The best books on India that blend history with gripping mysteries

Who am I?

I lived the first 24 years of my life in Mumbai and traveled to many parts of India. I’ve had close friends of every community and religion and been fascinated by the incredible diversity. By studying historical crimes and how they were reported and investigated, I learned a great deal about the norms of Indian culture. Reading (and writing) historical mysteries allowed me to dive into past eras and immerse myself in the tumultuous events that have shaped our world today. While I’m obsessed with the turn of the 20th century, mysteries in later years also delight me. Enjoy this selection of mysteries set in India that reveal the inner workings of its diverse culture.


I wrote...

Murder in Old Bombay: A Mystery

By Nev March,

Book cover of Murder in Old Bombay: A Mystery

What is my book about?

Historical mystery Murder in Old Bombay is based on real events in colonial India. In 1891 two wealthy young women from a prominent family fell to their deaths from the clocktower in the middle of Bombay University. But the husband of the older girl is sure it's not suicide. He hires Captain James Agnihotri, a recovering officer, to investigate. That request leads Captain Jim on a merry chase all over India and into a whole lot of trouble.

The books I picked & why

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Smoke and Ashes

By Abir Mukherjee,

Book cover of Smoke and Ashes

Why this book?

Mukherjee’s first chapter is a masterclass on how to open a mystery-thriller.

“It’s not unusual to find a corpse in a funeral parlor. It’s just rare for them to walk door under their own steam. It was a riddle worth savoring, but I didn’t have the time, seeing as I was running for my life.” This got my interest right away. I was in!

Mukherjee’s protagonist is in an opium den at the wrong time. Beautifully bookended, opium forms the personal struggles of this worthy protagonist. With quirky lines “take me to your organ grinder” and “we’re here to see Torquemada” I enjoyed this action-packed story, set against the backdrop of the 1920s Indian independence movement.

Protagonist Sam Wyndham is an English policeman who’s apolitical, and I enjoyed his comic-accurate cynical portrayal of both Indian proclivities and the British pretensions. But Indians are far more than backdrop, and form vibrant and compelling portraits in this book. The pace of this book is fabulous from start to finish. Descriptions of Calcutta could only come from one who’s been there. Come prepared for the grungy seedy Calcutta, and the grandeur of faded glory.

But how can an Englishman who does not speak Bengali interview suspects or witnesses? How could he know if they were lying? How could he navigate the city? These pose hurdles for this sleuth! Luckily his assistant is young Surendranath “Surrender-not” Bannerjee, a puny-bodied law graduate committed to law and order, even against his own family’s preferences! Best of all I enjoyed the rapport between Wyndham and Surrender-not Bannerjee who is one of the most delightful characters in the book.

Smoke and Ashes

By Abir Mukherjee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Smoke and Ashes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

** A THE SUNDAY TIMES BEST 100 BEST CRIME NOVELS SINCE 1945**

'Smoke and Ashes is Abir Mukherjee's best book yet; a brilliantly conceived murder mystery set amidst political and social turmoil - beautifully crafted' C.J. Sansom

India, 1921. Captain Sam Wyndham is battling a serious addiction to opium that he must keep secret from his superiors in the Calcutta police force.

But Wyndham finds himself in a tight spot when he stumbles across a corpse in an opium den. When he then comes across a second body bearing the same injuries, Wyndham is convinced that there's a deranged killer…


The Bombay Prince

By Sujata Massey,

Book cover of The Bombay Prince

Why this book?

A young woman is found dead only a few yards behind the stands where hundreds of students gathered to watch the Prince of Wales’ parade on his 1922 visit to Bombay. When lawyer Pervin Mistry realizes it’s the same woman who consulted her only days ago, she’s driven by guilt and determined to help the Parsi family through the awful process of the coroner's inquiry.

I started this book with a whole host of questions, which grew more dire as the number of suspects rose. Finely etched characters abound. Pervin is torn between a natural patriotism and desire to see justice and her own family’s interests. As she learns more, she realizes that the young female student has a sort of dangerous honesty (a term the author Sujata Massey used when I interviewed her) which complicates matters and shows the difficulty of being a dutiful daughter while staying true to one’s own beliefs.

I read this book until past 2 AM and kept thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it. The end came with multiple surprises and was very satisfying. I enjoyed it all and kept rooting for Pervin as she works through the barriers thrown up before a woman lawyer.

Pure nostalgia and a delightful return to the complex Bombay under the Raj.

The Bombay Prince

By Sujata Massey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Bombay Prince as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bombay’s first female lawyer, Perveen Mistry, is compelled to bring justice to the family of a murdered female Parsi student just as Bombay’s streets erupt in riots to protest British colonial rule. Sujata Massey is back with this third installment to the Agatha and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning series set in 1920s Bombay.

November 1921. Edward VIII, Prince of Wales and future ruler of India, is arriving in Bombay to begin a fourmonth tour. The Indian subcontinent is chafing under British rule, and Bombay solicitor Perveen Mistry isn’t surprised when local unrest over the royal arrival spirals into riots. But…


Cracking India

By Bapsi Sidhwa,

Book cover of Cracking India

Why this book?

Sidhwa’s book describes the partition of India that formed present-day India and Pakistan. These tortured days and the tragedies and massacres that followed are viewed through the lens of a gentle and educated Parsi family. The narrator is Lenny, a young girl afflicted with polio, whose active observations center on the members of her family and servants. Her eighteen-year-old Ayah and the devotion of the ice-candy man play out against the backdrop of terrible hatred and betrayal, where religious affiliation trumps all, even what some call love, and others, lust. 

