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Murder Mystery Double Bill: Vaseem Khan and Louise Penny

My review back log gets longer by the week. In an effort to catch up I’m going to batch a few together. Today I offer a double dose of murder mystery novels: Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan and A Trick Of The Light by Louise Penny.

Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

This is the first in a crime series set in the first year of a newly independent India and featuring the country’s first female police inspector Persis Wadia. She’s on duty at Malabar House, Bombay on New Year’s Eve when a report comes in of the murder of an English diplomat. The body of Sir James Herriot was discovered on the night of a party at his home. His safe had been cleared and papers burned in the fireplace but — bizarrely, he is not wearing any trousers.

As Persis investigates she encounters hostility, distrust and obstruction. Partly because she’s a woman operating in what’s considered to be a man’s world. But also because she’s venturing into the uncomfortable dynamics of Anglo-Indian relationships pre Independence and the atrocities which followed partition.

Fortunately she’s smart, stubborn and has a steadfast belief that justice must prevail no matter whose toes she treads on in the process. It takes all of those qualities to get to the truth even when it puts her career and future at risk.

The character of Persis alone would make this a really entertaining read. She’s a wonderful creation; a maverick who is often brusque and tactless and lacks the social graces. Yet she also shows a touch of vulnerability. It irks her that she needs the help of Archie Blackfinch, a British forensics expert who has “stayed on” in India, though she grudgingly comes to value having him around.

A troubled nation

Added to this is Vaseem Khan’s ability to transport readers to Bombay (modern day Mumbai), capturing the spirit of a new nation that looks to the future but must also reconcile its differences.

Political and religious beliefs have divided the country but there are also divisions between the wealthy and privileged citizens in their plush mansions and those who eke out a living on the land. Differences of opinion too about the legacy of British rule. Those Britishers who stay on think they deserve recognition and appreciation for the railways, roads, education system they established. For many Indians however, the British were oppressors and the people responsible for the massacre at Amritsar.

There’s a fine balance struck in this novel between the historical context and the present day murder mystery. A few times I felt we were given a touch too much detail about a particular building or a significant event but fortunately this didn’t spoil what was a tremendously entertaining read.  With opening as strong as this, it will be interesting to see how the series develops, and particularly how the relationship between the unusual sleuthing partners plays out.

A Trick of The Light by Louise Penny

This marked a long overdue return to my favourite crime series — the Chief Inspector Gamache novels by Louise Penny. Book number 18 — A World of Curiosities which is published in November — is already on my Autumn reading list but I thought before delving into that, I’d pick up one of the earlier titles in the series.

A Trick of The Light is set in Three Pines, a Canadian village that seems impossibly perfect. On one spring morning the tranquility of this remote settlement is disturbed by the discovery of a body in the garden of artists Clara and Peter Morrow.

The previous night Clara had been feted at a solo show of her paintings by the prestigious Musée d’Art Contemporain in Montreal. It should have been the highlight of Clara’s career, the recognition for which she had long yearned. But it’s now been tainted by the murder of a woman she once considered her closest friend. Seeing the body of Lilian Dyson sprawled in her flower bed, brings back painful memories for Clara.

As Gamache and his team delve into Lilian Dyson’s past, they expose an ugly side to her nature, one that has blighted many lives over the years. As an art critic she was known for her scathing reviews, her damning indictment of one artist — “He’s a natural, producing art like it’s a bodily function.”— even becoming the stuff of legend.

The questions confronting the detectives are simple: had Lilian pushed someone too far with her spite and venom? Did that person use Clara’s after-show party in Three Pines as a way of exacting revenge?

A question of character

Like all the books in the series, A Trick of the Light is more than a police procedural. Gamache of course does solve the crime and identify the killer; we all know that’s going to happen. The real interest of these novels is how they explore relationships and human nature.

This one looks at the question of how people might disguise their true nature even to their closest friends and colleagues. That within them there may be both light and dark, much like the chiaroscuro used in Clara’s portraits. The interplay of light and shade is what the murder is all about, says Gamache: “The question of just how genuine the light actually was. Was the person really happy, or just pretending to be?”

This novel can be read as a stand alone though I think it does help to have read the earlier titles because some story lines run through several titles. A Trick of the Light refers back several times to a previous novel in which Gamache was injured and his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, was almost killed. They are now, in their different ways, trying to deal with the consequences of that day.

There is also a progression of the central characters that is enriched if you know what came before. In fact, it’s the character development that holds the real attraction of this murder mystery series for me. That and of course the magical setting of Three Pines.

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