Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March

May 11, 2021

Murder in Old Bombay is author Nev March's first novel, a mystery set in colonial India in 1892.  The protagonist is Captain Jim Agnihotri, an Anglo-Indian army officer who has been wounded in battle.  While recovering from his wounds in a hospital in Bombay (present-day Mumbai), Jim passes the time by reading the newspapers and Sherlock Holmes stories.  One particular story in the newspaper catches his eye: two young women from a wealthy, upper class Parsee family (Zoroastrians descended from Persian immigrants) were killed in a fall from the clock tower at the university.  At first the deaths were ruled a suicide, but Adi Framji, a law student who was the husband of one of the women and the brother of the other, writes a letter to the editor insisting that his wife and sister had no reason to commit suicide.

Jim takes a medical discharge from the army and becomes a reporter for the newspaper.  His first assignment is to interview Adi about the deaths.  By this time, things have become more complicated: a young Parsee man, an acquaintance of the two women, who was seen in the area of the clock tower shortly before the murder, has been tried but found not guilty for lack of evidence.  Adi hires Jim to find out who the real murderer was, and so Jim becomes a private investigator instead of a newspaper reporter.

To solve the murders, Jim uses the deductive techniques of his hero, Sherlock Holmes.  Tiny clues such as a few threads and a bead found at the scene of the crime turn out to mean a lot, but it takes Jim a while to discover their exact significance.  Adi's sister Diana, who had been educated in England, arrives home and helps Jim with his investigation.  Jim is immediately attracted to the beautiful, lively, highly intelligent Diana, and she returns his feelings.  This presents a complication in the highly stratified society of colonial India, where caste and race determined so much about a person's status.  Even though the Framji parents treat Jim almost as another son, they refuse to accept him as a potential husband for Diana.  According to the rules of society, she can only marry another Parsee or it will cause a huge scandal for a family that has already seen the untimely deaths of two of its members.

As an Anglo-Indian who was born out of wedlock, Jim doesn't entirely fit into either British or Indian society.  Because he is part Indian, he will never be promoted beyond his rank of captain in the British army.  Another important mystery in the book, besides the murder of the two Framji women, is Jim's parentage.  He was an orphan raised by Christian missionaries, and all he knows is that his mother was Indian, and a member of the priestly Brahmin caste, the highest caste in Hindu society, but she died so young he barely remembers her.  His unknown father was British, and Jim assumes he was a soldier.  Not to spoil anything, but there are some intriguing clues in the book as to who Jim's father might be, and I hope March pursues this thread in a later novel.

While Jim is investigating the murders, he is ambushed when he goes to meet a key witness, and then he fights off a burglar who was about to enter Diana's bedroom.  Jim was a boxer while in the army, which becomes important later in the book.  These attacks prove that the Framji family is still under threat, and Jim realizes that the two dead women were being blackmailed.  They appear to have led blameless lives, so Jim doesn't know at first what the blackmail was about, unless it was something that involved the whole family, not just the two women.  Obviously, the threat to the family still exists, and Jim is afraid Diana might be the next victim.

The clues point to a servant boy named Kasim, who once worked for the Framji family and was particularly attached to Pilloo, Adi's sister, one of the dead women.  As it turns out, Pilloo was actually a cousin who had been adopted, and Kasim had originally worked for her parents.  Kasim had once been thought dead, but it turns out he had faked his death and gone to the princely state of Ranjpoot, where, as Jim soon discovers, he has become the right-hand man of Ranjpoot's heir, Akbar.  Jim suspects both Akbar and Kasim, but every time he gets close to them, they elude his grasp.  Eventually, Jim's adventures take him to many different parts of India, including the northern frontier, where he is sent to find a missing troop of soldiers as well as the doctor who had treated Kasim's injuries.  On the way, Jim rescues a band of children who had been separated from their families during the fighting between the soldiers and the Afghan tribes.  This part of the novel is more of an adventure story than a mystery, but eventually it ties in with the main story line.

Murder in Old Bombay is an excellent novel, a mystery with many twists and turns as well as a thrilling adventure.  Jim is a fascinating and highly sympathetic character, haunted by his experiences in battle.  He suffers from frequent nightmares, as well as guilt over not being able to save his friends who died in the battle in which Jim was wounded.  Large parts of his memory are missing, and only gradually is he able to piece together what happened in the battle.  Diana is a wonderful heroine, Jim's equal, or even more so, in intelligence.  Their romance is almost as important as the mystery, and, like the case they're working on, it takes many turns along the way.  Nev March does a great job capturing late 19th century Indian society in all its complexity of caste, race, and religion.  The reader feels Jim's heartbreak because, no matter how much he loves Diana, their society will not allow them to be together.  I am looking forward to seeing how the series develops.  It is certainly off to a great start.

Murder in Old Bombay is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.