Midnight at Malabar House, the first in Vaseem Khan’s award-winning historical mystery series, is set in post-partition India in 1949. It follows the investigation into the brutal murder of an English man, James Herriot, at his New Year’s Eve costume ball.
Strong Female Lead
The lead character is the newly appointed female police detective Inspector Persis Wadia who received the call at her midnight shift duty at her basement office in the Malabar House CID. The case becomes politically charged, with Persis determined to find the killer.
Persis comes from the minority Parsis community and had made an inspector in just seven months. Her being a female was scandalous in the India of the day, with many scathing articles appearing in the press. Her seniors regarded the basement of Malabar House CID as a place to keep problematic detectives or those with embarrassing pasts. It was a ragtag group of misfits, but Persis was resolute in her bid to excel.
Persis’s mother died when she was seven under mysterious circumstances that her father refused to reveal, but it formed Persis’s and she learnt to be self-reliant. Vaseem described her stubbornness as bordering on mania. Persis was not interested in marriage despite several attempts by her relatives to marry her off.
I love the way Vaseem takes us through the intricate history of India with exquisite descriptions of things and objects from the era. This story also gives us hints of romance when Persis finds support in the shape of Scotland Yard criminalist Archie Blackfinch. I plan to continue to read the series to see whether romance blooms between them.
Vaseem weaves a lot into this book and it is as much a crime story and a lesson in history. Here is what Persis had to say about history: “History is a harsh judge. It’s no easy task building a nation on the ashes of the dead. The only way to do it is to sweep aside the lies and admit what happened.”
Through the character’s eyes, we see how much blood they shed in the partition of India and the part that the colonial masters played in this.
More in the series
The success of Midnight at Malabar House shows we need more good quality historical fiction from all over the world, especially from colonised worlds where history was written by those in power and not enough from those who were colonised.
What I enjoy most about historical fiction is learning new things in the history of a place or country. For example, that the fingerprint classification system originated from India!
It’s great to have a series that offers a strong female character with a potential love interest and insights into the history of the day while taking you on a merry caper to solve a brutal crime.
I am slowly making my way through crime mysteries set in India.
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