details. You get the sense that the author has done her homework. I loved the minor characters: the Mistry’s general factotum, Mustafa who keeps Perveen up to speed with her father’s moods is a particular gem, as is Alice – tall and fair, she’s a head taller than Perveen but a brilliant friend.

This book won an Agatha Award and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, which is why I wanted to read it after having just devoured the second book in the series: The Satapur Moonstone. Yes, again I read the books in the wrong order, but at least now I’m all square. The second book sends Perveen to the remote state of Satapur, home to the widow of a maharaja and her mother-in-law, the dowager maharani. The two women are in dispute over the education of the young prince and future maharaja, and a lawyer is required to sort out an agreeable solution.

The women live in purdah, so no men are admitted and Perveen is requested by the British agent overseeing their kingdom. Perveen must travel by palanquin, a kind of sedan chair arrangement, through forests inhabited by tigers and other deadly animals to the palace. Here she finds a royal family living under a curse not long after the deaths of both the last maharaja of cholera, and his eldest son to a hunting tragedy.

We’re in monsoon country, transport is difficult and news travels slowly. The local villagers live a traditional and fairly impoverished existence, while up at the palace, we’ve got power plays, secrets and treachery while the uncomfortable political situation brought about by British rule rears its ugly head from time to time. Tension of various kinds build to a ripping ending. This a terrific addition to the series, and some unfinished business for Perveen makes me eager for Book 3.

Mystery Series Catch-up

As any reader of this blog may have guessed, I’m a big fan of crime fiction and the genre is my happy place when I feel like a relaxing read. It all began years ago with Agatha Christie when I was at school, and since then I’ve discovered many terrific series, old and new. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately.

The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan

This is only the third book in McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly series set in Galway, but already these books are on my ‘must-read’ list. There’s just so much to enjoy. Apart from the wonderful setting of an Irish city that has its own quirks and atmosphere, McTiernan excels at character and plotting. Reilly, a former high-flyer from Dublin, is a sergeant at a police station where he never fits in and can’t quite figure out why. He’s good at his job, intelligent and personable (probably quite dishy, actually) and in this book we find out what’s really going on at the station. The book hooks you in from page one with the report of a child abduction and Reilly’s investigation which all goes horribly wrong. The story diverts to a tiny coastal town where Reilly’s young constable, Peter Fisher, is sent in penance and the murder mystery he investigates, while Reilly does some soul-seaching about his work and relationship problems before uncovering some damning police corruption. Top notch.

The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths

The Blood Card is the third novel in the Stephens and Mephisto series, which Griffiths has on the go when she’s not writing her hugely popular Ruth Galloway books set in modern-day Norfolk. DI Edgar Stephens is a Brighton cop who gets to work some interesting cases often around the world of theatre with his best pal and stage magician, Max Mephisto. We’re back in the 1950s, with The Blood Card taking place in the lead-up to the Queen’s Coronation of 1953. The big event has had huge numbers of people buying television sets which has Max wondering if his days in variety are numbered. As it turns out, this could be the least of his worries when an army general demands help from Edgar and Max following the death of their commanding officer from the war. The two had been part of the Magic Men, a team who dabbled in camouflage and special effects to out-fox the enemy. Now they’re caught up in an anarchist plot to disrupt the coronation. The story builds to a brilliant climax and Griffiths uses her understanding of theatre to great effect. A great cast of characters in the police team and among the suspects adds to the enjoyment.

When Shadows Fall by Alex Gray

Somebody is murdering old coppers in Alex Gray’s most recent novel featuring DCI William Lorrimer and his forensic psychologist chum, Dr Solomon Brightman. The victims are all retired senior officers, taken out with the same gun, execution-style. It’s also the same shooter used on an excavated body killed over a decade before. The skeleton is discovered by Lorrimer’s gardener, a former street kid Lorrimer rescued, now making a good living for himself. The story slips between the investigation and scenes in a prison, where an ageing criminal is soon to be released – only he’s got one more job to do when he gets out: to take out Lorrimer. This novel keeps you hooked with the threat hanging over Lorrimer that he knows nothing about. Meanwhile the DCI struggles to find a pattern between the killings which take place in different parts of Scotland. Luckily Solomon Brightman lives up to his name and has a bright idea. I had only read a couple in this series before but I enjoyed this one so much, I shall definitely be returning to Glasgow for more.

The Cadaver Game by Ellis Peters

This novel is the sixteenth out of 24 in Ellis’s Wesley Peterson series and (can you believe it?) the first for me. Moving round the British Isles, we’re now in Tradmouth, a coastal town in Devon. Police detective Wesley Peterson is an amateur archaeologist who transferred from London in book one, hoping for a quieter life. There’s always a historical thread running through the stories, allowing Wesley’s great friend and archaeologist, Neil Watson, to take a share in the investigations. Here we have the discovery of a dead body – a woman murdered and with nothing to identify her – called in from an anonymous tip-off. Then there are the two teenagers who have been shot, their bodies hurled from a cliff – could their deaths be connected to the hunting game they played on the Internet? Meanwhile Neil is in charge of the excavation of a picnic from sixteen years before. It’s an art piece to be filmed and shown at the Tate Modern, but among the china and glassware, what should turn up but an old skeleton. Segments from a journal written in the early 1800s bring in a chilling story that has similarities to the deaths of the teenagers. It all adds up to a brilliant read combining police-work, archaeology, terrific characters and a look into the darker side of human nature.

