Mystery in Malakand
1920. Widowed in the Great War, Hester Metcalfe returns to nurse in Peshawar on the Northwest Frontier, where she was born and raised. The Frontier is seething with rebellion: the many local tribes as well as the Afghans are being stirred up by the Bolsheviks who have long coveted British India. When Hester’s lover, a British officer, is murdered, she is determined to find the killer. But is the murderer a Pathan rebel or someone from the British community? And why was her lover’s corpse found in a ditch in the Old City? When the Chief Commissioner offers an opportunity to travel into the mountains to meet her lover’s mysterious contact and gather information, she is eager to go.
The plot is not very plausible, and there are far too many characters to keep straight, but that does not really matter. Peshawar and the Frontier make the novel worth reading. Bell’s descriptions of the Old City with its bazaars and twisting alleys with hundreds of shops and teeming with varied races and tribal people are fascinatingly exotic and colourfully drawn, the mountains and their villages and people even more so. She is excellent on weather and the shifting light on the landscape, as well as dust and flies and smells. She makes the whole Frontier with its people and customs wonderfully vivid. Oddly, she seems not to be interested in details of British life in the Cantonment and there is very little sense of period, except in her loving descriptions of cars. But the timelessness of the mountains and the ancient rivalries and feuds among the native people are more than enough. An interesting read for fans of the Raj and the Frontier.