An 1890 photo of Bombay, originally published in ‘A Photographic Trip Around the World’. Nev March’s debut crime fiction is set in Bombay in 1892. (Image via Wikimedia Commons; image cropped)
According to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau last year, Mumbai ranks third after New Delhi and Chennai in terms of the number of crimes committed. There were 60,823 cases reported in the city, with the figures for Delhi and Chennai being 311,092 and 71,949, respectively.
When it comes to Indian cities in crime fiction, my guess is that Mumbai would comfortably top the list. The presence of Bollywood, the romanticised exploits of the underworld, and a unique confluence of cultures have a lot to do with it.
Two new crime novels in English continue the tradition, by writers who have spent much time in the city but are now based overseas. (Gone are the days of Inspector Ghote, whose exploits H.R.F. Keating first wrote about without ever having stepped foot in Mumbai.)
Both books deal with times past. Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March is set in 1892, and Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan takes place in 1950. While adhering to the tenets of crime fiction, they also show how historical events can bleed into individual lives even years later: from the 1857 uprising and Jallianwala Bagh, to Independence and Partition. They take pains to spell out the contexts, clearly with an eye on readers unfamiliar with India.
Murder in Old Bombay is March’s debut novel, and the winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America Award for Best First Crime Fiction. Her starting point is immediately intriguing: it is based on an actual incident of 1891 in which two young Parsi women fell to their deaths from the city’s Rajabai Clock Tower.
These were the wife and sister of Ardeshir Godrej, the man who later went on to found Godrej Brothers. The main suspect was let off because of insufficient evidence and, after several ups and downs, the police finally concluded that it was a case of accident or suicide.
March’s plot makes use of real-life elements such as the behaviour of the main accused and some of the others at the scene. A letter written by Ardeshir Godrej to the Times of India also features, which claimed that there was no reason for the women to have committed suicide.
Her investigating hero is Jim Agnihotri, an Anglo-Indian army captain whose favourite fictional character is Sherlock Holmes. When recuperating after a bloody clash at the Frontier, he reads about the clock tower case and decides to solve the mystery. He is soon employed by the fictional solicitor Adi Framji to investigate the deaths in his family.
So far, so appealing. There’s the expected local colour, with visits to the clock tower, tracking down suspects in city alleyways, a brief trip to Matheran, and the occasional Victoria ride. (“We swung right at Teen-batti and climbed toward Hanging Gardens, where polite society took their evening constitutionals.”) Much is spelt out, from the role of princely states to the position of the Parsi community to “fried dumplings called pakoras”.
The captain’s methods are hardly Holmesian, though he does have a way with disguises. His first-person account of trying to fit in and to piece together the puzzle has an endearing air, including his feelings for another one of Adi’s sisters who wants to be his Watson.
Halfway through, Murder in Old Bombay takes a mighty swerve. The protagonist is sent on a mission to Lahore, and then to relieve a siege at Pathankot, in the midst of which he travels on foot down the Grand Trunk Road with a band of intrepid urchins for company.
These Kiplingesque shenanigans push the murder mystery well into the background. The threads are picked up again and loose ends tied up, although by then it’s hard to shake the feeling that, as they say, inside this novel is a slimmer one struggling to get out.
Vaseem Khan’s Midnight at Malabar House is more streamlined. Khan has earlier written about Mumbai crimes in his Baby Ganesh series; this novel, shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger Award, is the start of a new sequence. It also features a Parsi, the dogged Persis Wadia, India’s first female police detective. (Shades of novels by Sujata Massey featuring Bombay’s first female lawyer, Perveen Mistry.)
Midnight at Malabar House starts with a phone call to a police station on the last night of 1949. The city, and the country, is in the throes of post-Independence change and celebration, “struggling to redefine itself against a background of continuing social and political unrest”. Wadia, however, is at hand to take the call because “frivolity was alien to her nature”.
It turns out that a certain Sir James Herriot has been found dead in his house on Marine Drive following his annual New Year’s Eve Ball. Wadia’s enquiries reveal that Sir James was among those asked to stay on in India to investigate cases of Partition violence. She continues to investigate, battling those within the police force who envy her gumption, as well as influential suspects who would rather keep secrets concealed.
Khan lets himself go a bit when it comes to naming his characters. James Herriot apart, there’s an inspector named George Fernandes, and others mentioned in passing are Claude Derrida, John Galt, Tiger Shroff, and Eve Gatsby, daughter of American industrialist Truman Gatsby. As for the representative of London’s Metropolitan Police who aids Wadia, he’s called Archimedes Blackfinch. (There’s a Dr Aziz here, as well as in March’s novel. Only connect.)
Revelations are interspersed with details of Wadia’s home life and relationship with her bookshop-owning father. There are assignations at city landmarks such as VT Station, Haji Ali and Britannia at Ballard Estate, and a running commentary on a new India where “Nehru’s socialist ideals collided spectacularly with a society that, for millennia, had been marked by deep divisions and the rule of kings and conquerors”.
A dance-floor tangle and the later appearance of a camel in a bookshop show that at times, Khan can veer towards unnecessary burlesque. At other moments, he captures with relish his heroine’s “constant battle to prove her worth in a world dominated by those who thought in a way that was beyond her”.
After a visit to Punjab which brings to light an earlier incident of arson with a direct bearing on the case, it turns out that the heart of the matter is “not nationalism, not infidelity, but simple human greed”. This brings us back to why the city is such a favourite with crime writers. As Altaf Tyrewala says in the introduction to his 2012 anthology Mumbai Noir: “History has shown that in its unabashed pursuit of profit, Mumbai can also be deaf to considerations of ethics and morality.”