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Murders, They Write
By Hemlata Vasavada
Murders, They Write
Do you like curling up with a good mystery novel? Here are snapshots of four women authors of Indian origin who have stormed the bastion of whodunits—and a brief glimpse of a few Indian men who have made a splash in this genre.
They “can be as devious in plotting a mystery and as brutal in describing bloody murders as men,” say some writers. Whom are they talking about? Women writers, of course, and specifically, in this case, women writers of Indian origin in the crime fiction genre. In recent times, India has seen the rise of a number of mystery writers, including Madhumita Bhattacharya, Madhulika Liddle, Manjiri Prabhu, and Kalpana Swaminathan. Many first- and second-generation Indian-American women—such as Swati Kaushal, Bharti Kirchner, Sujata Massey, Gigi Pandian, and Radha Vatsal—have also carved out their criminal worlds. Interestingly, several of these mystery writers have also authored books in other genres and covered a variety of topics for their shorter fiction and nonfiction. Many have a background in nonwriting-related fields.
I had the opportunity to speak with Bharti Kirchner, Madhulika Liddle, Sujata Massey, and Gigi Pandian about their backgrounds, novels, and how they got involved with mystery writing.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Seattle-based Bharti Kirchner worked as a systems engineer in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. After quitting her job and settling with her husband in Seattle, she enrolled in a writing program at the University of Washington. She is the author of seven novels, four cookbooks, and numerous articles and essays for magazines and newspapers. She is well known in literary circles, and has judged in contests and conducted workshops for writers. One of her short stories in Seattle Noir was well-received and led to her fifth novel and first mystery, Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery. Her new novel, Season of Sacrifice: A Maya Mallick Mystery, is out this month.
Madhulika Liddle graduated from Institute of Hotel Management, Catering, and Nutrition in Delhi, married a fellow student, and worked in her field for twelve years. She resigned in 2008 to write full time. She says she is “first and foremost, a writer of the short story,” and her writing has been “endured cheerfully” by her parents and sister since her childhood.
Her first publishing success came with “Silent Fear,” a short story set in an office during dark nonworking hours. In June 2001, it won Femina magazine’s Thriller Contest. She won the Overall Prize in the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association’s Short Story Competition for “A Morning Swim,” which describes an eightyear- old boy diving into the Yamuna River to collect coins. Liddle writes travel articles for magazines, humor for broadcast on All India Radio, and maintains a blog on classical cinema. She started researching and writing the first of her Muzaffar Jang mysteries in 2001. The novel, set in 17th century Delhi during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shahjahan, was published in 2008. Three more books in the series followed. The latest in the series, The Crimson City, was published in 2015.
A daughter of German and Indian parents, Sujata Massey was born in England and has lived in fourteen countries. After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in “The Writing Seminars” at Johns Hopkins University, she worked for five years as a features reporter for The Baltimore Evening Sun. She moved to Japan with her husband, a medical officer with the U.S. Navy, where she taught English and immersed herself in the culture. While there, she was inspired to write a mystery featuring Rei Shimura, a young Japanese-American woman. She wrote ten more Rei Shimura mysteries. Massey then changed her setting to India, a country she had visited as a child and from where she adopted her two children. Landmarks and buildings of the colonial period piqued her interest in Indians and Europeans from the previous century. The Sleeping Dictionary describes the struggles of an Indian woman in Calcutta during World War II. Two more books followed. Her latest, The Widows of Malabar Hill, will be out in January 2018.
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San Francisco-based Gigi Pandian’s cultural anthropologist parents (from New Mexico and southern India) “dragged” her around the world on their research trips, providing her ample experiences for great fiction. While studying for her Ph.D. she decided to leave academics to concentrate on her writing. Her writing endeavors accelerated when, at the age of 36, she was diagnosed with cancer. She wrote mysteries while going through her treatment. She is doing well and takes her camera and notebook with her as she travels with her husband whenever possible. She writes Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mysteries and Accidental Alchemist Mysteries, paranormal mysteries with fantasy elements. Both series, she says, are considered traditional mysteries because they involve puzzle plots and don’t contain graphic violence. In addition, she writes “locked room mystery short stories,” which she describes as cozy mysteries. Pandian is on the board of Sisters in Crime and is a member of Mystery Writers of America.
Bharti Kirchner’s latest novel, Season of Sacrifice: A Maya Mallick Mystery, has been released in hardcover by Severn House. This first installment in the series describes how Maya Mallick, an Indian-American private detective, solves the death of a brilliant scientist researching a malaria vaccine. Her death appears to be a protest suicide against a visiting Chinese dignitary. When a second such death happens, Maya realizes that the victims were driven to such violent deaths. After several misleading clues, even an attack on Maya and her mother, the detective finds the criminals and their motives for driving these young women to “sacrificial suicides.” With great difficulty she gets the evidence needed to catch the criminals. While Kirchner’s last novel was historical fiction set in India, this one is set in present-day Seattle. She says all she had to do was step out of the house to see, hear, smell, and write about Seattle—its streets, houses, people, Indian shops, and restaurants.
Kirchner’s first cookbook was named by Food Art Magazine as one of the best cookbooks in 1992. The second was named among the top ten cookbooks of 1993 by USA Today, and one of the best cookbooks by Chicago Tribune.
She has won two “4-Culture Literature Awards,” several literature grants, and has been honored as a “Living Pioneer Asian American Author.” Her first novel was chosen by Seattle Weekly as one of the top 18 books in the last 25 years. Her fourth was selected for the “Summer Washington Reads Program.” Her novels have been praised by Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist for “painting vivid pictures of modern India and of immigrant life.”
