Books are like time machines, transporting us to faraway places that stir our imagination. Murder in Old Bombay (Minotaur), the thrilling debut mystery from Nev March, is one such novel. It conjures the exotic fragrances of sandalwood, jasmine, and meats roasting at the local bazaars, images of women in shimmering silk saris and the gunfire of military skirmishes to carry us back to 1892 Imperial Bombay. It is a time when political tensions run high as India challenges Victorian England’s rule over its sovereignty.

Captain Jim Agnihotri is recuperating in the hospital from war wounds when he spies a letter in the local newspaper. A young, well-to-do widower, Adi Framji is lamenting the loss of his wife, Lady Bacha, and his sister, Pilloo, who both plunged to their deaths from Bombay’s highest clock tower six months earlier. The brutal incident intrigues Jim, and after his discharge from the hospital and the cavalry, he’s employed as a journalist to investigate the accident. Noting the former captain’s commitment to the case and seeking closure, Adi Framji entices Jim to work for him. He wants Jim to determine whether the ladies committed suicide, as determined by the court, or if they were murdered. Jim channels his hero, Sherlock Holmes, and quickly discovers that his prying inquiries can lead to danger — and romance.

It is no spoiler that Jim establishes proof that the women were murdered at the tower and that a secret correspondence may have caused their demise. What was in the letter and why were the women willing to sacrifice their lives for it? Who killed them and why? Secret alliances, caste prejudice and hidden agendas contribute to the perils Jim encounters down every dark, winding street of old Bombay and its outskirts.

A CONFLICT-STRICKEN NATION

What begins as a Holmesque murder mystery sharply detours into a Rudyard Kipling action-adventure. Jim’s investigation leads to travels throughout the conflict-stricken nation where he becomes entangled in political espionage threatening the Raj — England’s rule over India. During one quest, Jim is trapped in the rebel-occupied ancient Hindu city of Lahore, and he’s forced to make his way homeward on foot. Surrounded by the enemy, he accumulates a rag-tag troop of children — three boys, an injured girl and a baby — who all follow him like a lovable Baloo from The Jungle Book. A confirmed bachelor, he becomes as attached to them as they are to him, and love and generosity suffuse his role as their protector.

The reader can’t help but wonder about Jim’s motivations to assist Adi and his family in solving the mystery. Jim is a “mixed-breed” orphan, born to an Indian mother and an unknown British father. This status has alienated him from proper Indian and British societies. But in the Framjis, a Parsee mercantile family, Jim observes the familial relationships he’s never known. The Parsees, a race expelled from Persia, are people also wedged between two worlds. The Framjis embrace him when he proves his dedication to uncovering the truth behind the murders by selflessly risking his own life. And when the lively Lady Diana Framji joins the hunt as his “Watson,” Jim’s heart is faced with as much danger as the rest of him.

Revelations about Jim’s mysterious past are sprinkled throughout the novel, making him a sympathetic and likable protagonist. After fleeing an orphanage as a teen, the military had become his life. Once trapped in a skirmish in the port city of Karachi, he remains haunted by nightmares of the attack and feels responsible for the slaughter of his men. Now, he believes that if he can locate Lady Bacha and Pilloo’s killer, his efforts may compensate for his failures as an officer and a gentleman.

It is easy to understand why Murder in Old Bombay won the 2019 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award. Inspired by real events, March captures this tense period of India’s past with historical reference to battles and a society steeped in the British Raj. Intertwining military clashes, the rising political tensions and a romance with a mystery, March has built a captivating world inhabited by compelling characters. Wisely, she has included a prologue dictionary to assist readers in navigating her universe.

If you yearn for an escape from these short, chilly days of autumn, Murder in Old Bombay is a breath of sweet bougainvillea. It will intoxicate you and linger in your memory long after the clever puzzle has been solved.

Buy this book!

About Nev March:

Nev March is the recent winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America Award for Best First Crime Fiction. After a long career in business analysis, in 2015 she returned to her passion, writing fiction and now teaches creative writing at Rutgers-Osher Institute. A Parsee Zoroastrian herself, she lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons. Murder in Old Bombay is her debut novel.