1920s Bombay, 1960s North Carolina & 1990s Western Australia: top international crime – with a sidebar on the Murdaugh case

Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill (Soho Press, 2018)

First line: On the morning Perveen saw the stranger, they’d almost collided.

It’s 1921. Perveen, the Oxford-educated daughter of a well-off Parsi family, is Bombay’s first female lawyer, and works for the family law firm at Mistry House. While her duties are restricted — she’s not allowed to appear in court — there are certain things she can do that male lawyers can’t. For example, when wealthy client Omar Farid passes away, Perveen is the only lawyer who can gain access to his three secluded widows to advise them on their rights. A short while later, Mr. Mukri, the estate’s highly unpleasant trustee, is found lying dead in the house…

This is a really rich historical crime novel. As well as evoking the many sights and sounds of 1920s Bombay, readers are given a fascinating insight into Muslim, Hindu and Parsi (Zoroastrian) traditions — especially in relation to inheritance law (always lawyer up, ladies!) We’re also shown how, even in relatively privileged contexts, women are at risk of falling into seriously disadvantageous situations — and that includes Perveen, who is getting over her own personal trauma. She’s a great character and I’m looking forward to meeting her again in the other novels in the series.

Author Sujata Massey says Perveen was ‘inspired by India’s earliest women lawyers: Cornelia Sorabji of Poona, the first woman to read law at Oxford and the first woman to sit the British law exam in 1892, and Mithan Tata Lam of Bombay, who also read law at Oxford and was the first woman admitted to the Bombay Bar in 1923.’

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing (Corsair 2019)

Opening lines: Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky.

Where the Crawdads Sing sat on my shelf for a while, because I wasn’t sure it had a high enough ‘crime quota’ to hold my interest. But it does and it did. While by no means purely a crime novel — it’s more a fusion of coming-of-age, crime and natural history elements — there’s a satisfying murder mystery at its heart, with plenty of investigative detail and courtroom drama.

The story begins in North Carolina in 1969, when Chase Andrews, a wealthy young man from Barkley Cove, is found dead in the marsh beyond the town. Suspicion falls on Kya Clark, known locally as the ‘Marsh Girl’, who has had some contact with Chase in the past. Sheriff Ed Jackson decides there are enough unanswered questions to investigate.

The story of the investigation is interwoven with the story of Kya’s life, starting in 1952, when her mother leaves the family home after years of abuse. Kya is forced to survive emotionally and financially in their shack out on the salt marsh, and the novel is very good on the realities of poverty. Her solace is the nature all around her, and she embarks on a personal journey as a very unusual observer and chronicler of marsh life. Author Delia Owens worked for many years as a wildlife scientist, and her descriptions of the natural world give the novel a wonderful sense of place, while also highlighting the prejudice of the town towards someone who doesn’t ‘fit in’, but who loves and understands the marsh completely. A poignant tale with emotional depth, Crawdads has recently been turned into what looks like a slightly sanitised Netflix film starring Daisy Edgar-Jones.

The novel’s North Carolina setting and depictions of class lead me neatly onto a real-life case that’s just reached a judicial conclusion in South Carolina.

Murdaugh Murders Podcast

Earlier this week, South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh was found guilty of killing his wife and son, Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, and has been sentenced to life in prison without parole.

But in all honesty, that news is just the tip of a very big iceberg…

The Murdaugh murder case is an grimly fascinating example of where entrenched entitlement, privilege and power can lead. Alex belongs to the wealthy Murdaugh dynasty, which for the last 100 years has maintained a lucrative, iron grip on the judicial system in South Carolina’s impoverished Low Country (very similar to the setting of Owen’s novel).

While outwardly respectable, the family has been linked to five deaths since 2015: those of Stephen Smith, a young gay man who was a high school friend of Alex’s eldest son Buster Murdaugh; Gloria Satterfield, the Murdaugh family housekeeper; Mallory Beach, a young friend of Paul Murdaugh, who died following a crash in a boat he was piloting — and then Paul and his mother Maggie. Alex’s motive for committing the latter two murders seems to have been financial: the investigations into the boat crash and his wife’s divorce plans threatened to reveal Alex’s embezzlement of at least $8 million from his law firm and its clients, who included Gloria Satterfield’s sons (he pocketed the compensation settlement for her death).

As the lawyer acting for the Satterfield sons says, Alex Murdaugh is ‘a really, really, really, really, REALLY bad man’. Generations of privilege and untouchability produced an incredibly toxic individual, and it’s actually quite remarkable that (partial) justice has now been served. Several investigations are still ongoing.

There are HBO and Netflix documentaries on the case, but I’ve been dipping into the Murdaugh Murders podcast by South Carolina journalist Mandy Matney, who has been reporting tenaciously on the case since 2019, and whose research unearthed some crucial information — just one of the reasons why small-town journalism needs to be supported and maintained…

This prequel to 2018’s Mystery Road  matter-of-factly entitled Mystery Road: Origin — is every bit as good as that first series.

Here’s Jay Swan as a young man in 1999, returning from police training in the city to the outback mining town of Jardine where he grew up. It’s not the easiest of homecomings, as Jay has to negotiate the tensions his presence as an indigenous policeman create in both the white and Aboriginal communities — the latter including his father and brother. And then there’s a cold case involving the death of a young indigenous man, and a present day suicide that doesn’t quite add up…

Against this backdrop, Jay starts getting to know Mary Allen, and each in their own way begins the painstaking process of uncovering the town’s secrets, which have been festering away for decades. The way in which affable Aussie banter and mateyness masks deep-rooted racism and violence is particularly well done.

Both of the young leads — Mark Coles Smith as Jay and Tuuli Narkle as Mary — are excellent, and they’re supported by a top-notch cast (especially Mary’s mum and police chief Peter). As ever, the writing and cinematography are great too.

I saw the series on BBC iPlayer, where it’s available for another 10 months.