My thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

The Lost Man of Bombay is book 3 in the Malabar House historical mystery series by Vaseem Khan set in 1950s Bombay around Persis Wadia, India’s first (fictional) female inspector. Persis who as the only female inspector in the police at the time is not quite as welcome in all quarters, is posted at Malabar House, a station manned by officers who have for different reasons fallen out of favour with the powers that be, and which often is handed cases politically or otherwise sensitive, which no one else wishes to deal with. Alongside, we follow her personal life—she lives with her father, Sam who runs a bookstore, and cat Akbar; she is romantically interested in Archie Blackfinch, an English forensic examiner but reluctant to take things further because of its implications.

This book opens with two mountaineers on a spontaneous climb finding and old frozen corpse—the Ice Man—in a cave somewhere in the Himalayas above Dehradun. The only thing found with the body is a book with a Bombay stamp and so the case finds its way to Bombay and Malabar House. Forensic examination shows the man was murdered. Meanwhile, another couple, an Italian businessman Stephen Renzi and his Indian wife, Leela, daughter of a prominent politician are found murdered, and Persis’ boss assigns her investigation jointly with her arch rival, Oberoi who has strong opinions about women serving in the force. Before long, a third murder is added to the list, a catholic priest, and a particularly orthodox one. Nothing seemingly connects the matters, yet the way some of these at least were killed is too similar to overlook. We follow Persis as she investigates the cases, while also having to deal with Oberoi’s contempt (and incompetence). And her boss, Roshan Seth, assigns her a young girl to mentor, another role she is very reluctant to undertake for she is comfortable only when at police work. Meanwhile, she is also fighting her feelings for Archie and at home, her father Sam is starting to act very strangely, and she can’t seem to guess why.

This was another enjoyable entry in this historical mystery series with a very interesting mystery at its core, once again involving a cypher, and developments in Persis’ life, all set against the background of the newly independent India where ideals have already given way to red-tape, corruption, and other bumps in the road as the country is finding its way in the world.

The mystery in the book was one I found to be a very interesting one, and in which while the solution seemed pointed at some way into the story, but turned out to have a nice twist at the end which I didn’t see coming. I’ve kept from writing anything about the elements it involves so readers can enjoy them as they are revealed, but the historical setting and people on which it was based were ones I was familiar with and caught on to immediately (the explanatory note at the end confirmed it) which made it all the more engaging for me to read. This case unlike the previous one doesn’t keep Persis in Bombay alone but she travels, among other places, to Dehradun with Mussoorie being mentioned (these two were especially fun for me since I have lived in Mussoorie previously).

Persis is certainly a well-drawn character, shown realistically to be struggling with her work which she loves, the attention (welcome and unwelcome) she receives because of her position as the first female police inspector, and her personal life where pursuing the romance she is interested in will have both personal and professional fallouts. She is a rather prickly character, and one doesn’t always sympathise with her (especially in this book, when she reacts somewhat childishly though perhaps not surprisingly to some developments which contrasts with her stronger self, projected when she is investigating), also apt to dive in head first, getting herself into trouble more than once (again, one can’t sympathize because the red flags are all there); one enjoys following her though even if one can’t entirely like her.

The mystery and personal parts of Persis’ life are well-balanced in the book and flow well together. I liked the exploration of the country at this point in history which forms the background to the story and the various problems it was struggling with while trying to find its feet. While the book does attempt to highlight the colonials’ treatment of the country and its people when there, in critiquing the problems that the country was going through, I felt at some points, perhaps it was looking too much from a Western lens.

Still, this was an entertaining read for me, especially the themes and settings the mystery deals with and also the solution which was a nice surprise.

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: The Lost Man of Bombay by Vaseem Khan

  1. I’ve just read your review of the second in the series, because you made this third installment so enticing, Mallika. I’m happy to find that books 1 and 2 are in my local library and book 3 is on order. I’ll be giving this series a try.

    Interested by your comment that the plot seems to be viewed through a Western lens, I looked up the author, too. He’s British, from London. I wonder whether he has framed the narrative to appeal to a Western audience, or whether his view of India is a British one due to his education experience overriding his experience as a. Perhaps a bit of both. I read that he worked in Mumbai as a business consultant to a hotel chain for ten years, which inspired his Inspector Chopra/Baby Ganesh series. Have you read any of those? He seems a prolific author!

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    1. Hope you end up enjoying it Jan. Not the plot so much as the view of the country stumbling in its initial days with the red tape and corruption and all else. The problems were very much there no doubt, in this this book (more than the last), some of the reflections felt to me like they were so. There seems strong disillusionment with most things and little optimism.

      The Baby Ganesh books are very much on my radar but I am yet to read any. The premise is lovely though, and I happen to love elephants 🐘

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      1. I haven’t read anything that is set immediately after Independence, so I’m interested in that as the setting of these novels. I read and enjoyed A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, which was eye-opening about India in the 1970s. The Lowland is set at a similar time, I think – late 1960s into the 70s. I’ve watched A Suitable Boy but have yet to read Naipaul’s novel. I’ll let you know what I make of Khan’s series when I get to it!

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  2. How nice to find a town you’ve lived in featured: I love when that happens, and it isn’t very common, even though I live in England’s second city! I like the idea of the historical background in these, interesting what you say and Jan has researched about the author, though.

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    1. It is lovely to find them in fiction. I enjoyed the mention of some familiar places in Dehradun as well as others I knew from my reading to have been there. Re the situation in India at that point, while I agreed with the points he raised about the problems the country was facing, somehow things felt over critical and too pessimistic at times.

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  3. Wonderful review, Mallika. I like that you weren’t expecting the twist at the end, and that it is partially set in a place you’re familiar with.

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  4. This series does sound interesting and I enjoyed a short story about Persis that I came across in an anthology recently. But I find the very idea of a female police inspector in this place and era really impossible to believe in. I remember when I read the short story googling to see if I was projecting my prejudices, and the Indian police force was far more progressive than I’d have expected, but apparently not! I wonder why he chose to insert a woman into an impossible (for the time) role…

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      1. You’ve just answered my question here – is the female lead based on a real person like the Massey books are?
        Have you come across Nev March’s book/s (I think there are only 2 so far). It seems that the first one is based on a true event?

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