Book Review: Murder in Old Bombay

In 1892, Bombay is the center of British India. Nearby, Captain Jim Agnihotri lies in Poona military hospital recovering from a skirmish on the wild northern frontier, with little to do but re-read the tales of his idol, Sherlock Holmes, and browse the daily papers. The case that catches Captain Jim’s attention is being called the crime of the century: Two women fell from the busy university’s clock tower in broad daylight. Moved by Adi, the widower of one of the victims — his certainty that his wife and sister did not commit suicide — Captain Jim approaches the Parsee family and is hired to investigate what happened that terrible afternoon.

But in a land of divided loyalties, asking questions is dangerous. Captain Jim’s investigation disturbs the shadows that seem to follow the Framji family and triggers an ominous chain of events. And when lively Lady Diana Framji joins the hunt for her sisters’ attackers, Captain Jim’s heart isn’t safe, either.

Based on a true story, and set against the vibrant backdrop of colonial India, Nev March’s Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award-winning lyrical debut, Murder in Old Bombay, brings this tumultuous historical age to life.

Murder in Old Bombay is more than a mystery—it’s romance, it’s character journey, it’s history and cultural exploration, all fitting together in a richly complex yet satisfying story that left me in awe.

One element that makes this book stand out from murder mysteries past and present is its main character. Half English and half Indian, Captain Jim Agnihotri invites sympathy and support on various levels as a Sherlock Holmes aficionado fighting off the demons of military PTSD, searching for a place to belong, and struggling to be worthy of the woman he loves. (A Sherlock fan myself, I loved all the references to and imitations of the great literary detective.)

Jim’s own character drives just as much of the plot as the mystery he’s trying to solve. I found his emotional struggles and inner conflicts both realistic and relatable from start to finish: his nightmares about Karachi, his care for Diana, his investment (personal and professional) in solving the mystery, his search for the identity of his parents and a home to call his own. March captures the voice of a post-military, lower-class gentleman remarkably well, and I enjoyed reading Jim’s narrative more than I expected. 

Colonial soldiers (Wiki Commons)

Another extraordinary aspect of this book is its dazzling cultural setting. Nineteenth-century India fills every page with exotic locations, practices, people, and dialects and participates in the story as much as another character. As a linguistically-minded person and an appreciator of detail, I especially loved all the words and phrases of the multiple dialects scattered throughout the book. Rich in sensory detail, the narrative brings history to life and made me feel as if I were with Jim on every one of his adventures.

Only a few times did the description go a bit long. Still, every character, place, and item served a purpose in the narrative; things that at first seemed random tied in—sometimes in very important ways—by the end. (I loved Jim’s boxing scene. I considered his skill just a part of his character and would have been content without seeing it “on-screen,” but I loved that it actually formed part of the story.)

One of the gems of this book’s setting and authenticity is its diverse character cast. March treats the reader to three-dimensional representations of all classes, all backgrounds, all motives and desires and abilities, offering a cross-section of the people of colonial India through the detective’s magnifying glass. I especially liked the Framji family: each member was courteous, professional, loyal, and genuine, and I would have loved to visit their house and drink tea with them.

Bombay University Gardens (Wiki Commons)

Of course, this award-winning book would not be the masterpiece it is without the mystery at its heart, the gravitational pull that centers the story, gives it momentum, and keeps every element connected. March proves herself a skilled writer with the tension she builds and maintains from the first chapter to the last, taking the reader up and down, forward and backward, deeper and deeper into an intricate plot. (I kept telling myself just one more chapter, but then I’d finish that chapter and think, “Oh man, I can’t stop here, just one more . . .”)

A few times Jim seemed to lack urgency when his path took him away from the immediate mystery. Each deviation or roundabout trail, however, kept me intrigued and only added to the depth of his character and the overall story. By the end of the book, the stakes had increased much beyond the original scope of the mystery, and while the ever-expanding plot certainly raised tension and intrigue, the last expansion or two seemed added on and less integral to the plot. I think the story could have been served just as comfortably if the mystery had stayed local and personal, but that’s only my opinion.

The ending itself delivered 100% satisfaction. (Without giving anything away, let me just say I loved the extra, full-circle effect.) March’s debut novel showcases her skill in both the structure and delivery of good story, and readers of Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie will feel quite at home. I did notice some repetition of descriptive phrases that took away from their novelty, and some repeated questions or statements about the mystery felt unnecessary rather than helpful, but these are small complaints. With creative but accessible phrases like “Heavy curtains kept the morning to quiet shadows” and “Her glance skittered away from mine,” March’s writing style provides the perfect, solid but elegant setting for this bold and multi-faceted story.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed not just this mystery but this journey through the life of Captain Jim and the world of Old Bombay. I bought the book out of a personal connection with the author and now recommend it out of a personal enjoyment of the story.

Come for the mystery, stay for the story. You won’t be disappointed.   

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