Secrets are like serpents, Jim. They grow in the dark.”
Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March is an own-voices Indian (Parsee) historical crime mystery novel that revolves around a biracial man named Jim Agnihotri who is recuperating in a hospital after his time in the Afghan War where he learns about the unfortunate demise of two women in Bombay. Upon reading the newspapers, which have touted the deaths as suicide, Agnihotri feels that there is something strange going on and that there is much more to the case than appears to the naked eye. Freshly motivated by the deductive prowess of one Sherlock Holmes, Agnihotri decides to investigate the case on his own.
Murder in Old Bombay is an excellently written piece of historical fiction that is both transportive and insightful about an era that is rarely seen within the genre, the British occupation of India during the late 1800s. Coupled with the portrayal of a biracial identity and a curious crime mystery, readers shall have a pleasantly engaging reading experience, more so if they are fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s dynamic detective duo, Sherlock Holmes and James Watson, from which the story derives heavy inspiration.
My favourite aspect of the novel is the main character, Jim Agnihotri himself. Because he has two racial backgrounds—British and Indian—he feels quite a bit of a disconnect from both identities, like a wanderer just on the cusp of a border, able to see and hear the culture without ever feeling like he belongs to either one. This is something that we see mirrored in the interactions that Jim has with others, and an element that also works as a subtle form of allegory for the delicate political strife in India at the time (1892). Lastly, it makes it easier to empathise and connect with Jim on a personal level, humanising him in a manner that makes the reader want to keep reading.
When Jim meets Adi, the man who is related to the two women that died, their bond is almost instant. Adi can see the sincerity in Jim’s desire of wanting to uncover the truth for the sake of it rather than taking the periodical’s story at face value and it makes Adi confide in the soldier. Their bond eventually starts to feel like the beginnings of a found family dynamic, which I positively adored.
The investigation itself ends up being far more complex than I expected it to be and it was fun trying to connect the clues before they were revealed on page. It also takes us into the heart of Bombay where we see how people born of multi-ethnicities are treated, spurned and subjugated to ostracism that illustrates the rift between the British colonists and their Indian commonwealth. Since the book takes place only a decade prior to the Partition of Bengal in 1907, which was preceded by an intense political struggle of socialist reforms, the socio-political ambiance of Bombay is quite anxious and stiff. Jim’s use of disguises also work to depict the many faces and circumstances of the people of India, which was a neat way of sharing the atmosphere of the time period.
The writing was very impressive! One of the things the author accomplished fairly well is the mannerisms, etiquette, and social exchanges of the 1890s. Most of the time, I felt as if I were standing beside the characters as they conversed, or watching a marvellous film where everything was portrayed with careful authenticity. The ability to write so instinctively for a period that is over 130 years in the past can be challenging, but Ms March makes it feel beautifully effortless.
If there is anything that may be a narrative repellent to some readers it is that the context of British India’s conflicts can feel somewhat detached from the mystery plot-line as a whole. While I appreciate its inclusion as it creates a fully enthralling sense of environment that is transportive, it does cause the story to feel a bit drawn out. Another element that could be somewhat frustrating are the constant references to Holmes and Watson, highlighting their influences with a strong on-the-nose aura. Folx who are unfamiliar with Sherlock Holmes may appreciate the allusions more than those who are already quite well-versed in the Holmes’ tales. My hope is that these references shall dimmish in the forthcoming sequel and as the series goes on.
Overall, I really enjoyed Murder in Old Bombay. It was a superbly written debut that shows the author’s natural talent at writing for the historical fiction genre. The suspense and air of mystery held fast, and the characters did not fall flat or fall to one-dimensional blunders. I highly recommend this to readers of the historical fiction genre, as well as to individuals who find pleasure in mysteries akin to the works of Agatha Christie and Sir Conan Arthur Doyle, but far more diverse!
Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Minotaur Books.
Publication Date: November 2020
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Genre: Indian Literature, Historical Fiction, Crime Mystery
Page Count: 400
Content Warnings: Mention of suicide. Mention of wartime violence. Racism. Colonialism. Murder.
GoodReads: Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March