I have always thought of M. M. Kaye as an author of historical novels (such as the wonderful Far Pavilions) and although I was vaguely aware that she had also written a series of mystery novels, I had never really thought about reading them. Now that I’ve read the first one, Death in Kashmir, I will certainly be reading the others. What a great book this is!
Death in Kashmir was first published in 1953, but set a few years earlier in 1947, just as India is about to gain independence from Britain. Our heroine, Sarah Parrish, is attending what will probably be the final meeting of the Ski Club of India at Gulmarg, a resort in the mountains of Kashmir. Sarah is hoping for an enjoyable, relaxing holiday but the first sign of trouble ahead comes when another skier has a fatal accident on the slopes. Another death soon follows the first, but this time, the victim – a young woman called Janet Rushton – was able to share an important secret with Sarah before she died.
Sarah is now certain that neither death was accidental but all she wants is to leave Gulmarg and its secrets behind her and have nothing more to do with the whole business. When the skiing party breaks up she visits her aunt in Peshawar and tries to forget what she has learned. Soon, though, her promise to Janet pulls her back to Kashmir where she finds herself caught up in the mission her friend was working on before her death – and this time, Sarah’s own life could be in danger.
I loved this book from the very beginning. It’s so important that a first chapter pulls you straight into the story and this one did, right from the opening line – “Afterwards Sarah could never be quite sure whether it was the moonlight or that soft, furtive sound that had awakened her”. The rest of the story was equally engrossing: a perfect mixture of mystery, suspense, romance and espionage.
The descriptions of Kashmir are stunning. The first part of the book is set in winter on the snow-covered mountain trails of Gulmarg and later the action moves to the Dal Lake in the summer resort of Srinagar where Sarah takes over the lease on a houseboat that once belonged to Janet. Both of these locations are described beautifully, but Kaye also chooses just the right words and images to create a genuinely eerie and unsettling atmosphere. I found myself literally holding my breath as Sarah wondered who was standing outside the ski lodge in the dark, as she watched an unknown figure disappearing up a staircase and as she listened to footsteps on the boards of her houseboat in the night.
What makes Sarah’s situation even more dangerous is that she’s sure the enemy must be one of the group of skiers who were gathered at Gulmarg – the same group who are all now spending the summer in Srinagar. Who should she trust? The hostile Helen Warrender who makes no secret of her dislike for Sarah? The jovial, good-natured Hugo and his long-suffering wife, Fudge? Timid Meril Forbes and her domineering aunt? Or the handsome, polo-playing Captain Charles Mallory? When the villain was eventually revealed it didn’t come as a complete surprise – but I have to admit I had suspected almost everybody at some point, so one of my guesses was bound to be right!
The book is also interesting from the historical viewpoint, being set just before the end of the British Raj and the transfer of powers back to India. Through the stories of Sarah and the rest of the British community in Kashmir, I thought Kaye had perfectly captured the mood of a group of people who knew that their way of life was about to change forever.
I’m now looking forward to reading the other five Death In… mysteries. I just need to decide which one to read next!