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear

Wartime sleuth Maisie Dobbs has really grown on me over the years. She was a bit too good to be true to begin with, beautiful and intelligent with a knack for picking up people’s thoughts through their body language. And kind of serious. But you always got an interesting but little known aspect of WWI and its legacy on the fragile peace that followed. Now we’re back at war, Maisie’s been given some dangerous assignments, and having had fate hand her a few blows over the years, she’s toughened up and is game for anything. The American Agent is set in 1940, not long after the Battle of Britain, and the Brits would love a bit of help with the war effort from the US. Maisie and her bestie, Priscilla, are ambulance drivers when they meet a young American journalist who’s come along for the ride during a busy night in the Blitz. Impressed by the bravery and determination of ordinary women, Catherine Saxon plans to write their side of the story but not long afterwards, the journalist is strangled. Were her stories too controversial, or was there a secret that got her killed? Winspear keeps you guessing to the end.

Book Review: Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo

Sworn to Silence is the first in Castillo’s series featuring formerly Amish Kate Burkholder, the Chief of Police in the sleepy town of Painter’s Mill, Ohio. Well, actually, having read a few of these novels, I can tell you Painter’s Mill isn’t half as sleepy as it ought to be with a string of murders, hate-crimes and serial killings to rival that old TV favourite, Midsomer Murders.

What makes these novels interesting is the smart, lively writing, mostly from the point of view of Kate – a savvy, no-nonsense, yet sensitive sleuth – and the Amish connection. At thirty, Kate lives on her own with her sometimes cat, too messed up by her past to think about a meaningful relationship or any kind of settling down. She’s a bit too friendly with her vodka bottle, and sometimes it’s only the coffee, brewed by Mona, her dispatch assistant, that gets her through the day.

When a murder takes place with the same MO as a series of killings from sixteen years ago, everyone’s wondering if the Slaughterhouse Killer is back again. Everyone except Kate. The young female victims are felled by a single slash to the carotid artery, with evidence of torture and a signature mutilation. Nasty.

But Kate has a secret, one that has her convinced that the Slaughterhouse Killer is dead – a secret that would end her career and destroy the lives of her still-Amish brother and sister. There is no way she can let that happen. When the mayor’s office disagrees with her handling of the case, they send for the feds – in this case, Special Agent John Tomasetti, and so begins a beautiful new detecting relationship.

Sworn to Silence is an engaging page-turner – part police procedural, part romantic suspense. Be warned that it has its gory moments (this killer is truly evil), and with the audiobook version (brilliantly read by Kathleen McInerney), there was no skimming through the messier scenes with eyes half closed. There is still plenty to enjoy, however, including terrific action scenes, snappy dialogue, a few red herrings, last minute rescues and then there’s the snow. Snowy landscapes are always terrific for that extra chill.

The Kate Burkholder novels are an enjoyable series for a bit of light reading. Castillo seems to have done a ton of research with both the Amish way of life (including snippets of Pennsylvania Dutch) and the day-to-day workings of police teams, forensics and their connections with the wider areas of law enforcement. Somehow, I seem to have become hooked. Sworn to Silence gets a four out of five from me.

Series Round-up 1: The Knowledge by Martha Grimes

Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury mysteries seem to have been going forever, and I recently caught up with the latest title, The Knowledge. I wanted to see if Grimes still had the knack with plotting and character that I’ve always enjoyed so much.

The Knowledge gets off to a cracking start – Grimes could probably write a how-to book on first pages that grab the reader. A London taxi-driver drops a beautiful young couple at a select casino, whereupon they are both shot dead. The killer jumps into the cab and tells the cabbie to drive. There’s some exciting stuff with other cabbies and secret signals before the shooter disappears into a train station.

Soon Jury is involved, along with a bunch of street kids who often help the cabbies (chasing down unpaid fares etc.) and one of them follows the shooter to Nairobi. There’s a touch of the Famous Five here. Children are often key witnesses in the Jury novels and Grimes has a knack for making them engaging and quirky. So of course, Jury’s friend and part-time sleuth, Melrose Plant, has to abandon his stately pile and the village of Long Piddleton to head off to Nairobi too. Plant’s job is to find little Patty and bring her back to London. This gives the author the opportunity to weave in a touch of the exotic as well as some background on gemstone mining in Africa. Continue reading “Series Round-up 1: The Knowledge by Martha Grimes”