Fiction

A crackling mystery with loads of history

Ranjana Sundaresan | Updated on November 03, 2021

Vaseem Khan’s Midnight at Malabar House has scrumptious crumbs of trivia scattered through the book leading curious readers on lovely side tours

About the Book

Midnight at Malabar House

Vaseem Khan

Hodder & Stoughton

325 pages; Rs 499

Check out the book on Amazon

Buckle up, folks, this is going to be a long ride. When I first started reading Vaseem Khan’s Midnight at Malabar House, I honestly thought I’d finish it quickly. It’s an easy read, well-written, and rather engaging. The engaging bit turned out to be the problem.

But I get ahead of myself.

First,the premise: It’s the eve of 1950 in Mumbai and Independent India is on the cusp of becoming a republic. A British poohbah, Sir James Herriot, gets himself murdered in his own study amidst revelling at his New Year’s bash.

The on-duty officer at Malabar House police station, Inspector Persis Wadia, gets the call and is eventually made lead for the case. The basic story is a standard police procedural, with Persis whittling down the suspect pool and revealing all manner of juicy, unsavoury secrets along the way. There are a number of promising suspects: Madan Lal, Sir James’ business partner Robert Campbell, Campbell’s daughter Elizabeth, the housekeeper, the factotum, a shady jeweller, some rich American lady, a night club owner, and a few others. 

At the crime scene, she also meets Archimedes (Archie) Blackfinch, a criminologist from Scotland Yard, invited to help in the case, by Madan Lal, Sir James’ aide. Persis finds out that Sir James was involved in some hush-hush work for the Indian government that involved solving war crimes that happened during Partition, and this may have had something to do with him ending up dead.

***

As I said before, this is a very engaging book. If you’re anything like me (i.e., intensely curious), you’ll find yourself sharpening your fact-checking capabilities (a.k.a. Googling skills). I really did take the scenic route to the end of this book, surfing this and that. Starting with the lead character.

Persis, as India’s first female police detective, is the subject of much discussion at the time regarding the suitability of having a woman in such a position. In reality, turns out, there have been female cops before Kiran Bedi (she was the first to join the officer ranks). The Indian Police allowed women to join its ranks in the 1930s, but their responsibilities were few and ranks were low. This little side trip led to some interesting studies on the state of women in the police force today (shockingly low numbers for the 21 century) and why there should more of them (better at diffusing situations with communication instead of violence). The finding that excited me most was a 2017 tweet from the Mumbai Police mentioning Shanti Parwani, the first lady sub-inspector of Mumbai Police.

 

There are a lot of scrumptious crumbs of trivia scattered throughout the book, which took me on some other enjoyable detours. I have no regrets about this, except maybe for missing a few deadlines on delivering this…

The one that absolutely blew me away was the bit on the Henry Classification System used for fingerprint classification during investigations. It was developed in British India in the 19 century and is the basis for modern-day biometrics. It’s named after Sir Edward Henry, a former Inspector-General of Police of Bengal. It was, in fact, two Indians who were responsible for developing the system, as Khan alludes to. A little digging around and you’ll find their names – HemChandra Bose and Qazi Azizul Haque, who have received some recognition, though the system continues to be named after Henry alone(worth a fictionalised docu-series, methinks).

There were also a few details that just took me into weird little rabbit holes. The one I spent an inordinate amount of time on was this innocent sentence that was basically just passing scenery: “Balustraded balconies fronted some of the windows, and here and there the ugly rear-ends of air conditioners overhung the street.” This is a very common sight today,but I couldn’t get over the reference to air cons and had to absolutely know if air conditioners even existed then.

I now know quite a bit about the history of air conditioning and HVAC systems (do your own research to find out), but not whether these units overhung the streets of Mumbai in 1950 (still looking for that answer).

There’s a fair bit about Mumbai and what it would have been like in those days, which is quite delightful too. There’s actually so much history to delve into, I stopped looking up every minor detail after a point.

***

When we first meet Persis, she’s been assigned to Malabar House, which is also where other unwanted cops have been relegated to as punishment for some transgression or other.

Plenty is said about the misogyny Persis had to face during her police training and as a police officer, from her colleagues as well as from the people she interacts with. But to be honest, other than minor things, most of the other characters treated her really decently, for what would be expected of the time.

In some cases, there wasn’t even curiosity about the first female cop in the country, which is a little hard to believe. In fact, female leads in novels in contemporary settings have had to face more severe issues with misogyny that most women would agree happens with alarming frequency even today.

Persis herself is a bit of a pain in the rear end and a buzzkill. She’s smart, but has a massive chip on her shoulder and is belligerent and ungracious even when people are being friendly and cooperative. She has the vibe of an 80s teen drama protagonist (the I’m-not-like-other-girls trope) with the motivation of a DC superhero (dead parent). It’s quite exasperating at times.

I’m not saying she didn’t have it tough, but she did come from quite a bit of privilege too – not poor, good schooling, liberal-ish father. To Khan’s credit, he does acknowledge her more annoying traits with other characters telling her to essentially grow up.

There’s plenty of personal drama for Persis –with the father, with her aunt and cousin, with her colleagues at Malabar House, even an ex-lover. I would really like to see more of the dynamics of her workplace relationships and how she navigates those in future books (yep, this is part of a series).

The one dynamic that was extremely out of place and probably unnecessary – at least this early into the series – is this sort-of weird contrived romance thing between Persis and Archie. It’s been shoehorned in and there’s no real chemistry there. It doesn’t make sense.

Some things just lead nowhere. For example, Archie is said to have an irritating habit of belabouring his points. He did it once and it never really appears again. He blabbers a bit when he’s nervous, but then who doesn’t?

There’s a fair amount of pandering to a Western audience, I felt. Lots of references to corruption in government, tardiness, lack of safety, cowson the road – the usual stereotypes that people associate with India today. The one that made me roll my eyes was about how at one point Persis didn’t realise there was a cow nearby till she smelt it. You always know where cows are – they are great big hulking masses, not easily missed. Also, how can a police officer have such little awareness of her surroundings?

A final grouse though – serious spoiler alert here, skip para – the tagline on the book’s cover is nothing short of clickbait (“Murder can divide a nation”). It doesn’t deliver on the promise of some serious political intrigue.

A lot of these negative points are just nit-picking at my end. Honestly, I can’t wait for the next Persis book to come out and explore more of 1950s Mumbai. And I’m sufficiently impressed by Khan’s writing that I’ve already got myself his previous set of books, the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series.

(Ranjana Sundaresan is an F& B analyst and a bookworm, particularly addicted to whodunits)

Published on November 03, 2021

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