SUJATA MASSEY
Mystery Scene|Summer #168 2021
Sometimes, an idea needs time to incubate until it’s ready to grow. That was the case with Sujata Massey’s series about Perveen Mistry, a woman attorney practicing in India during the 1920s.
Oline H. Cogdill

Back in 2007, Massey, who is of Indian descent, was researching her standalone novel The Sleeping Dictionary, which explored the maturation of a young woman in 1930s Bengal. That’s when she came across an article about Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to study law at the University of Oxford and the first female attorney in India, where she began her practice in the 1890s.

“Sorabji wasn’t just the first woman attorney in India, she was the first woman solicitor in the whole British empire,” says Massey, 56, speaking from the Baltimore home she shares with her husband of 30 years, Tony, and their two dogs. Their two children are now in college.

“I thought she sounded like such an interesting person and thought someday, someday, I would like to refer to her in some way, in some book.”

Massey did what many authors often do. She printed out the newspaper story and put it in a folder with other articles, such as one on India’s first female doctor and another on the fashions of time. “I have all these folders. It’s my method of keeping track of details when I’m entering a new world. And for me, then, historical India was a new world I had never written about,” says Massey, the author of 15 novels to date.

About 10 years later, Massey was talking with her agent and an editor at Soho about a possible series set in India when the proverbial lightbulb went off and she remembered the Sorabaji article.

And fact eventually worked its way into fiction.

Massey launched the Perveen Mistry series in 2018 with The Widows of Malabar Hill, which won the Mary Higgins Clark Award, the Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel, Left Coast Crime’s Bruce Alexander Memorial Award for Best Historical Mystery, and the Macavity’s Sue Feder Memorial Award for Best Historical Mystery. The Widows of Malabar Hill also was selected for Publisher’s Weekly Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2018 and was an Amazon Best Book of 2018. The second Perveen Mistry novel, The Satapur Moonstone, won the Bruce Alexander Memorial Award and was a finalist for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award and the Harper Lee Legal Fiction Prize. The Bombay Prince, the third in the series, has just been published.

When she began to shape her first Perveen novel, Massey knew immediately that plots revolving around an attorney were tailormade for crime fiction. “These novels had to be historically anchored but also have a good reason for Perveen to return to crime scenes. At the time, [society] didn’t want women to be unsafe or get too close to crime. So, a law career was the only way,” says Massey, who said she also used as inspiration the life of Mithan Tata Lam, who was the first woman admitted to the Bombay Bar in 1923.

The career choice also helped Massey develop Perveen. “I felt the more I stuck to the real lives of the two women attorneys, the more comfortable I would be in shaping the stories.”

While the laws of the time and Perveen’s work are paramount to the stories, the novels are not legal thrillers. Instead, Massey uses the novels to explore the era’s culture, women’s roles, and politics.

The progressiveness of India having the first female lawyers was sure to raise many readers’ questions—including how realistic it was. Massey addressed this in the foreword of The Widows of Malabar Hill.

“Readers have been surprised but very happy as the novels reveal a diverse portrait of India,” says Massey. “When I first approached this series, several readers reached out, saying they didn’t like the ideas because they were afraid the book would be really sad. And the series is not sad.

“So much literary fiction about India concentrates on the poverty or social injustice commentary that people have a kind of Slumdog Millionaire opinion of India. Or they have a very traditional idea of it, from an English perspective like E.M. Forster,” who wrote A Passage to India.

“Mystery is an exciting way to write about a country,” says Massey. “The protagonist moves through a different milieu in each book, through various types of households, showing what life is like for the working class, not just the elite. The novels are showing the city of Bombay like the city of New York, where there are many different kinds of people. There’s also a capacity for a lot of different stories and endings, for happy endings, for sad ones.”

And publishing seems to have discovered India. Massey is thrilled to see other Indian authors and authors of Indian heritage being published, and receiving positive reviews and awards. The 2021 MWA Edgar Awards certainly reflect that with Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line nominated for best novel and Nev March’s Murder in Old Bombay nominated for best first novel by an American author. In addition, Khurrum Rahman, a British Muslim whose crime novel feature South Asian characters set in London, has his East of Hounslow up for the 2021 Edgar best paperback original. Britain’s Abir Mukherjee has been up for several awards, including A Rising Man, which was nominated for a 2018 Edgar for best novel and received the CWA Historical Dagger; and Smoke and Ashes, nominated for a 2020 Edgar for best novel and the 2019 CWA Gold Dagger.

“Finally, a historical place and period are being examined from an inside perspective— not from a colonial perspective. It’s a whole interchange. It’s exciting to see all kinds of voices getting attention. I hadn’t expected that. For myself, as a younger writer in the 1990s, international mysteries were mostly European stories. It’s so incredibly wide now. It makes me so happy to a part of this genre,” Massey says.

She believes this uptick in India-based novels reflects America’s connection to India. “India is very important in US life. Indians are so much more visible than when my family came here in the late 1960s. Then, you would never see us on TV or in commercials or movies. Now they see Indians all the time, they eat Indian food. We are a known culture.”.

One of Massey’s first authorial decisions was to make Perveen a member of one of India’s minority communities. Perveen was born into a Zoroastrian family of Parsis, Persians who fled religious persecution under Muslim rule and emigrated to India as early as the 8th century. The first two of India’s women lawyers were of Parsi descent. “Parsis were the earliest group to encourage women to work—they saw value in women being educated. They were pioneers,” Massey says.

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