|Newcomer Morag McKendrick Pippin offers up an intriguing, lush historical debut, set in a recent time period that almost negates the “historical” tag. Blood Moon Over Bengal takes place in 1932 India, during the last years of British rule, and the story of an English woman and a half-English, half-Indian man is engrossing.
Elizabeth Mainwarring has recently inherited a six-million-pound fortune and a sheep station in New Zealand from a wealthy uncle. Her mother has passed away, and on her way to New Zealand, she decides to stop in India to try and re-establish some sort of relationship with her estranged father, a colonel in the British army. Elizabeth and her best friend, Fiona, are piloting an elderly plane that gives up the ghost just as they arrive, necessitating an emergency landing on the parade grounds rather than the airport. It’s here that Elizabeth meets Major Nigel Covington-Singh, son of an English noblewoman and an Indian maharaja.
Elizabeth is at first put off by Nigel’s high-handedness, but the attraction between them is undeniable. Nigel has his hands full trying to solve a recent spate of murders. Someone is killing women in a brutal fashion. When he and Elizabeth embark on a romantic relationship, it looks like the killer may have trained his sights on Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is trying to come to terms with her father, but his disapproval of Nigel as a suitor is palpable and leads him to do something that is ultimately self-destructive. The British women stationed in Calcutta are an assortment of bored Army wives and spouses of government functionaries. Their own loose morals create an unintentionally hilarious double standard as they warn Elizabeth against getting involved with a “wog”. And the killer strikes again, depicted in rather graphic detail. Meanwhile, Nigel and Elizabeth fall into a passionate affair, then into a deep love.
The author does a fine job of depicting the steaminess of late summer in India just before the monsoons start. Her use of English slang, sprinkled throughout the dialog, lends an air of authenticity to the story. And she doesn’t hesitate to include details that feel authentic to 1932, such as the fact that everybody smokes cigarettes – Elizabeth is forever fitting a Dunhill into a holder and having somebody fire it up.
The author’s attention to detail is also her worst enemy in this story, as sometimes there’s simply too much product name-dropping. I don’t care that Elizabeth’s bag is a genuine Elsa Schiaparelli, for instance, or her gown a Worth, or her cognac Remy, or her champagne Mumms. And some of her historical detail is a little off – as when she has the characters singing the lyrics to “Blue Moon” – a song that wasn’t released until two years after this story takes place. Combine this with love scenes that are heavily shaded in purple, and the writing bogs down the story at times.
That said, Nigel is a wonderful hero, and Elizabeth satisfactorily spunky and intelligent, though not drawn in great detail. The murder sub-plot offers a few red herrings, though sharp readers will pick up a vital clue early on and their instincts will prove correct. And purple prose or not, the sex is as steamy as the weather.
All in all, Blood Moon Over Bengal is a respectable debut romance with an interesting setting, and I’ll be watching for Pippin’s next release. Kudos to Leisure for publishing something different from the usual Regency-set historicals. We’re told that 20th-century settings don’t sell; though this book has a few first-novel flaws, for readers’ sakes I hope it sells like hotcakes, if only to encourage more originality on the part of publishers.