This book had me weeping for days. Its simplicity is deceptive. The simple narration from a six-year-old is entirely believable, the confusion of what really happened, and what it means. But the adult me could read between the lines and understand the full measure of tragedy, the horror, the inevitable result. And I was glad that Lenny was too young to know, and that her parents would not have explained. This book demonstrates how dangerous religious fervor can be, as a warning to us all. As India becomes even more virulently nationalistic with BJP Hindutva overcoming the usual benign benevolence toward all religions, this book is a must-read for all generations. Because “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

Cracking India

By Bapsi Sidhwa,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cracking India as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Notable Book: A girl’s happy home life is suddenly disrupted by the 1947 Partition of India in this “multifaceted jewel of a novel” (Houston Chronicle).

Young Lenny Sethi is kept out of school because she suffers from polio. She spends her days with Ayah, her beautiful nanny, visiting with the many admirers that Ayah draws. It is in the company of these working-class characters that Lenny learns about religious differences, religious intolerance, and the blossoming genocidal strife on the eve of Partition.

As she matures, Lenny begins to identify the differences between the Hindus, Moslems, and…


The Lost Man of Bombay

By Vaseem Khan,

Book cover of The Lost Man of Bombay

Why this book?

Oh, how I enjoyed the dry wit embedded into each page! This complex mystery is filled with engaging characters. Author Vaseem Khan lavishes even the most minor characters with detailed and hilarious descriptions. The mystery of three separate murders converging is wrapped up with a cipher puzzle embedded in the mythology of Indian culture and iconography. The crimes with two different modus operandi makes things even more confusing.

Sourcing from the internment of foreign nationals in India during World War II, this twisty tale takes us through a number of locations and little-known events of India's history. I enjoyed protagonist Persis Wadia, as a Parsi woman myself, however, seeing her run headlong into dangerous situations does not do her credit. The deepening personal relationship with Archie is delightful but perhaps a deeper understanding of the moral and personal quandaries will be coming in future books. This does not detract from the fabulous pace, the twisty plot, and the delicious prose this novel offers.

The Lost Man of Bombay

By Vaseem Khan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lost Man of Bombay as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When the body of a white man is found frozen in the Himalayan foothills near Dehra Dun, he is christened the Ice Man by the national media. Who is he? How long has he been there? Why was he killed?

As Inspector Persis Wadia and Metropolitan Police criminalist Archie Blackfinch investigate the case in Bombay, they uncover a trail left behind by the enigmatic Ice Man - a trail leading directly into the dark heart of conspiracy.

Meanwhile, two new murders grip the city. Is there a serial killer on the loose, targeting Europeans?

Rich in atmosphere, the thrilling third chapter…


Riot: A Love Story

By Shashi Tharoor,

Book cover of Riot: A Love Story

Why this book?

This book is misnamed Riot - A Love Story. But don’t be deceived. In fact it is the tale of an affair gone wrong: Page one starts with a news article about the death of an American student. Solving the puzzle sheds light on the Hindu-Muslim riots in India as well as the underpinning of Indian families and how they view foreign-born individuals.

The book is a murder mystery without a detective, or even a clear denouement. That put me, as the reader before a set of puzzle pieces, each from a different point of view, laid out unflinchingly to draw a picture of enormous betrayal. Murder Mystery readers expect a neat wrap-up at the end and a clean ending. Tharoor has none for us. Instead, murderers pray piously, wearing their religion with a self-righteous smirk. But no, I do not believe criminals go unpunished by the eternal eye, not over the long run. In India, manmade and natural calamities abound, giving that eternal eye ample opportunity for justice.

Tharoor elaborates on the different positions on the Hindu-Muslim conflict, each with its own internal conflicts that caused the rise of militant Hindu Fundamentalism. This thinking resulted in the 1980s with nationwide propaganda and the plan to demolish the Babri Masjid and ‘rebuild’ a Ram Janmabhoomi temple believed to exist on that spot centuries ago. This led to several Hindu-Muslim riots throughout India, murders, rapes, lynchings, people set aflame. Did you believe Indians were peaceful? This book may change your mind. 

Religion is still being hijacked by extremists just as when Tharoor wrote Riot in 2001. No wonder that globally, each year less and less youth claim to belong to any religion!

Are we supposed to pity the dead woman’s lover? Is it a semi-autobiographical note? Much of the book is given to his internal angst: to leave a loveless marriage for the appropriately named Miss Hart or break up with her and lose his chance at happiness. Tharoor paints an eloquent picture of selfish male entitlement with his self-pitying prose and excuses of ‘I cannot destroy my daughter’s life.’ I wasn’t sure Tharoor means us to feel this outrage, but this is a feminist book, even if he did not intend it: in relationships, women end up giving far more than men.

Little betrayals masterfully revealed also stab at the reader who is placed in the position of a detective unravelling the girl’s murder. The effusive quotes from those same betrayers, their mournful words upon her death add another layer of poignancy that may forever change how you read such news articles in the media. Finally, Tharoor has given a message he may not have intended, an indictment of a culture where ego and position define men more than their conscience, a stinging portrayal of the supreme selfishness of the traditional Indian male. 

Riot: A Love Story

By Shashi Tharoor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Riot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Who killed twenty-four-year-old Priscilla Hart? This highly motivated, idealistic American student had come to India to volunteer in women's health programs, but had her work made a killer out of an enraged husband? Or was her death the result of a xenophobic attack? Had an indiscriminate love affair spun out of control? Had a disgruntled, deeply jealous colleague been pushed to the edge? Or was she simply the innocent victim of a riot that had exploded in that fateful year of 1989 between Hindus and Muslims?
Experimenting masterfully with narrative form in this brilliant tour de force, internationally acclaimed novelist…


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