Books

A Mystery in History: Two Suspense Novels with Fabulous, Flawed Female Protagonists

Reviews of 'The Bombay Prince' by Sujata Massey set in pre-Independence India, and 'Small Pleasures' by Clare Chambers set in the suburbs of 1950s London.

It’s satisfying if a suspense novel has a woman in the lead role, seeking answers to mysterious riddles and triumphing in the end. It’s fascinating if the novel is also set in the past and allows you a glimpse of history. And it’s absolutely riveting if the protagonists turn out to be intensely human – with all the flaws and failings that entails.

Two sparkling mystery novels by two stellar writers have recently made it to the news. While Sujata Massey’s The Bombay Prince is the third in her award-winning Perveen Mistry series and is set in pre-Independence Bombay, Clare Chambers has set Small Pleasures in the suburbs of 1950s London.

Besides their historical setting, both books feature protagonists who are eminently relatable: women who make mistakes, lust after the “wrong” men, have career ambitions, and seek the truth despite odds. Read on for our reviews.

THE BOMBAY PRINCE

This is the third in the Perveen Mistry series that has already earned Sujata Massey the Agatha Award for best historical mystery novel (2018) and the Mary Higgins Clark Award for mystery writing (2019). Based in Baltimore, Maryland, US, Sujata is the much-acclaimed author of 14 mystery and suspense fiction novels set in India and Japan, and her latest June 2021 release continues to keep the bar high.

Set in 1921, The Bombay Prince (Penguin Random House India, Rs 499) begins with its protagonist Perveen Mistry, India’s only female lawyer of her time, receiving a visit from a fellow Parsi, a college student called Freny Cuttingmaster, in her office, which Perveen shares with her famous lawyer father.

Unlike most of her community, the 18-year-old Freny is critical of the Prince of Wales’ upcoming visit to Bombay and wants to join other budding freedom fighters in her college in boycotting a college function in the prince’s honour.

When Freny mysteriously dies on the day of the event, Perveen finds herself drawn to find out the truth. In the process, she faces various challenges – personal, professional and political.

Sexism and religious discrimination face her at every turn, and her status as a divorcee doesn’t help matters. The city is also in a state of unrest after the prince’s visit, and Perveen is further preoccupied with an unsuitable suitor, an Englishman whom she cannot afford to be seen with.

Sujata Massey

Given Perveen’s status as a woman born into wealth and high status, the tale takes us through lush homes and plush settings, including the Taj hotel at the Gateway of India. But it also reminds us of the inequality in cities like Bombay, where the terribly rich rub shoulders with the wretchedly poor at every corner.

Though fast-paced, the book allows you to dwell on its sumptuous details. The issue of colonial rule is also handled empathetically – while the author stays on the right side of history, the characters enamoured of the Raj are not turned into villains either.

The novel’s feminism is subversive, presented in a deeply intimate way. Eventually, one comes away from the book as if awakening from a vivid dream, full of dazzling colour, drama and action, feeling as if one has driven through a very important moment in history, and having peered into the heart of an exceptional woman.

SMALL PLEASURES

The 2020 release Small Pleasures (Hachette India, Rs 899) by Clare Chambers has recently made it to the news because it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. The UK author already has nine novels to her credit, one of which was longlisted for the Whitbread best novel prize.

Currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Kent, Clare began her career as a secretary at a small “eccentric” publishing house, and some of those experiences made it into her acclaimed 2007 novel The Editor’s Wife.

Aa few of those experiences have perhaps also crept into Small Pleasures, which is set in Kent and the suburbs of London of the 1950s. The protagonist Jean Swinney is a journalist at a small local newspaper whose own life is so boring and limited – a single woman living with an irascible mom, an unappreciated staffer assigned to all the unimportant sections of the newspaper – that gossipy letters from her sister, who lives with her family in Kenya, appear thrilling in comparison.

It’s no wonder that Jean is excited by the opportunity to investigate a message from a reader who claims her daughter was the result of a ‘virgin birth’, and that there was no man involved in the conception. During the course of the investigation, Jean not only develops affection for both the virgin mother and her 10-year-old daughter, but also – oops – more-than-friendly feelings for the mother’s current husband.

Clare Chambers

A gripping and layered storyline ensues, with the investigation taking Jean across England and meeting new and interesting sorts of people, and her own feelings and past experiences surfacing with every step in the journey.

Her bonds with the Tilbury family are so complex and messy that they are completely realistic. Added to that is Jean’s difficult relationship with her mother and her inability to leave her and move out.

The book also touches on issues like sexism at the workplace that still appear familiar more than half a century later. Jean has learnt to play by the rules in order to survive, but she displays enough streaks of unpredictable strong-headedness to keep the narrative interesting.

With plenty of psychological analysis thrown in between strange secrets and dysfunctional families, the novel is a winner for suspense fiction lovers.

Published in eShe’s July-August 2021 issue

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