Today it is my absolute pleasure to be sharing my thoughts on Midnight at Malabar House, the brand new crime thriller from Vaseem Khan. I’ve loved reading the author’s inspector Chopra series so was excited to see there is a new Inspector in town, this time Persis Wadia, India’s first female Detective. Set in 1949/50, this is a completely new style for the author. Here’s what it’s all about:
About the Book
Bombay, New Year’s Eve, 1949
As India celebrates the arrival of a momentous new decade, Inspector Persis Wadia stands vigil in the basement of Malabar House, home to the city’s most unwanted unit of police officers. Six months after joining the force she remains India’s first female police detective, mistrusted, sidelined and now consigned to the midnight shift.
And so, when the phone rings to report the murder of prominent English diplomat Sir James Herriot, the country’s most sensational case falls into her lap.
As 1950 dawns and India prepares to become the world’s largest republic, Persis, accompanied by Scotland Yard criminalist Archie Blackfinch, finds herself investigating a case that is becoming more political by the second. Navigating a country and society in turmoil, Persis, smart, stubborn and untested in the crucible of male hostility that surrounds her, must find a way to solve the murder – whatever the cost.
For someone like me, whose only real knowledge of Partition came from an episode of Dr Who, this book has been as much a history lesson as it has a thoroughly engaging murder mystery. Set at New Year 1949 into 1950, the story comes at a critical time in the evolution of India, after the atrocities that the division of the country into India and Pakistan created, but whilst India is still finding its feet as a new and soon to be self ruling nation. Working the night shift on New Years Eve, Inspector Persis Wadia receives a call summoning her to home of Sir James Herriot, whose aide has discovered his employer has been murdered. Given the circumstances. the prominence of the victim and the country’s desire to start the next chapter of their existence, the pressure is on Wadia and the team of so-called ‘misfits’ at Malabar House to solve the case quickly.
As india’s first, and only, female Detective, the stakes for Wadia are high and yet expectations low. If she succeeds, all well and good. If she fails then it will simply be written off as a failure by an team who have already been sidelined within the police force as a bunch of incompetents and curios. But Vaseem Kahn’s latest protagonist, Persis Wadia, is not so easily written off. Whilst many around her believe that she is only there until an offer of marriage comes along and she can return to her proper role in life, she has very clearly got other ideas. She is a truly superb character – principled, determined, tenacious and not one to let things drop no matter what pressure comes to bear from the powers that be, and there is much pressure handed down with regards to the investigation. Wadia has great instincts and although battling the expectations of a very patriarchal society and the cultural norms of India, will not be swayed. She is led by her beliefs and her innate sense of justice rather than logic or science pushing on with her investigation when those around her believe the case is already closed. She is not necessarily the most open of characters, clearly struggling with expressing her emotions or reading those of the people around her, but. I did grow to like her very quickly, and I am looking forward to seeing her develops as the series progresses. She is one very canny and capable cat within a flock of misogynistic and complacent pigeons. It could be a lot of fun.
Almost in direct contrast to Wadia’s instinct driven character we have Archie Blackfinch, a British Criminalist who is working with the Indian Police force to help them develop their forensic skills. He is quintessentially British, but also a scientist to the last, and where Wadia just knows something is wrong, Blackfinch is led very much by the evidence. That said, despite his being quite a measured character, he has the capacity to surprise you, and the chemistry between him and Wadia, as mismatched as they are, has been beautifully developed. She leads, he follows, although his trust in Wadia does put him in danger on more than one occasion. It really is fun to watch the clinician being led astray by the eager Inspector.
The backstory to this murder mystery is carefully crafted, the clues well hidden and the list of suspects long. It is a really thought provoking story, reminding readers of the real history of India, beyond the contrasts of the poverty and excess of the country we know today. This is the beginning of modern India’s journey, where the imprint of Colonial rule is hard to wash away, and where politics and religion have literally divided a nation. It serves as a stark reminder of the brutality of Partition, of the senseless loss of life that occured due to a difference of faith. The balance between needing to provide the history of India and the current investigation is handled perfectly, neither over working nor over simplifying the horror of what happened, but laying the foundation for the story and the future of the series. There is a real sense of place that develops throughout the story and I was left with a strong impression of the setting and the characters as I read, drawing me even more into the narrative.
There is a kind of Christie-esque vibe to the whole piece, particularly in the reveal of the killer towards the end, wonderfully scripted and with all the key suspects playing their part. It is a brilliant blend of historical thriller and police procedural with a less than typical protagonist that I am really looking forward to seeing develop. Definitely recommended.
About the Author
Vaseem Khan first saw an elephant lumbering down the middle of the road in 1997 when he arrived in India to work as a management consultant. It was the most unusual thing he had ever encountered and served as the inspiration behind his series of crime novels. He returned to the UK in 2006 and now works at University College London for the Department of Security and Crime Science where he is astonished on a daily basis by the way modern science is being employed to tackle crime. Elephants are third on his list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, not always in that order.