When a new historical mystery earns the “First Crime Novel Award” by the Mystery Writers of America it will always spark my interest. This was the case with Nev March’s first novel, MURDER IN OLD BOMBAY. Set in India in 1892 during the height of British rule, the book centers around the death of two women who at first seemed to have committed suicide, but after careful examination the cause of death does not make sense. The chief protagonist who comes to that conclusion is Captain Jim Agnihorti, a recently retired soldier whose cultural background is half English and half Indian. Agnihorti is a fascinating character as he evolves from a soldier with twelve years of experience, Dragoons, and Bombay Regiments to either a journalist or a detective. He was injured in the line of duty in Karachi in 1890 and nominated for the Victoria Cross, but since he was not a full blooded Englishman, he earned the Indian Order of Merit.
At the outset Agnihorti is lying in a hospital bed in the Poona Military facility recovering from a wound suffered in a skirmish on the wild northern frontier. While resting he read a newspaper article from which he learned about a supposed double suicide where two women fell from a university clock tower in broad daylight. For Agnihorti the case did not add up especially when three men charged with the crime were acquitted. After his release from the hospital the retired soldier contacted the husband and brother of the two victims, Mr. Adi Framji. Looking to his future Agnihorti obtained a job as a journalist at the Bombay Chronicle. But when Framji hired him to investigate the death his career as a journalist ended, and his new avocation as a detective began.
March’s first novel is more than a murder mystery but a thoughtful beautifully written examination of the Indian caste system, the intense poverty that existed in the Raj, the virulent racism and condescension by the British, and the dangers of tribal and frontier fighting in India and Afghanistan. Since Agnihorti is of mixed blood, at times he is a victim of British self-righteousness and the Indian upper caste. March provides the reader with the texture of Bombay as it appeared at the end of the 19th century. The street urchins, the enslaving of young girls for sex, and the extreme wealth of the Franjis and other families are on full display.
Of course, in any novel there must be a love interest and March does not let the reader down. Agnihorti falls for Diana Framji, Adi’s sister but since he is of mixed blood, and does not fit into the Indian caste system his hope for a lasting relationship seems destined to fail. Burjor, Diana’s father warns Agnihorti that he would not be an acceptable husband even though the family thinks highly of him particularly since his investigation is designed to protect the family. In addition, Burjor is trying to arrange a marriage for Diana to a person of the proper caste. There is a great deal of drama within the family with the murders, but also it appears that they are hiding something and Agnihorti has to pull information out of them very carefully.
There is also a political component to the story as two characters emerge. Rani, the Queen of Ranjpoot and her nephew Nur Suleiman especially when Suleiman is caught burglarizing the Framji mansion by Agnihorti. It is also possible that Suleiman is Akbar, one of the men acquitted of the murders. If Agnihorti identifies Prince Suleiman who was next in line to become regent of Ranjpoot the British could use it to take over the princedom along with hundreds of estates. It appears that the murders are a pawn in a political power struggle between the British Raj and the Rani for control of Ranjpoot. When Agnihorti is attacked it is evidence he is a threat to Suleiman and his family interests.
March does not shy away from exploring the poverty that is endemic to 19th century India. An excellent example are the scenes depicted as Agnihorti disguised as a tribal fighter travels from Bombay to Lahore to investigate a possible link to Kasim who used to live and work for the Framji family and his investigation. Along the way Agnihorti buys a young girl, Chutzki out of slavery and as they travel together, they are joined by three young boys and a baby who are refugees from the tribal warfare. Agnihorti brings them to Simla where the Franjis are spending the summer. Soon the children are left behind as Agnihorti is pressured by a British commander to pursue a mission to Lahore while his investigation continues. It is an extremely dangerous undertaking but Agnihorti takes Raza, one of the boys with him who knows the frontier region along with a British escort, Subaltern Ranbir Singh.
March possesses an excellent command of the history of the British Raj in 19th century India. Her integration of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion against British rule is spot on as is her approach of weaving the uprising into the overall flow of the novel. As the story comes to a head the Framji family history during the rebellion becomes a bone of contention that becomes a major threat and helps explain March’s plot that she develops over hundreds of pages.**
March effectively builds tension as the novel unfolds particularly as Agnihorti departs the British base and tries to carry out his military mission and find evidence against the killer he seeks. Throughout the novel an overall concern is that Agnihorti suffers from PTSD with the attendant nightmares, flashbacks, headaches, fears because of what happened in Karachi in 1890. As he pursues his missions his guilt about the past continues to resurface and he must learn to overcome them to continue.
Agnihorti is a devotee of Sherlock Holmes and throughout the novel there are constant references to Conan Doyle’s hero’s techniques. Agnihorti himself is a fascinating character. A bastard who did not know his father, a personal bridge between British and Indian culture, and a sense of honor and pride that carries him forward. March has done a magnificent job in introducing the Captain James Agnihorti character and it is clear that she is a superb storyteller and I look forward to her next literary effort.
** For further information regarding the Sepoy Rebellion see THE GREAT MUTINY INDIA 1857 by Christopher Hibbert and THE GREAT MUTINY by Richard Collier.