REVIEW

Sujata Massey leads a new era of crime writing in India

  • The Satapur Moonstone, by Sujata Massey. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.

Nordic noir - some know it as "Scandi noir", has been all the rage in books and on television in recent years. Well, get cracking, writers in the frozen, bleak North. The heat, chaos, confusion and richness of India has given rise to a new arena of crime writing, and Sajata Massey emerges as one of the very best.

I first read in this genre when Brian Stoddart, an exemplary academic historian, turned to crime - well, writing about crime - and gave us the irrepressible Superintendent Le Fanu and the remarkable world of the post-great-war Madras. A friend gave me the first three of Abir Mukherjee's wonderful novels. Featuring Captain Sam Wyndham, clever and problematic, and set in Calcutta in the early 1920s, Wyndham is joined by a totally loyal and reliable Indian constable, Sergeant Banerjee, giving a necessary Indian perspective. My friend followed this up by giving me Vaseem Khan's Inspector Chopra, starring, there is no other word, the remarkable and clever baby elephant Ganesha.

Along comes Sajata Massey. The only experienced novelist of the four (Mukherjee is an accountant and Khan another academic) Massey has created the best gumshoe of them all - the utterly wonderful Perveen Mistry, the first and only female lawyer in Bombay in the 1920s. If you want to learn something of Indian social customs, way of life, religions and the impact of British rule, let Perveen Mistry be your guide.

There are two books so far in which Perveen is the hero but many more are to come, I suspect. I have read the first two, A Murder at Malabar Hill and the book under review. You don't need to read the first to make sense of the second, but why not read both; after all, many of us have plenty of time for reading.

Set in the imaginary princely state of Saturpur in western India but in the very real Kolhapur Agency, the state was ruled by a Maharaja but kept in check by a British political agent. Saturpur is tiny, remote, dangerous and backward, without electricity or running water, or even decent roads around the state. The Maharaja is 10 years old, having lost his father and older brother in tragic circumstances, and obviously he is too young to be able to rule. The British political agent, Colin Sandringham, is the Maharaja's guardian, under the rules of the British presence.

The Maharaja's mother and his grandmother, Maharani's both, obviously, are in purdah in the palace, through their own choice and have rejected seeing Sandringham face to face. The British call in Perveen Mistry, who should be able to enter the palaces, to help negotiate a dispute about the best education that the Maharaja should receive. The Maharanis detest one another, but must live in close proximity. There are two rival courts.

This may seem complicated but it is not. Unlike most other crime novels the murder is not at the beginning of the novel but, instead, creeps up on the reader. Sujata Massey depends on a great deal of research and gives an intimate picture of the small, but believable, world she creates.

Danger lurks in the palaces and death stalks its corridors and while the reader knows this and fears it, yet it is so hidden as perhaps not to exist. What is reality and what is in the fevered mind of the second Maharani and the determined Bombay lawyer?

The climax is superb, thrilling even, which I must not reveal, and evil is revealed in horrifying form. Perveen Mistry is exceptional. Bright, brilliantly aware of social nuances and Indian complexity and always, in both novels, at personal risk herself. She must not come to a sticky end for a long time yet, because readers will wish to follow her through many more books. In pressing on they will learn so much about India. And have so much enjoyment.

This story Indian noir the new era of crime writing first appeared on The Canberra Times.