Source: Review copy
Publication: 18 August 2022 from Hodder & Stoughton
My thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for an advance copy for review
When the body of a white man is found frozen in the Himalayan foothills near Dehra Dun, he is christened the Ice Man by the national media. Who is he? How long has he been there? Why was he killed?
As Inspector Persis Wadia and Metropolitan Police criminalist Archie Blackfinch investigate the case in Bombay, they uncover a trail left behind by the enigmatic Ice Man – a trail leading directly into the dark heart of conspiracy.
Meanwhile, two new murders grip the city. Is there a serial killer on the loose, targeting Europeans?
I have become a massive fan of this series, set in India just a few years after partition. Our protagonist is Persis Wadia a Police Inspector based in Malabar House, Bombay. Malabar House is to the Bombay Police what Slough House is to M15, a place where the disgraced, idle or politically unwanted are sent to serve and where the politically difficult or sensitive cases are sent so as not to ruin the careers of rising Indian Police Officers in other stations. None of this is really applicable to Persis. Her crime is to be a woman – and a woman with brains, and an independent train of thought into the bargain.
Already somewhat notorious for having solved a difficult crime, Persis likes her job, though she faces discrimination from her male colleagues on a daily basis. The time is an unsettling one in Bombay as everyone comes to terms with post-colonial rule and the impact of partition.
Added to the day to day struggles of being a bright woman in a fairly dull man’s Police station, Persis has some personal stuff on her mind. She can’t help the attraction she feels to a colleague, Archie Blackfinch, a British man and Metropolitan Police Criminalist, but Indian society is not yet ready for such a relationship and Persis fears that even if it were, the job she loves would be put in jeopardy by such a relationship.
Then there’s her father, Sam. In a wheelchair since the car accident that killed her mother, Sam has been her rock, running a fabulous bookshop and looking after Persis. Now he has other interests in his life and Persis cannot help but feel abandoned by the only parent she has.
The first case that crosses Persis’ desk is the discovery of the long dead body of a white man in a Himalayan mountain cave. Dubbed ‘The Ice Man’ his frozen body is discovered by a couple of climbers, but there is nothing on his body to indicate who he might be or where he came from. All that is found is a notebook with just one word. Just being white, though, is enough for pressure to be exerted to find out who he was and what happened to him.
As if that were not enough, Persis is asked by her boss, Superintendent of Police, Roshan Seth, to work with her colleague, the unpleasant bullying sexist, Hemant Oberoi on the case of a well-known couple who have been found dead in their bed at home.
Stephen Renzi, an Italian has been beaten to death, and Leela Sinha, his wife has her throat slit. Not too long afterwards, another body is found, killed in the same way as Renzi, and Persis feels the two deaths are connected. Hemant Oberoi though is having none of it. He has his eye on the guilty party and he’ll make sure he gets a confession.
Vaseem Khan weaves a brilliant interconnected series of mysteries and like peeling back an onion, the reader enjoys each and every clue that Persis uncovers on her (and our) way to enlightenment. As she painstakingly follows the clues her skills and persistence, teamed with more than a dollop of bravery and occasional recklessness, bear fruit.
The Lost Man of Bombay is a brilliant mystery and I loved trying to crack the code that ties each of these murders together. Persis is such a great character, too. That fierce independence and cleverness teamed with a real sense that she can’t afford to show her softer side less she be taken advantage of leads the reader only to love her more. You don’t know what’s in store for her and Archie, but your heart goes out to both of them as it’s clear Archie would do anything for Persis.
You should read this series for its brilliant characters and great mysteries, but what really makes this series sing is its atmospheric setting with all it conveys about the times. The dawn of Independence in India, the rituals and the very real significance of religion, even to those who have little observance is demonstrated so well, as is the slowly burgeoning role of women in society as championed by Persis. Indeed, in this book we see a glimpse of what she may have trail-blazed as she is asked to take on a young mentee. Seema Desai is part of the Bombay Slum Rehabilitation Programme and she has specifically requested that Persis be her mentor, a role that Persis herself feels ill-equipped to deliver.
Verdict: Historical fiction doesn’t get much better than this. It is engrossing, entertaining, with vivid, atmospheric settings and rich in detail. The mysteries are terrific puzzles to solve and the characters are ones that you take to your heart. All in all the Malabar House series is one of the best crime series around and if you haven’t, you should begin reading it now. (It is also exceptionally good in audiobook).
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Vaseem Khan is the author of two crime series set in India, the Baby Ganesh Agency series set in modern Mumbai, and the Malabar House historical crime novels set in 1950s Bombay. His first book, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was a Times bestseller, now translated into 15 languages. The second in the series won the Shamus Award in the US. In 2018, he was awarded the Eastern Eye Arts, Culture and Theatre Award for Literature. Vaseem was born in England, but spent a decade working in India. Midnight at Malabar House, the first in his historical crime series, won the CWA Historical Dagger 2021, the pre-eminent prize for historical crime fiction in the world. His latest book is The Dying Day about the theft of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600 year old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society.