This charming novel is the righteous winner of the Minotaur/MWA First Crime novel prize. Set in 1892 Bombay during the British Raj, this novel focuses on Captain Jim Agnihotri, who has left the military after a long stint in the hospital. The book has an excellent opening line: “I turned thirty in hospital…with little to read but newspapers.”
In said newspapers, Captain Jim reads the story of two Parsee women who plunged to their deaths from a University clock tower. One was a young bride, one, her younger sister in law. When Jim reads a plea in letter form in the newspaper from the young widower, he is sure that the details of the crime don’t add up. The husband pleads that this was not a suicide but the recently concluded trial leaves this stain and uncertainty on the family.
Jim is also a recent devotee of Sherlock Holmes, and feels his hero could have solved this crime with a more thorough vetting of both clues and circumstance. Thus resolved, when he is released from the hospital, he acquires a job at the newspaper, with his first assignment to interview the bereaved Framji family. He is quickly hired by the Framjis as their own investigator into the crime, and ultimately almost adopted by these loving, grieving people. Complication: he falls, in a big way, for the Framji daughter, Diana, recently returned from boarding school in England.
This has a very traditional set up – obviously, it’s based on Sherlock Holmes – but for this talented writer, Holmes is more of a jumping off point for a beautifully told, exciting, adventure/romance with a well crafted mystery at its center. The author also fleshes out the personalities of the two dead women and makes clear the hole they’ve left behind in their family.
Jim is suffering from what we now would call PTSD and it informs his character. He’s a perfect mystery insider/outsider: he’s half English, half Indian (which prevents his entry into high society in some cases, as well as further advancement in the military) and he’s also torn, as he was in the British Army and has contacts and friends within it. Indian nationalism was taking hold as a movement in 1892 and that’s also a conundrum for Jim.
Because he’s not Parsee, because of the class difference between himself and the Framjis – who live a life of privilege – and because of some of his rougher experiences, as both a boxer and a soldier, he is set apart from the people and places he’s investigating. In many ways, this gives him an edge. He sees events, and people, with fresh eyes.
He dons disguises, takes a special and dangerous army commission, rides horses and travels the rails over India and as he does so, the author truly illuminates the time and place she’s writing about. As inevitable romance blossoms between Jim and Diana, as I read, I had thought the author was a man, but I was puzzled. Some of the scenes are Lauren Willig level romantic, and when I finished, I discovered that this was in fact written by a woman.
There are several things I truly loved about this wonderful book. I loved the unapologetic plunge into time and place. I loved the truly clever, slowly unfolding mystery. In deference to Holmes there are some excellent disguises on Jim’s part as well as some very tiny clues – like a bead – that turn out to be relevant. And I loved the characters of both Jim and Diana. Jim is actually much more deeply conventional than she is, and their discovery of one another is fascinating. I absolutely cannot wait for book two.