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Wednesday 2 August 2023

Interview: Lizzie Sirett in conversation with Vaseem Khan


Vaseem was born in London in 1973.
He studied Accounting and Finance at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
For ten years he worked as a management consultant in India to a hotel group building environmentally friendly hotels around the country,
called ECOTELS.
 He returned to the UK in 2006 and has since worked at University College London for the Department of Security and Crime Science.
His first book in his most recent series, Midnight at Malabar House,
set in India in 1950, won the CWA Historical Dagger.

Lizzie: Thank you for agreeing to chat with us, Vas, particularly as you have just taken over as chair of the 70-year-old Crime Writers Association. Congratulations by the way.  Your fourth book in your new series, Death of a lesser God,  is published in August. Can you tell us a little about it?
Vas:     Lovely to be here and to chat with your readers, who are clearly the most discerning in crime fiction (Yes, I believe flattery will get me everywhere) … Death of a Lesser God asks a simple question – can post-colonial societies treat their former colonisers justly? James Whitby is an Englishman born in India during the Raj, convicted in post-Independence India of murdering a prominent Indian lawyer. He claims he is innocent, the victim of a form of ‘reverse racism’. My lead character, Persis, India’s first female police detective - working with Archie Blackfinch, an English forensic scientist deputed to Bombay from the Met Police in London - has eleven days to find out if Whitby is innocent or guilty before he is hanged. The clock is ticking! … The first half of the book is set in Bombay; the second half sees Persis and Archie travel to Calcutta, the old colonial capital of British India. Here they uncover a link to an old case: the unsolved murder of an African American soldier during WW2, when thousands of American GIs were billeted in Calcutta.... These books are my way of bringing alive the untold history of the Raj and discussing how post-colonial societies adapted after securing their freedom. It’s a discussion we’re still having, one that’s important to many nations around the world.

Lizzie:     The 1950’s was a difficult time in India, was this what prompted you to set this new series in this period?   
Vas: I have readers all around the world and they are endlessly fascinated with India, both past and present. The Malabar House series was born of my desire to explore India just after Independence when the modern India we see today was formed. This was a complicated time, not least because India was renegotiating her relationship with Britain after 300 years of the British presence on the subcontinent. Beginning with Midnight at Malabar House, we witness a nation still reeling in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination and the horrors of Partition when a million Indians died in religious riots. Persis, determined to prove herself in a man’s world, is banished to Bombay’s smallest police station, Malabar House, populated by rejects and misfits. (The Times said: “Think Mick Herron in Bombay”!) The murder of an English diplomat falls into her lap, and she is forced to work with Archie Blackfinch. It’s an uncomfortable, will they-won’t-they relationship. After all, how can an Indian woman in post-colonial India consider an Englishman as anything more than a colleague…? In many ways, I write these books to give readers the history of the British time on the subcontinent that I wish I had been taught at school.

Lizzie:  Persis Wadia is an intriguing character, clearly strong and passionate about her job. Is she purely from your imagination or based on someone you met who had experienced being among the first female police detectives in Bombay?
Persis has grown up without a mother, raised by her cantankerous father, Sam Wadia, who runs Bombay’s oldest bookshop. When Persis qualifies for the police service, she finds herself in a highly paternalistic and often misogynistic environment. She is so determined to succeed that she often rides roughshod over the sensibilities of her colleagues. In some ways, she is a reluctant symbol for the aspirations of many women in India. But all Persis wants is to prove herself a worthy detective. She is inspired by many women pioneers from that era. India’s actual first female police detective came along in 1960, and, yes, she too was an inspiration for these books.

Lizzie: Your first book, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was published in 2015, it quickly became a bestseller, inspired, so I have read, when you first when out to India working as a management consultant, and saw an elephant lumbering down the middle of the road. You wrote five books featuring Baby Ganesh, was it easy to leave him?  Or will there be more books at a later date?
Vas:     I lived in Mumbai/Bombay for ten years in my twenties and those incredible memories still power my writing. My first series (known as the Baby Ganesh Agency novels), starting with The Unexpected Inheritancef Inspector Chopra, is about a middle-aged policeman who retires in his late forties, and solves murders while having to look after a baby elephant. Those books are set in modern Mumbai. I used to love walking around the city when I lived there - I found it fascinating how the architecture would change every few hundred yards, representing the many influences that have reshaped Mumbai over the years. Many Mumbai/Bombay locations have featured across my two series. So, for instance, the Dharavi slum takes up a whole chapter in The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, as Chopra investigates the murder of a poor local boy. In Bad Day at the Vulture Club a wealthy Parsee is murdered and so we visit Bombay’s Towers of Silence where the Parsee dead are laid out for vultures to eat. My aim is to take readers to the streets of the city, to give them an idea of what India looks like, sounds like, even smells like. The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra was a bestseller, and picked by the Sunday Times as one of the 40 best crime novels published 2015-2020. Many readers tell me it’s the closest they’ve come to actually travelling to India! So, yes, my hope is to come back to that series in due course.

