The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey

Reviewed by Rod McLary

In November 1921, Edward Prince of Wales [later to briefly reign as King Edward VIII] visited parts of India including Bombay where this story is set.  Before the visit, in July 1921, the Indian National Congress [INC] decided to boycott the visit as part of the Non-Cooperation Movement.  The INC was a major player in the Indian struggle for freedom and Mahatma Gandhi was an important figure in the struggle.  At the same time, there was widespread unrest among the students in colleges and universities.

It is against this backdrop that The Bombay Prince is set – the title is an oblique reference to the Prince of Wales.  The author has said that she was ‘compelled to write this novel’ because of the wealth of material she discovered about the Prince’s visit to India.  She also wanted to write another novel with ‘some favourite characters’ from her earlier books.

The civil unrest created in Bombay by the Prince of Wales’s visit runs as a motif through the story with all the key players being touched in some way by the violence of the protesters and the consequent fear of personal assault and property damage.  However, the author never allows the trajectory of the plot to be overtaken or subsumed by the context in which the story takes place.

Freny Cuttingmaster [her father is a master tailor] – an eighteen-year-old student at Woodburn College – falls to her death from a second-floor college balcony just as the prince’s procession passes by the college.  Freny had consulted with Perveen Mistry only a few days previously regarding what action the college could take against students should they decide to boycott the procession contrary to the wishes of the college.  Is there a connection? Was her death accidental, a suicide or murder?

Perveen was the first, and so far is the only, female lawyer in Bombay and is in partnership with her father.  Readers of Sujata Massey’s earlier novels A Murder at Malabar Hill and The Satapur Moonstone would know that, as well as being a lawyer, Perveen is also a skilled sleuth.  By having been consulted by Freny, and later – with her friend Alice Hobson-Jones – having discovered Freny’s body, Perveen has the perfect opportunity to ensure that justice is done.

However, being a woman in early twentieth-century India is a major obstacle to Perveen’s uncovering of the truth.  Readers with twenty-first century sensitivities regarding the role of women in society and the importance of common courtesy may be astounded at the misogyny and dismissive responses faced by Perveen as she investigates the fate of Freny.  Her status as a lawyer seems to count for very little in some quarters in Bombay.

The status of women and the constraints placed on their association with men is the second motif.  The young women at Freny’s college are segregated from the young men to the extent that all the young women in the classroom are crowded onto one bench while the men are spread across all the other benches.  Even Perveen – a professional woman – for propriety’s sake cannot be seen alone in the company of a male especially if the male is an Englishman.

Although frustrated at nearly every turn, Perveen perseveres in her sleuthing and uses her skills and professional contacts to their best advantage to gather information which will assist in the resolution of this heinous crime.  Along the way, the Englishman in question – Colin Sandringham – makes an appearance.  Readers of the previous Perveen Mistry books will recall that Perveen and Colin first met in The Satapur Moonstone; and, in The Bombay Prince, their friendship is renewed – and further advanced.  Taking advantage of a single non-working streetlight, they find an opportunity to be alone and unseen for a few minutes to share an intimate moment or two.  There is more yet to come in this secondary plot!

Perveen Mistry is an engaging character – she is intelligent, clever and personable and will appeal to readers of those crime mysteries which rely on subtlety and elegance of language to tell their stories.  The motifs of civil unrest and the place of women in Indian society provide a depth to the novel but without overcoming the trajectory of the plot and the nuances of Perveen’s friendships and family relations.

The Bombay Prince is a thoroughly enjoyable read with sufficient mystery and tension to satisfy any lover of the crime and mystery sub-genre exemplified by Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh through to Phryne Fisher.

Sujata Massey was a features reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun before becoming a full-time novelist.  Her novels have won the Agatha, Shamus and Macavity awards and been the Edgar, Anthony, Harper Lee Legal Fiction and Mary Higgins Clark prizes.

The Bombay Prince

[2021]

by Sujata Massey

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 17610 6524 8

$32.99; 360pp

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