It’s December 31, 1949. Persis Wadia, India’s female police inspector, is seated in her office at Malabar House, when she gets a call informing her that Sir James Herriot, an English diplomat, has been murdered at his home, Laburnum House on Marine Drive during an New Year’s Eve party. But more importantly, the murder weapon is missing, and so are Herriot’s trousers. But Midnight at Malabar House (Hodder & Stoughton), Vaseem Khan’s latest novel, goes beyond the “whodunit”; it enmeshes the reader in drift nets bound by partition, colonialism and independence. Amidst the drama, though, are bits of nostalgia: the concept of ‘Bombay Time’ or a dining compartment in an outstation train.
Khan is best known for his five-part Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series and his new title is only the first of Inspector Wadia series that will comprise three novels. He also works at the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College London. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
How would you best describe your relationship with Bombay, and how has that defined this book?
Bombay, for me, is what writer Suketu Mehta called the ‘Maximum City’. I grew up in London and went to Bombay aged 23, back in 1997. I was hit by sights, sounds and smells I’d never experienced. I spent 10 wonderful years here, watching the city and India change dramatically. Those memories went into The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, the first in my Baby Ganesh Agency series. The novel became a Times bestseller, later translated around the world. I used that series to explore different aspects of modern Mumbai.
It was inevitable that, at some point, I would turn my thoughts to what the city was like in the past — and that’s how Midnight at Malabar House was born. I was particularly intrigued by the period just after Indian Independence because I feel it hasn’t been explored enough in fiction. My time in Bombay was the greatest adventure anyone could ask for and my memories of the city continue to power my writing.
As I understand it, the Baby Ganesh agency series concluded last year. When did you start thinking about Persis Wadia?
I’d been thinking about a new series while researching Bad Day at the Vulture Club, the last in the Baby Ganesh Agency books — about the murder of a wealthy Parsee — and decided that I wanted to explore historical India, specifically India just after Independence. The question then was: whose eyes did I want to see that past through? Persis evolved as a character from a single photograph, of a young Indian woman in the 1940s, dressed in shalwar-kameez, holding a tennis racquet, and with a defiant expression. This got me thinking about how women would have fared in the newly independent republic.
In the first two pages, one gets the impression that they know everything there is to know about Persis. And as a reader, I like that 200 pages into the novel, you’re as invested in the murder as you are in Persis. How clear a map did you have with respect to character development?
With crime fiction, there are three things you must do to create a strong opening: introduce the crime, the setting, and the protagonist. All of these must be vividly drawn, so as to hook the reader in. With Persis, I knew that I had to establish her credentials right away, as a smart, tough young woman, newly-qualified as a police officer who was eager to prove herself, but sidelined in a very male environment. Over time, however, I wanted to showcase some of her vulnerabilities too – no character is one-dimensional. Persis has a touch of arrogance about her which occasionally leads her into trouble; her people skills aren’t the greatest either! The heart of the novel is the complex murder investigation, but Persis’ relationships — especially with Sam, her cantankerous, bookshop-owning father — are just as important.
How has your work in the department of Security and Crime Science at UCL impacted your writing?
Recently, I approached a colleague in the department and asked them what would happen if I were to burn someone alive. It was for a short story I was writing and my colleague is a forensic anthropologist, so this was a perfectly reasonable question, though perhaps I shouldn’t have asked while she was eating lunch. Because of my writing, my work is now very flexible, but I continue to help manage research projects at the department: cybercrime, artificial intelligence, terrorism, and human trafficking are important current themes. You may not believe me, but one of my colleagues is a former Mumbai policewoman – now turned academic – clearly, she has been an inspiration for the character of Persis Wadia.
The mystery and crime genres are often perceived as being about the plot. You bring out the finer nuances that make it a novel. What research went into establishing a ’50s landscape?
As a historical crime writer, half the challenge is to ensure that your plot is embedded within an intriguing and realistically-drawn environment. Without a time machine, the best I can do is research: skimming through books (such as After the Raj by Hugh Purcell), the Internet, old documents at the British Library and social media archives.
Every now and again, a particular fact strikes me with unexpected force, and I try and include it in my books. For instance, I had no idea jazz clubs were so popular in Bombay during that period. Most importantly, I learned that many Brits stayed on after 1947. After that, it was inevitable that I would kill off a top British diplomat to give Persis her first case to solve.
As a male writer, how did you shape your perspectives on writing about women?
Inhabiting a female character is, for me, no different to stepping inside the shoes of any other character I create. I’d never claim to get everything right, but I’m hoping people are so engrossed in the plot that they’ll forgive me the occasional mistake. One thing that was key was weaving in the sensibilities of someone like Persis in an age when patriarchy in society meant that the role of women was either poorly defined or actively restricted. Persis, in one sense, is the frustrated voice of the women of her age — we can still hear her today, resonating across many societies.
With two more novels lined up, what can readers expect from Inspector Wadia?
In the second novel, called The Dying Day, out next year, Persis is called in when the 700-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy — owned by the Asiatic Society of Bombay — is stolen. A series of clues lead her onwards [think Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code] towards the manuscript. But, as murders begin to pile up, she realises that she’s not the only one looking for the book. In the third novel, provisionally titled The Lost Prisoner of Dehradun, Persis is tasked to investigate the murder of the ‘Ice Man’, a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas. At the same time, an Italian businessman and his Indian wife are murdered in Bombay, the only clue being a wooden doll left in their home.
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