"Murder in Old Bombay" - the debut novel of Nev March - review

It is 1892 and cavalry captain Jim Agnihotri is recovering in hospital after some then unknown traumatic event. Fighting boredom he is reading and rereading a Sherlock Holmes novel and all the papers he can get a hand on. A murder trial really gets his attention: two girls have jumped off a tower or were pushed off it. Jim is wondering how Sherlock Holmes would solve a case like this. The accused are acquitted and the widower/brother writes an open letter to the newspaper. And the final line in that letter finds it's way directly into the soul of captain Jim; "They are gone and I remain". 

"His words cut into me, the sharp burn of his grief. I knew something of his pain, for my brothers in arms were gone, yet I remained."
You immediately start to suspect that something had horribly gone wrong with his regiment.  Remember it is the era of mutiny and wars with the Afghans.

Jim checks out of the hospital, resigns his commission and contacts the widower. The young man offers him a job to help solve the murder mystery.

So for the first 20% of the novel you as a reader feel you stepped in a Sherlock Holmes novel. A slow pacing murder mystery were the author often has the habit of summarizing at the start of a new chapter. (DON'T!!!). I was at that time not quite hooked. (Suggestion: edit that part to get those summarizing out and up the tempo a bit).

But then the story takes a turn into an adventure novel and I was glued to my Kindle. The events become very thrilling but it also the person of Jim Agnihotri that develops into a real hero with layers like an onion. I was surprised to discover the writer was a woman as she so convincingly let us see India at the end of the 19th century through the eyes of a former soldier.

Maybe it is because I am an only child with not much family of my own what made me understand the ache of belonging that is in Jim's heart. The large Parsee family of the victims that takes him in like a son and who he longs to help as if he is a real brother. The peace he feels holding the children he is trying to save even if it might cost him his life and the joy it gives him when they call him father or brother. 

The author also manages very well to describe PTSD: the horrible dreams, the flashbacks and the feeling of guilt. Captain Agnihotri is very courageous time and again but somehow he thinks he has been a coward. Slowly we learn what happened that is hunting him thus. 

Although he dons the persona of his former friends as disguises in the best tradition of Sherlock Holmes it is also his moving way of trying to honour them and revive them somehow.

Jim is part English and part Indian which makes him not belonging to either group. As a captain he is at the highest rank someone of mixed race can get. The Parsee family is what he describes like him: Somewhere between East and West. (Parsees are refugees from Iran who moved centuries ago to India and only intermarry). Nevertheless the novel does not focus on discrimination as many have a habit to do. Maybe because the author was born in India and is a Parsee herself so thus familiar with a system of caste and groups that went beyond a difference between British and Indian. Maybe also because an Indian Friend who is himself a Parsee said they were very well accepted by the British. I also found it a breath of fresh air to read a novel set in the Raj-era that was not completely focussed on a British cast of characters. Here the British are friends, fellow officers and officials but the novel is mostly filled with Indian people ranking from beggar children to princes. The first 20% in Bombay was very "western" but when Jim travels toward what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan the setting and tone changes a lot.

The household also felt a bit like that of a medieval knight and his retainers. Servants are sometimes included in meetings and rescued children are not adopted but just given a position in the household. Like one team with a ranking system but still one big family.

It is obvious the author put in a lot of historical research (the ladies falling from that tower happened in real life but the mystery was never solved). The novel is filled with a lot of background information about India in those days: The semi-autonomous Princely states, the slave trafficking, honour preferring death over life, the British taught upper classes and the utterly poor, the caste system, the Parsee community. I think she made one error though:  The author mentions that he is recommended for a VC but as he is not pure English cannot qualify and is given an Indian Order of Merit (or something). I recall Indian VCs so is this an actual error in the manuscript? The warrant for the Victoria Cross was extended to the military forces of the East India Company on 29th October 1957 I am told. But that was only for British men. I found out later that only from 1911 onwards the VC could also be awarded to Indian men. What is a bit odd and might have had to do more with conflicting medals as with skin colour as black men were awarded the VC before I believe.

Talking about VC's: I wonder if Thomas Kavanagh VC served as an inspiration.

The murder mystery is a complicated one that slowly unravels and is interesting because it is so much about psychology. However there is one person who acts a bit weird in my opinion.

Also the solution at the end sounds more 21st century to me and might be influenced by the authors own experiences.

I would also advice you to have a look at the author's website where she posted old pictures that served for her to visualise the people in her novel. The soldier in World War I uniform is a dish you would like to kiss but does not look like the captain Agnihotri of the novel to me as Jim was a military man in his thirties with 20 years experience in the army, who is tall and boxes and has a military moustache and looks so formidable that the small children in Adi's household are at first terrified by him 

Conclusion: 1 5 stars out of 5 for a debut novel. It has murder mystery, adventure, romance and a lot of soulsearching.

Advice: put in notes. An American will not be familiar with foreign words and the glossary is at the end. Maybe move that forward? Also terms as "The Great Game"  what was a dashing spying plot on Russia and the Afghans might not ring any bell in the USA. Some people will not pick up a dictionary but just flung a novel aside as soon as a "difficult word" appears.


Popular Posts