Murder, mystery and 1950s Mumbai: Vaseem Khan's latest crime series is led by a strong female detective

The British author tells us why he chose the fearless Persis Wadia as his heroine

(Original Caption) Bombay, India: Municipal offices and Victoria Terminus view shows street scene with buildings and trolley cars.
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Last year British crime writer Vaseem Khan was deep into another one of his enjoyably twisty narratives when he realised he was going to have to ask somebody how to burn a human body alive … and then what it would look like when the flames had finally gone out.

“It was, er, a strange way to start a conversation,” tells The National, with a smile.

Thankfully, when he’s not writing about murder, Khan works in University College London’s Department of Security and Crime Science, so his colleague, a forensic anthropologist, wasn’t too worried by the question. “I do like being involved in that world still, even if I make just the tiniest contribution to making the world a safer place,” he says. “And it’s become a useful tool in my writing.”

Khan’s commitment to fact as well as fiction is more than evident in his latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House. The first in his new series doesn’t start with one burning body as much as an entire nation aflame with social, economic, religious and political upheavals as India prepares to declare itself as a republic in January 1950.

Meanwhile, a New Year’s Eve ball in the home of a prominent English diplomat in Bombay, as it was then called, is thrown into chaos when its host is found murdered. In classic Agatha Christie style, somebody at the party has committed a heinous crime, but who?

For all the comparisons to the queen of crime fiction, Khan is attempting something far more interesting and nuanced with Midnight At Malabar House. He takes the historical backdrop to this murder mystery incredibly seriously his take on the Partition of India and its impact shoots through nearly every page. And then there’s the detective taking on this curious case. Persis Wadia is a woman – and a tough, no-nonsense woman at that.

“The first female police inspector didn’t actually come along in India until the early 1960s,” Khan says. “I used that lady as a template to try and explore what it must have been like to be a woman in this turbulent, post-independence society, trying to enter an extremely male institution like the Indian police service at a more senior rank than anyone has ever achieved.”

Malabar House by Vaseem Khan. Courtesy Hodder UK

The author hopes, then, that even though Wadia is both representative of 1950s India and ahead of her time, she can also be a reminder in 2020 that “vast amounts of women still have their lives and choices limited and influenced by the men who control everything around them”.

Wadia is also the lens by which we navigate the chaos of the partition and its aftermath. As part of the case, she discovers that the murdered diplomat had been investigating atrocities, and while he uses his position for nefarious purposes, it’s still interesting that Khan felt he could explore the complexities of that time in an entertaining crime novel. “Look, we’ve just gone through a summer where putting historical events into context has become absolutely paramount, and that’s one of the things that powered this book,” he explains.

“The British did a lot of things they shouldn’t [have], but there were up to two million Indians killed fighting each other and people leaving home overnight.”

One of Khan’s father’s strongest memories as a child growing up in a Punjabi village was going on a harrowing journey across a new border into Pakistan. Eventually, he emigrated to the UK, where Vaseem was born in 1973.

“That childhood memory stayed with him his entire life, but he never told me about it until I went to work in India,” he says. “He was really glad I was going because that was where he was born, and he wanted me to know the memories of India he still retained. That stayed with me, and when I started this novel, my father was quite old and ill and we’d just had the 70th anniversary of Partition. So I wanted to explore a situation that had a deep personal meaning for me, while still creating a crime novel that is puzzling and exciting.”

And Khan is definitely an entertainer, as well as a keen historian. His podcast, Red Hot Chilli Writers, with fellow crime novelist Abir Mukherjee, is a really good listen, as likely to discuss how to catch bees as literature festivals. Best of all, it doesn’t operate in a cultural vacuum; its description jokes that it’s “for non-white and white people. Just to be clear”.

I wanted to explore a situation that had a deep personal meaning for me, while still creating a crime novel that is puzzling and exciting

“We set up the podcast not to have a big rant about diversity, but to engage with people from across the spectrum,” he explains. “The gatekeepers in the publishing industry need to get away from the fear that if they publish a book from a writer with a ‘brown’ name, it won’t sell, and I certainly want to get to the point where the discussion is about a good book and not its cultural background.”

At least Khan isn’t having to battle with too many of those preconceptions himself these days. After his five-book Baby Ganesh Agency series, Hodder has signed on for three Persis Wadia novels. The next one is already written; Wadia assigned to investigate the theft of a 70-year-old copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy from the (then) Bombay Asiatic Society.

“It does exist, I found out about it in the research for Malabar House,” he says. “I love that part of being an author in this genre, you come across things all the time that completely delight you and offer a historical truth to the puzzle. The trick is to present those details with a nice bow around them for my readers – so it delights them, too.”

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