This book is a smashing follow-up to the wonderful “Midnight at Malabar House” which introduced us to the feisty Persis Wadia, India’s first female detective. “The Dying Day” is every bit as engaging and clever and if, by a strange oversight, you were not immediately a die-hard Persis fan after the first book, well, you will be now.
Rarely has there been such a cracking heroine as Ms Wadia, who is outspoken, blunt, educated, fiercely patriotic, and not at all cowed by the trappings of colonialism that still linger in 1950s Bombay.
Not for her the cosy clubs or undue deference still meted out to the British. Persis is proud and very aware that as India’s only woman detective she has to fight her battles. Most of her male colleagues bitterly resent her presence and her outspokenness, and her boss, the amiable-and-early-morning-whisky-drinking Superintendent Seth, has to upbraid Persis and one of her colleagues with whom she resents working.
Persis is aware of how she is perceived – and we’re not talking the despair here of her aunt, who frets that no-one will marry her since she is a policewoman – but society at large, including the few Brits who are still living in India:
“Persis wondered if, like many who had read of her recent exploits, she was assessing whether the young woman before her could really have merited such praise. For many, she was a publicity stunt, a trick dreamed up by post-independence liberals aimed at portraying an India thundering towards the future now that it had thrown off the British yoke.”
Bombay is wonderfully present in this book, a city starting to shake off its colonial legacy, but the street names, the places Persis visits, the sprawling bungalows – all these hark back to a slower-paced city than contemporary Mumbai.
As it is, we follow Persis through hot, busy Bombay streets as she tries to unravel a theft plus a missing British scholar, plus a couple of murders (all of foreigners) plus a suspected suicide. We follow her as she drives around the city, and scrambles into dodgy places at night, in search of clues. We watch her burgeoning relationship with the gentle but hesitant Archie Blackfinch, a relationship she knows will ruffle feathers.
“The mantle of being India’s first female police detective was one she wore lightly. But the advancement of her own carer, that was a different matter. She had no wish to become embroiled in a romantic liaison, particularly one that might colour the image that others held of her. Until now, she hadn’t cared how she was perceived, but in the past moth she had become – as others continually pointed out to her – a symbol, a woman whose actions provoked both plaudits and censure at a national level. To begin an affair with an Englishman…it was inconceivable. She would instantly be cast as one of those Indian women, the kind that had served as mistresses to their Anglo masters, even as their countrymen suffered.”
At the heart of the entwined mysteries that Persis must unravel is the theft of a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s Inferno from the Asiatic Society, and the simultaneous disappearance of its curator, twin events that set in motion a chain of cascading revelations. To add to her woes, not only is their increasing political pressure to find the missing manuscript, but she must also solve a battery of clues left behind by the curator. As we follow Persis ever deeper into the history behind the manuscript and the people connected to it, there is fear and horror and shocking revelations.
But don’t worry, I’m absolutely not going to plot-spoil.
There are lots of riddles in this book, and lots of clever literary references. But Detective Wadia is a highly educated young woman, whose father runs a bookshop, so whenever she is stumped, she heads home and rummages through the book shop.
Great fun. Surprisingly dark in parts, as Persis unravels hidden secrets.
Over-riding the whole book is the wonderful and totally likeable Persis Wadia, a thoroughly modern young woman battling society, battling mysogyny, and barely managing to hide her dislike of patronising Brits. Persis drives, wears trousers, carriers a revolver and does not tolerate fools, and we root for her all the more:
“A shambling, elderly man, almost bald with a heavy belly, Frank Lindley stank strongly of sweat and cigarette smoke. His shirt, drenched in perspiration, was unbuttoned to his chest, curls of soaking white hair debouching from within…She supposed that she should be grateful for his assistance, even if it meant suffering his malodorous presence in the close confines of his office…
“…As for Partition…Surely, you’re not one of these Indians who believes that the British were responsible?’
Persis disliked Lindley’s supercilious tone.”