My thanks to Hodder and Stoughton and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
Second in the Malabar Hall series by the author, The Dying Day is a historical mystery featuring the (fictional) first female police inspector in India Persis Wadia. Set in 1950s Bombay, we find ourselves at a time when the country is still finding its feet, there is some amount of disillusionment and also the shadows of the unspeakable violence and death that marked the partition.
Persis is asked to take up an investigation at the Asiatic Society but other than being told that there’s a missing manuscript, she hasn’t been given details. Arriving there she finds it isn’t just a rare manuscript but an over six-hundred-year-old copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the two oldest in the world. Not only that, the curator in-charge John Healy, a renowned scholar working on a translation of the MS has gone missing as well. But why would someone that well known steal the manuscript? The matter is of course not as simple as it seems on the surface, and soon Persis finds herself faced with a series of riddles and ciphers which she must solve to reach the manuscript. The pressure is immense as the matter can lead to a politically charged situation if not resolved soon.
Alongside, the body of a white woman is found on the railway tracks and a forensic examination reveals that this was not a suicide but murder. Persis’ nemesis of sorts, George Fernandes is asked to lead the investigation while Persis is simply to supervise but this leads to some tensions for Fernandes had leaked information to the press in a past investigation showing her in poor light.
Also, Persis has to also cope with the attention she attracts due to her position as the first woman inspector as also the mistrust and disapproval. There are also troubles in her personal life as she finds she has feelings for forensic investigator Archie Blackfinch (whom her family would never approve of) while her old love interest Zubin Dalal (who had betrayed her, and married another woman) is back in the picture.
This was a really interesting mystery which had so many elements that I enjoy, and kept me engrossed throughout.
For starters, I should say that even though The Dying Day was a second in series, I found I didn’t have any problems getting into the story as the author has included sufficient recaps and background (I mean the basics of Persis’ story and the threads that continue across the books) for one to be able to grasp things and follow along.
When I had requested the book, I had done so on the basis that it was a historical mystery set around the first woman inspector but I don’t think I had taken in what the mystery was about so that actually turned out to be a really pleasant surprise when I started. For, a mystery with a missing ancient manuscript, and a set of riddles and codes to solve to get to it is something right up my alley and I absolutely loved it. I didn’t make any attempts to solve the riddles (though I doubt I would have gotten far not knowing Bombay so well), but thoroughly enjoyed watching Persis work them out. An added bonus for me was that since Persis’ father Sam runs a book shop, we have literary references and allusions throughout and she also solves many of the questions in her mind through the books she has come across in the shop or by looking things up.
I also really liked that the basic background and many of the elements that the mystery was based around including the Dante manuscript and Bombay’s architecture are real. I think one more familiar with Bombay (or Mumbai, as it now is) would enjoy it all the more for the places referenced would be a great deal more fun for them. Other than Bombay and its history, the events of World War II also impact the mystery for the curator Healy had been a prisoner of war, and another character is also haunted by their experiences.
Persis herself I found slightly hard to like although I could understand her reasons for being as she is. She joined the police in a sense because she was told she couldn’t but now she simply wants to do her job and not be the centre of attention in any way, yet she finds herself being treated as some sort of exhibit or zoo-animal which while not surprising, makes her prickly and short with people.
That small complaint apart, I found the book to be far more interesting (and more meaty) than I had expected and enjoyed it thoroughly.
[p.s. The other small niggle was I was unsure about was how Persis was an inspector since as far as I know IPS officers start out at a higher rank.]
The title releases on 8 July 2021!