Lizzie: Personally, I love some comedy in my crime fiction.  And I am delighted that it still pops up in this new series. But did you find it more challenging writing a ‘serious’ series? Is there more research
required in what is an historical period?

I use a gentle note of humour in all my novels, a wry observation of the world around us. I believe that humour and serious topics can sit comfortably side by side. My two series lead characters – Chopra and Persis – are very serious individuals, investigating serious crimes, in a very turbulent and often dark environment. The humour I use helps to occasionally lighten the atmosphere. It’s also the reason I have a lot of readers around the world – humour translates across cultural and geographical boundaries!

Lizzie: Do you plan your books, or have an idea – start off and see where it takes you?
    My novels are tightly plotted, with plenty of cryptic clues – I write in a Golden Age/Agatha Christie style. I start with a murder, then work backwards from there, seeding in alternate suspects, red herrings, and clues. I also have a theme I want to explore in each book, something that I think would be of interest to my readers. In The Dying Day, the second Malabar House novel, a priceless copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy goes missing from Bombay’s Asiatic Society. As Persis and Archie investigate, they discover a series of cryptic clues written in verse. The book was inspired by Dan Smith’s The Da Vinci Code, but also by my desire to explore some of the fabulous artefacts that made their way to India during the Raj. The manuscript of The Divine Comedy actually exists – Mussolini once tried to buy it for a million dollars from the Indian government. At the end of each of the Malabar House books, I provide details on all the facts that the story was based on. My readers find it fascinating that so much that seems fantastical is based on actual events!

What is your writing process? Are you a disciplined writer i.e., do you write for a certain number of hours each day, or set yourself a target of x number of words?
Vas:      I write early in the morning when my brain is still working. It takes me four months to plan a novel, in great detail. And then I like to write a thousand words a day, aiming to take another four months to finish a first draft. I often hire a private mariachi band to play outside my window to remind me a deadline is coming up…. OK. So I made that up. My only real quirk is that I sometimes write on a cricket pitch. This is because when I play I normally get out very quickly and then I have nothing to do but sit on the sidelines cursing my teammates… or writing. I actually love the process of writing, always have done. The only hard part is continually coming up with new ideas – it’s like trying to pull the teeth from a crocodile while you’ve got your head in its mouth.

Lizzie:   When embarking on a new book, what area of the book challenges you the most?
Vas:      Crime fiction allows us to examine the world around us – and to learn while being entertained. With each book I write I want to explore a particular theme – for me, that’s the challenge. For instance, the Malabar House novels are crime novels, but they allow me to slip in details to correct omissions and misconceptions from the British time in India. In The Lost Man of Bombay, the third in the series, a white man is found murdered in the Himalayan foothills with only a notebook in his pocket containing cryptic clues. In the book I mention that Mount Everest was named after a Welsh surveyor who worked in India. But George Everest never went near the mountain, nor determined that it was the world’s highest peak. An Indian named Radhanath Sikdar did that. Alas, you won’t find Sikdar’s name on any map. We often hear that history is written by the winners. It gives me great satisfaction to redress the balance!

Lizzie: I have read that you wrote for over twenty years before you were published, completing half-a-dozen unpublished novels and collecting numerous rejection slips. I was impressed with your advice to young writers: write, write and then, when you're sick of it, write some more." Having now been writing for some time have you any other gems to share with aspiring writers?
Vas: The number one reason debut manuscripts are rejected by agents is because they are not written to a publishable standard. I urge newer writers to hone their craft and ensure that their first submission is as good as they can make it. Compare it to other successful books in that genre and see if the actual writing – the prose, the structure, the characters – stacks up. Quality is the one thing that will always stand out in an agent’s mountainous slush pile.

Lizzie:  So, what’s next?
Vas:     Well, I’m on the publicity trail now for Death of a Lesser God and would greatly appreciate any pre-orders! Pre-orders help immensely in determining how much effort booksellers put behind a book. But my next release – in August 2024 – will be a departure for me. A modern psychological thriller set in a small town in America, provisionally entitled Eden Falls – you heard it here first! It’s about a woman who was convicted of murder aged 17, serves her sentence, and returns in her mid-thirties to the small mining town in which she grew up. She can’t remember exactly what happened on the day of the murder, and sets about attempting to prove her innocence – to herself, as well as everyone else…. I’ll finish by saying thank you for inviting me along to discuss my books. As you mentioned above, it took me over twenty years to get published. Now, after ten years in the industry, and in spite of all the success that I have been fortunate enough to experience, I am still utterly amazed and eternally grateful that anyone might read my books and enjoy them. Thank you, lovely people!


 The Baby Ganesh Investigation Agency

 The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (2015)
The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown (2016)
The Strange Disappearance of A Bollywood Star (2017)
Inspector Chopra and the Million-Dollar Motor Car (2018)
Murder At the Grand Raj Palace (2018)
Last Victim of the Monsoon Express (2019)
Bad Day At the Vulture Club (2019)

 Malabar House Series

Midnight at the Malabar House (2020)
The Dying Day (2021)
The Lost Man of Bombay (2022)
Death of a Lesser God (2023)

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