Friday, May 2, 2014

Indian Crime Fiction

The people and culture of India have loomed large in crime fiction almost from the beginning. Consider Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, or Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. And yet, up until 1980 there were only a handful of mysteries set in India proper, and most concerned foreigners getting into trouble in a foreign land. Among the few that had any focus on India and Indians were the series titles featuring Inspector Ghote. H.R.F. Keating introduced the much loved and intrepid Inspector Ghote in 1964 in The Perfect Murder, and followed this with 23 more entries. The Ghote series is very much in the Agatha Christie tradition.

For mystery readers who love to read about India, there weren’t many other options than the endearing Inspector Ghote. This was part of the motivation that pushed me to write about Anita Ray, an Indian American photographer who lives in her aunt’s tourist hotel in South India. Anita made her debut in the short story “A Murder Made in India,” in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (2003). Since then she has appeared in 12 more short stories and three novels. The third novel is For the Love of Parvati, available in May 2014. 

India may be thousands of miles away, on the other side of the globe, with more people and worse weather, but many of the problems are the same. In For the Love of Parvati Anita travels with her aunt to visit relatives, but it’s clear at once that the old and revered family is well on its way to disaster, and a woman who has fled a war zone in another country is terrified of something she won’t or can’t explain. She entered the country illegally, and she has nothing to go back to.

An equally important and violent character in the story is the monsoon. It’s hard to explain the drenching unrelenting rain that comes twice a year. Rivers flood, bridges and roads are washed out, and trees are often uprooted. Anita is not surprised when she finds signs that a leopard has been stalking the area, driven out of the nature preserve farther up in the hills. She is surprised, however, when she realizes that a man is stalking the house, and her worry is only intensified when it turns out that the household servant has not gone on pilgrimage but is instead missing.

Similar in tone is the Vish Puri series by Tarquin Hall. The Most Private Investigator Vish Puri is introduced in The Case of the Missing Servant (2009). Three more mysteries followed. Also in this category is the series following treasure hunting professor Jaya Jones, who appeared first in Artifact (2012) by Gigi Pandian. Manjiri Prabhu published at least one book featuring Sonia Samarth, a private detective who solves crimes using astrology, in Cosmic Clues.

Barbara Cleverly introduced Detective Joe Sandilands in The Last Kashmiri Rose (2001). The series is set in 1920s and 1930s colonial India, and depicts life among the British and other Europeans of the time. Darker and more varied in setting and characters is the collection from Akashic Books, Mumbai Noir, edited by Atlaf Tyrewala (2012), offering stories by 14 writers from India. These writers take us into corners of Mumbai no outsider was ever expected to see. You can’t get farther from the Taj Mahal than the dark corners of Mumbai.

India is no longer the most unusual place on earth, the hardest to reach and hardest to understand. But all these books have a few things in common—the traditional ways of dealing with authority and elders, the delicious food, the challenges of getting anything done in India, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the pervasive corruption, and the exotic beauty of the country. All are set in North India, an area that has long been much more accessible to foreigners.

The Anita Ray stories are set in South India, in the state of Kerala, once the location of an old kingdom, Travancore. The ruling family is still active in civic life and much admired by the local population. Kerala is also one of the last areas to relinquish the matrilineal system, and many who live on the fringes of the modern world still adhere to the older ways.

For links to the Anita Ray books, go to


Jacqueline Seewald said...

A fascinating article, Susan, as usual. I have never visited India and it is unlikely that I ever will. However, when I read your Anita Ray novels, I feel as if I am there, and that is a good experience indeed.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks, Jacquie. I think setting is very important in fiction, and I try to give the readers a sense of place. I'm glad you enjoy the novels.

Pat Browning said...

Thanks for this history, Susan. I picked up some titles to check out,

Parts of your post struck a familiar chord. When I visited India in the 1980s even my deluxe hotel in Delhi used the old card system for reservations, and nobody used an telephone.

Word was passed around through some kind of human grapevine. At any appointed time I went downstairs and from the shadows of the hotel lobby emerged my tour guide or taxi driver for the day. Never failed.
Good memories. Thank you.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks for commenting, Pat. I remember coming back to my hotel in Madras (before it became Chennai) and wondering how a man could hand me a glass of orange crush the minute I stepped into the lobby and I saw no one on my way to the hotel. Some wonderful mysteries now set in India. Enjoy.

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

I am on "time away" from AE blogging in May, but couldn't resist the chance to say best of luck with the Anita Ray series. The latest story sounds intriguing and worthy of being on my TBR list.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks, Mary. Enjoy your "time away."

Alice Duncan said...

I've always loved reading books set in India, and I definitely loved FOR THE LOVE OF PARVATI. Keep Anita going!

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