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by Vaseem Khan
Hodder, December 2023
352 pages
ISBN: 1399707604

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

James Whitby, an Englishman born and raised in India, is awaiting his execution, found guilty of murdering an Indian lawyer known to have been an activist against British rule. His father, a bitter man who made a fortune in India before independence, calls in a favor: He wants the case reexamined in the two weeks left before the capital sentence is carried out. Persis Wadia, the first woman to serve as a police inspector in newly-independent India, is chosen to carry out the investigation.

It's not an auspicious task. The murdered man was held in high regard and, before independence, was an activist in the Quit India movement, along with Mahatma Gandhi. Moreover, the accused had a motive. His father was being investigated for ordering a murder in the 1920s, which he believed was a political persecution. He hoped to persuade the lawyer to back off, but claimed the victim was already dead when he stumbled across his body.

Persis has only a few days to test his innocence, a task that takes her across the country to Calcutta where the victim had lived before leaving abruptly. What made him leave, and is it somehow related to the murder of an American G.I. some years earlier? Her quest takes her even further, into the Sunderbans, the wild mangrove forest where tigers roam but few humans dare to go.

This fourth entry in the Malabar House series evokes a steamy, vivid post-independence India, still reeling from the violence of the Partition. The character of Persis Wadia may feel a bit anachronistic she predates the historical existence of women inspectors in India by more than a decade, and has a brash independence that makes her a compelling heroine but which would probably have been career-ending in 1950.

Yet Khan is having a good time blending the trappings of an adventurous thriller with his historical setting. He uses more pithy similes than Philip Marlowe could shake a stick at, and they are often humorous ("the heat clung to her like a lovesick octopus"), lending the story a certain effervescence.

Vaseem Khan was awarded the CW Historical Dagger award for the first in the series, MIDNIGHT AT MALABAR HOUSE, and while it's not necessary to read the series in order, it would certainly not be a chore.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, January 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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