Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan #BookReview

Bombay, New Year’s Eve, 1949
As India celebrates the arrival of a momentous new decade, Inspector Persis Wadia stands vigil in the basement of Malabar House, home to the city’s most unwanted unit of police officers. Six months after joining the force she remains India’s first female police detective, mistrusted, sidelined and now consigned to the midnight shift.
And so, when the phone rings to report the murder of prominent English diplomat Sir James Herriot, the country’s most sensational case falls into her lap.
As 1950 dawns and India prepares to become the world’s largest republic, Persis, accompanied by Scotland Yard criminalist Archie Blackfinch, finds herself investigating a case that is becoming more political by the second. Navigating a country and society in turmoil, Persis, smart, stubborn and untested in the crucible of male hostility that surrounds her, must find a way to solve the murder – whatever the cost.

I'm ashamed to admit that I've not yet read any of Vaseem Khan's Baby Ganesh Agency series, despite long having intended to do so. Determined not to miss out on the start of his new series, I bought a gorgeous hardback copy of Midnight at Malabar House a couple of months ago and just about managed to fit it into my 2020 reads. I'm so glad I did because it will definitely be making an appearance on my list of my favourite books of the year (coming soon!)
I knew within a few pages that this was going to be a novel that I would fall in love with; everything guaranteed to ensnare me is here - a character I'm immediately interested to know more about, an impeccable sense of time and place and rich descriptions that are brimming with sharp wit. Persis's first impression of the murder victim informs us;
'The Englishman was in his late fifties and balding in that particularly aggressive way the British did, the top of his dome marred by a profusion of scarlet patches.'
She is called to Laburnum House on New Year's Eve 1949; Sir James Herriot, a well-known and seemingly widely respected English diplomat has been murdered at his own party. Persis is India's first female police officer and the reaction to her appointment as inspector has been greeted with a mixture of incredulous mockery and scathing, misogynistic anger. These hostile attitudes aren't limited just to Persis's position and are echoed by the further divisions in a country which faces immense changes following Partition only two years ago. The constitution which means India becomes a sovereign democratic republic is due to come into effect in January but just as Persis's appointment heralds a brave new dawn and yet has divided opinions, so the country's faltering steps towards full independence are marred by aggressive conflicts and bloody violence. Midnight at Malabar House recalls this period with penetrating honesty; from the varying sentiments regarding British rule to the jarring discord that occurs due to religious, political or other societal differences.
Through it all, Persis Wadia attempts to discover the truth about Sir James' murder and her investigation leads her to suspect the violence of Partition and the dreadful human rights atrocities that took place then are somehow linked to his death. However, as she encounters not just hostility concerning her unique role but also political interference, she must decide whether she is willing to risk her career - and possibly her own safety - in pursuit of the truth. Persis is a wonderful character - headstrong and courageous in the face of so much doubt - from her colleagues, the public and even her family, especially her aunt who is singularly determined that she should fulfil her true womanly duty and be married as soon as possible. She is clearly an accomplished police officer, yet she isn't infallible and regularly lashes out verbally, her emotions and impatience means she struggles to be as diplomatic as her role requires her to be. 
Her awkward encounters are mirrored by the more physical clumsiness of Archie Blackfinch, a Scotland Yard criminalist who is the perfect foil to her more hot-headed nature. Where she is intuitive, he is led by hard evidence and though she finds his tendency for long-windedness frustrating and he rebukes her selfish propensities, they are clearly drawn to one another. Their relationship here barely extends towards friendship and yet the obvious chemistry between them means I'm looking forward to seeing what develops as the series progresses. The superb characterisation extends far beyond the two leads, of course, the storyline allows for an intriguing list of potential killers, while her colleagues who have all been assigned to Malabar House as a misfit group of outsiders, deemed unfit for assignments considered to be of any worth are particularly fascinating.
Midnight at Malabar House is a mystery to savour; this isn't a fast-paced thriller but there is a notable rise in tension as the culprit is finally unveiled and the locked room nature of Sir James' death means the eventual gathering of the key suspects is wonderfully reminiscent of an Agatha Christie reveal. The Golden Age nature of the mystery allows Vaseem Khan to weave a story which is utterly compelling and unerringly evocative as it examines the darker elements of India's still recent past. This an outstanding read which offers the mouthwatering promise that the Inspector Wadia series will be absolutely unmissable. 

Midnight at Malabar House is published by Hodder & Stoughton. Purchasing links can be found here  but please consider supporting independent bookstores by buying from them directly or ordering through bookshop.org.

About the Author
Vaseem Khan is the author of two crime series set in India, the Baby Ganesh Agency series, and the Malabar House historical crime novels. His first book, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was a Times bestseller, now translated into 15 languages, and introduced Inspector Chopra of the Mumbai police and his sidekick, a one-year-old baby elephant. It has been optioned for film by Cinestaan. The second in the series won a Shamus Award in America. In 2018, he was awarded the Eastern Eye ACTA (Arts, Culture and Theatre Award) for Literature. He can also be heard on The Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast alongside Abir Mukherjee.