The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

Perveen Mistry is a lawyer – in fact, she is the first and so far the only female lawyer in Bombay – and in The Satapur Moonstone she is called on to resolve a dispute over the education of a young crown prince.  The prince’s father and older brother have died in mysterious circumstances leaving the ten-year-old prince as the heir to the crown.  His mother and grandmother are in conflict over his education – palace tutoring or a public school in England?

Set in 1922 in the time of the British Raj, the novel not only tells the story of how Perveen Mistry resolves the issue – and uncovers and solves a conspiracy for murder as well – but offers an intriguing glimpse into life for Indian women in the 1920s.

The fictitious kingdom of Satapur is located in the Sahyadri Mountains southeast of Bombay and, as the crown prince is not yet of age, is ruled by an English agent Colin Sandringham.  Perveen Mistry is working with her father in his law firm in Bombay.  As this is the time when Indian women of class live their lives in purdah and are not able have contact with men outside their families, no male could be called in to resolve the palace conflict.  Consequently, Perveen is asked to intervene.  Perveen is married and estranged from her husband but cannot obtain a divorce as the abuse she suffered was not sufficiently serious.  Thus, an interesting dynamic is set up.  Perveen travels alone but must be conscious of her social obligations in terms of contact with males – especially English males. 

However, her awareness of propriety does not preclude her from being attracted to Colin.  On one occasion, she inadvertently comes across him exercising and instead of leaving as she should have, ‘she stayed because she wanted to fill her eyes with the sight of Colin’ [43].  Nothing comes of it but, as this book is only the second in a planned series, perhaps there will be further opportunities at another time.

But the heart of the novel is the deconstruction of the relationships within the palace – between the prince’s mother and his grandmother, between the attendants who are as factionalised as any political party – and between the Indian people and their English rulers.  This is done very well and the novel offers genuine insight into life in purdah and the strictures on all palace inhabitants and their interactions with each other.  To add verisimilitude, there are a number of Indian words and expressions used – and helpfully, a glossary is provided at the end of the book.  It is though, just a little confusing on occasions when the royal family’s titles, formal names and family names are used interchangeably.  For example, the prince is variously known as the maharaja, Prince Jiva Rao or simply Prince, and sometimes simply Jiva Rao.  However, this is a minor quibble and close attention in the early stages of the book will easily avoid any confusion.

The story unfolds in a gentle and well-paced manner.  The plotting of the novel is meticulous and it flows easily without any loss of tension.  Previous novels by the author have won or been finalists in competitions such as the Agatha award and the Mary Higgins Clark prizes.  It is understandable that this is the case as this novel has the gentleness of an Agatha Christie novel but with an iron fist in the velvet glove.  The insights into life in the time of the British Raj are a bonus and do not in any way distract from the key narrative. 

It is an enjoyable read and will appeal to all those who like mysteries without the confronting detail offered by some modern thriller writers.

Sujata Massey was born in England to parents from India and Germany.  She lives in Baltimore in the United States and was a features reporter before becoming a full-time novelist.  Author of fourteen novels, she sets her mystery novels in pre-independence India and has written a series set in modern Japan.

The Satapur Moonstone

[2020]

by Sujata Massey

Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 1 76052 942 0

349pp; $29.99

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