In contrast, Madhulika Liddle chose to set the Muzaffar Jang series in seventeenth century Dilli (now Delhi). Her recent Crimson City, published by Hachette, India, is set in 1657. Newly married Muzaffar Jang wants to keep his beloved wife Shireen safe and happy during political unrest in Emperor Shahjahan’s rule. While he tries to solve the murder of a merchant in his neighborhood, a moneylender asks him to find his kidnapped son. Soon after, there are two more murders. Muzaffar Jang wants to find the serial killer, but his brother-in-law, Khan Sahib, the Kotwal—head lawman—who has practically raised him, warns him not to interfere with the law. Muzaffar Jang wants to investigate the murder but feels obligated to obey his brother-in-law. Shireen helps him make up his mind to continue the search and assists him in the investigation. Although the protagonist is male, his wife’s encouragement, reasoning, and keen observation help him solve the crime. Describing the details of 17th century Dilli—the dust, horses, mahalsara (where he lives), streets, shops, garments of men and women, and methods of solving crimes without modern tools—required extensive research. Liddle says she started researching and writing the series in 2001, and the first book was published seven years later—yet she still continues to research. Her next book, Blue Beads (tentative title), is not a mystery but a collection of women-centric short stories in various genres.
Sujata Massey’s forthcoming novel, The Widows of Malabar Hill, published by Soho Crime, is a legal mystery set in 1921 Bombay (now Mumbai). The protagonist is Parveen Mistry, the first Oxford-educated female lawyer in Bombay. She is a Parsi in an abusive marriage that ends in a tragedy. She can’t divorce or remarry, so she lives with her secret past and helps other women in trouble. While checking the will of the late Mr. Farid, a Muslim businessman, Parveen notices that his three widows have signed away the inheritance to a charity. She knows that at least one of the widows couldn’t read the will. Parveen’s investigation causes hostility, but she continues her work, risking her safety. As the plot unfolds, the reader gets a glimpse of history, the struggles of women, Parsi traditional clothes and food, and even a few recipes. According to Massey, the character of Parveen was inspired by the real life character of Cornelia Sorabji, a lawyer who studied at Oxford in 1889. When she returned to India, she took up women’s causes and wrote letters to promote women’s rights and legal assistance for women.
Massey won the Agatha Award in 1997 for the Best First Mystery novel. Her other books in the series have been nominated for Agatha Awards, the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and Edgar and Anthony Awards. Her third book was the winner of Macavity Award for Best Novel.
Gigi Pandian’s recently released paranormal mystery in the Accidental Alchemist series is The Elusive Elixir. The story involves Dorian Robert-Houdin, a gargoyle chef/modern-day Poirot who is turning into stone. Zoe Faust, his friend, goes from Portland to Paris to search for the medicine that could save Dorian. Meanwhile Zoe has a new love interest for the first time in “nearly a century.” She faces a conflict between a safe romantic life and finding the elixir to help her friend.
The author’s novel in her mystery series, The Ninja’s Illusion: A Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery, will be released in October 2017. It is fifth in the series featuring Jaya Jones and her good friend Sanjay Rai, the stage magician who calls himself “The Hindi Houdini.” When Jaya learns that Sanjay is travelling for his debut show in Japan, she joins him in hopes of learning more about an ancient mystery. In Kyoto, Jaya is puzzled when a Ninja interferes with Sanjay’s tricks. Jaya and her friends must unravel the secrets of ancient Japan before they or their friends become murder victims. According to reviewer Susan Spann, this story, set in many beautiful locations in Japan, is fast paced and well-crafted. It blends “modern magic and ancient secrets” and is “full of compelling characters.”
Pandian received a Malice Domestic grant, and her first Jaya Jones mystery was named “Best of 2012 Debut Novel” by Suspense magazine. She also received the Left Coast Crime Rose Award, the Best of 2016 Cozy Mystery, and a Lefty Award. Her short story “The Hindi Houdini” was shortlisted for Agatha and Macavity Awards.
Although the four mystery writers have their unique perspectives and experiences, write from different corners of the world, and have chosen different characters, settings, time periods, and subgenres for their mysteries, they seem to have a few qualities in common. They are all widely traveled and have lived in many places with the opportunity to experience other cultures and ideas. Their parents encouraged their curiosity, creativity, a love for the written word—and that has helped them create fascinating stories.
In case you’d like to copy down the list of male authors above and their books, here are some successful male authors of Indian origin who have drawn praise for their mystery/crime/thriller novels:
V. Sanjay Kumar
Runs an art gallery and writes about art for magazines.
He’s the author of three novels:
The Third Squad
The last one, crime fiction describing police brutality, was released by Akashic Books in March 2017. Praised for its lyrical prose by Publishers Weekly, this novel is set in Mumbai.
Works as an accountant in London. Author of novels:
SOAR—Success over Adversity Reigns!
A Rising Man
A Necessary Evil
Mukherjee’s debut historical crime fiction set in pre-independence Calcutta, A Rising Man, introduces Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee. It won the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition in 2016.
Author of thrillers, based on historical, theological, and mythological themes but written in a contemporary context. He has written four novels:
The Rozabal Line
Chanakya’s Chant (available in English, Hindi, Telugu, and Tamil)
The Krishna Key (available in English, Hindi, Telugu, and Tamil)
The Sialkot Saga
Sanghi, included in Forbes India “Celebrity 100 List,” has been hailed as an Indian Dan Brown.
Prolific author who has worked with many multinational banks and is the head of a leading financial institution in Mumbai. His nine books, including the following five, have foreign banks as their settings:
If God was a Banker
I Bought the Monk’s Ferrari
Devil in Pinstripes
The Incredible Banker
In the Name of God
Subramanian is the winner of the Golden Quill Readers’ Choice Award, Economist Crossword Book Award, and Raymond Crossword Book Award. His novels have been compared to those of John Grisham.
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