Considering her background and all the twists and turns in her life, it’s not surprising that Sujata Massey wrote mysteries set in contemporary Japan, switched to writing historical fiction about British colonial India, and then combined the two. Massey’s 13th novel, The Widows of Malabar Hill (Soho Crime, Jan. 2018), is the debut volume in a mystery series set in 1920s Bombay.
In Widows, Perveen Mistry, an Oxford University–trained lawyer from a Parsi Indian family, works in the law offices of her father, a highly respected barrister. The elder Mistry has been charged with executing the will of a Muslim client who has died, leaving behind three widows who live together in full purdah (seclusion from public view) in Bombay. After Perveen notes irregularities in the legal documents, her father dispatches her to consult with the women, setting off a volatile chain of events against the backdrop of a city renowned for religious and cultural diversity.
“In my own reading, I like sweeping epics, and I’ve always loved those big historical novels that talk about a period through the lives of families and small things,” Massey says, as we sip Darjeeling tea at the dining table in her parents’ 1930s American foursquare house in St. Paul, Minn. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and two children but is back in her hometown to visit family and conduct research for her next Mistry novel in the archives at the University of Minnesota’s Ames Library of South Asia.
Massey notes, “Lisa See, Amy Tan, and Amitav Ghosh all look at historical events and tell them through domestic experience, personalizing it, bringing it down to scale—and they do it very well.” Referring to topics she addresses in her novel, she continues: “For instance, people don’t think about marital law, what that was like in the old days. And a lot of cultures have different attitudes, towards menstruation, for example. See wrote about foot binding in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Now we know so much about that, which is valuable and interesting.”
Massey is adept at moving fluidly between various cultures: she has done it her entire life. Born in England to a German mother and an Indian father, she immigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was five years old. The family landed in St. Paul after her father, a geophysicist, was hired by the University of Minnesota; he is now a professor emeritus there. Her mother stayed home with Massey and her two younger sisters.
It was during her college years at Johns Hopkins University that Massey decided upon writing as a career, embarking on an interdisciplinary, workshop-oriented writing program. “It opened my eyes to the idea that you could make a living writing fiction,” she says. “We had Martha Grimes teach workshops twice while I was there—that was pivotal. That put the idea in my head that this was a field I could explore someday.” She laughs at the memory that, as a young woman, she had believed that she had to be “like Anne Tyler to get a novel published,” and that she would perhaps be able to launch a literary career “in my 50s.”
After graduating from Johns Hopkins in 1986, Massey landed a job as a features reporter for the now-defunct Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper. There, she met another young journalist who also aspired to a writing career: Laura Lippman. The two became friends and remain close to this day.
Five years later, Massey left the newspaper to live for two years on a U.S. Navy base south of Tokyo, where her husband, a medical officer, was stationed. It was there that she began writing her first novel, The Salaryman’s Wife, the first of 11 novels in the Rei Shimura mystery series, featuring a Japanese-American amateur sleuth in Tokyo. Salaryman was published in 1997, long after Massey had returned stateside. It won the Agatha Award that year for best first novel.
Lippman’s debut mystery novel, Baltimore Blues, was also published that same year. Massey recalls the two of them going on tour together: “We had so much fun. There were so many bookstores in those days,” she says with a sigh.
While Massey enjoyed examining contemporary Japan in her novels, she became increasingly drawn to “exploring historical backstories.” In The Bride’s Kimono (2001), for instance, she delved into the lives of women in 19th-century Japan, and in The Samurai’s Daughter (2003), the nationalism that led to Japan’s entry into World War II.
“I was finding that the kind of stories I wanted to write in my modern mysteries were old stories,” Massey says. HarperCollins discontinued the series in 2006 after the ninth volume, Girl in a Box, but Severn House published the next one, Shimura Trouble, in 2008. By the time Massey self-published the final one, The Kizuna Coast, in 2014, she realized that she had “this huge opportunity,” not just to break out of the series, but to expand beyond the genre.
Massey has visited India seven times in her life, including a three-month stay during her childhood. She “loves” the Raj period (1858–1947). After four years of research and writing, including studying Hindi to get a better feel for the culture and gain insight into the construction of dialogue, The Sleeping Dictionary (Gallery) was published in 2013. It’s a 528-page epic set in the 1930s and early ‘40s, about a Bengali peasant who uses her wits to rise up from poverty and enter the world of Calcutta’s British civil servants, where she spies for Indian freedom fighters. Both Massey’s father and stepfather were born in British India; they shared many of their memories of that era with her, which “has been a great resource,” adding to the strong sense of time, culture, and place she seeks to impart to readers.
It took Massey only two years to research and write Widows, which was sold to Soho on a proposal after the press had solicited her to write another novel set in India. Massey’s research began with reading the memoirs of India’s first woman lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji, who had studied at Oxford and specialized in representing female clients. “I decided to model my heroine on her, but to make it fictional, so all kinds of things could happen, and I could hit on certain issues, like [Perveen’s], as a Parsi, not being allowed to divorce despite having an abusive husband,” she says. “These lawyers worked with everybody: Christians, Muslims, Parsis, Hindus. They all had separate laws in British India; justice would depend upon your faith. I realized I could go all over [India] with this, and even bring in British characters.”
Research ranged from consultations with Mitra Sharafi, a legal historian at the University of Wisconsin, who specializes in the role of Parsis in India’s legal history, to discussions with Perzen Patel, an Indian chef with an expertise in Parsi cuisine, “to make sure my menus [in scenes involving food] were absolutely correct.”
As for Massey’s return to writing mysteries after her foray into historical fiction, she enjoys the intricacies of constructing a mystery plot, she says, and she craves the sense of community created by mystery fans. “Mystery readers are just great readers. They’re loyal and supportive, and you can find them at the mystery bookstores and at mystery conventions. I really enjoy that aspect. But I also didn’t want to give up my love of the past.”