Although I would call it more of a sofa. (Just trying to be funny. And failing.)
Vaseem Khan has been elected chair of the CWA, those literary ‘crime fanatics’ famous for daggers and stuff. But in this photo Vaseem is seated on something larger than a chair. He has blogged about it, too. The chairing, not the seat as such. Or ‘his’ elephant.
I didn’t actually know what the CWA do. Now I’m more in awe of the whole thing, and almost feel as if I’d like to join too.
Last week I quoted the first sentence of Vaseem’s first novel – The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra – and then I read all the other sentences too. It’s been nice, getting reacquainted with Baby Ganesh’s entry into a world of crime. I love him so much, even if he is a little naughty at times.
With my very senior witch’s hat on I – erm – signed up for this event twice. Nearly three times, in fact. I’m obviously quite keen. ‘How to Write a Crime Fiction Bestseller’ was the way for some Tuesday morning skiving off work, to hang out with Vaseem Khan on Zoom, courtesy of The Society of Authors. It was really for budding crime writers, but as I have no novel – crime or otherwise – in me, I was able to lean back and enjoy.
With two pointy implements behind him – his Historical Dagger Award, and a cactus – plus a suitably messy bookcase, Vaseem looked the business. Apparently crime pays, or at least, it outsells other genres. Beer helps, if he’s to be believed.
I already loved Vaseem, but to find out he used to be a Terry Pratchett wannabe was a lovely surprise. When that didn’t pay, and didn’t even let him escape getting an education, he went to LSE, became a management consultant and went to India to work for ten years. And for twenty long years he wrote seven novels that all failed to go anywhere, possibly because he wrote what he thought was wanted; white, English books.
Success came when he wrote something much more himself, and then added a baby elephant, and there we were. The hook (he kept mentioning the need for hooks) for him was the first sentence: ‘On the day he was due to retire, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered that he had inherited an elephant.’ I remember quite liking that.
You need to flex your writing muscle, and presumably that’s what those seven unwanted novels did. With less expectation when you are a new writer, you have the potential to exceed those expectations and that’s good for numbers, for publishers. You need a theme, as well as a plot and characters. If you can write something that is the same – but different – as some successful books, that would be good. Comping is a thing. You will be compared to others, and hopefully a place will be found for you. Vaseem admitted to borrowing from the da Vinci Code (I will try to forgive him).
Another ‘magic ingredient’ is quality, which in Vaseem’s case is to attempt to write like Hemingway. Study your favourite style. Remember the hooks. Make sure you don’t say the police jeep has windows when it doesn’t, i.e. get your facts right. Ginger is not an ingredient for either Chopra or Vaseem (I might have to disown him after all).
Characters matter more than plot. Make sure you have some secondary characters, who are actually interesting. Consider what’s hot, or not. Psychological thrillers are in, as is cosy crime. Everyone wants to be Richard Osman. Or write Gone Girl. Vaseem loves Michael Connelly, but also admitted to basing Chopra on the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
On writing outside one’s own culture, Vaseem is all for it. (His book for next year is a standalone set in small town US…)
After a [very civilised] potty break, it was question time.
In a crime novel, every book plot needs to be finished. The characters can go on. And you should avoid saggy middles, which I gather is easier with an editor because they will catch anything that sags. For us older [sagging] forgetful readers Vaseem suggests adding reminders of what’s happened earlier in the book. (I thank you.) And female detectives are allowed to get things wrong, just like their male counterparts.
Vaseem likes events, both large and smaller ones. Anything that gets him out there to meet readers. You want book charisma to persuade people to want your book. Newsletters are the best way of selling yourself online. You are in control and can talk directly to fans who have chosen to be on your mailing list. Events are outside your control, but very good even so.
And for god’s sake, bring back Ganesh!!! (Those are my words.)
A year ago Bookwitch ruminated on what sells and what she reads and why.
Today I’m – because we are the same, Bookwitch and I – thinking about the effect Bookwitching has had not just on me but on the young and innocent, like Daughter. We have both put sixteen behind us – but only just. Obviously. Today it’s Bookwitch’s turn to hum ‘She was only sixteen…’
As you may have gathered, Daughter has recently moved and has some vintage shelves to arrange with books. And, it seems, a polar bear. Also two bookmarks, one of which I was intrigued to find personally dedicated and signed by Michelle Magorian.
This is the effect I mean. Somehow a lot of young literature has happened to Offspring. The vintage shelves I mentioned seem to contain mostly books by people I ‘know’ and who Daughter has met through being dragged on bring-your-child-to-work days.
There are an inordinate number of Cathy Hopkins books, and that’s as it should be. Likewise Caroline Lawrence and Liz Kessler and Jacqueline Wilson. Although the latter has had to be pruned down to more manageable numbers of books.
I won’t list them all, but basically, the story of Bookwitch can be seen on these shelves. There won’t be so many new ones, as the e-reader has taken over. This is just as well, because however lovely the vintageness from the local auction-hunter, a flat has only so much space.
Apologies for the tile samples. There is a kitchen splashback to deal with. And I would like it to be known that that book by Vaseem Khan has been ‘borrowed’ from a kind parent.
French Market or French Quarter? I was sure that for New Orleans Daughter would rate the French Quarter highest, but no, she wanted the market. It was nice. I had a narrow escape, but didn’t actually buy that colourful shoulder bag. I could have. But I sort of realised I’d never use it, and the last thing my bedroom door needs is another bag hanging on the back of it.
It was warm. Sunny. At least the market was shaded. And at the café Du Monde it was practically windy, by which I mean it was open to all sides and there was a welcome breeze. We sat at the table next to where they sat in the first episode of NCIS:New Orleans. Because of course we were there because of it. We even walked past the brick wall with the door in it that was ‘home’ to the NOLA federal agents. The French Quarter was quaint. Interesting. But hot.
We had some grilled cheese, in what was a beautifully cool café. Temperature wise, I mean. There was plenty of grilled cheese during our three weeks. Sometimes a witch has to live off bread/stodge with cheese.
At the Guggenheim they thought we were Glaswegians! Which was sweet of them. Tried telling the nice man in the gift shop that there is more to Scotland than Glasgow, but… He was clearly a learned man, because he knew about Louisiana. The art museum in Denmark, not the state. The weird thing was that we had talked about it just the previous day. And yes, my walls are white.
The one place we had no need for grilled cheese was in Montréal. Cultured people with really good food; not all of it meat, either. Let me recommend the Gandhi. I didn’t think there would be a decent Indian restaurant somewhere like that, but there was. Their Tarka Dal was so excellent I had to have it a second time (in two days), and the naan leftover I spirited away in my own doggy bag, tasted fantastic even 24 hours later when I was safely back at Bookwitch Towers and shouldn’t have needed any emergency reserve food. Couldn’t resist the Ras Malai for dessert, having just read about it in Vaseem Khan’s The Lost Man of Bombay.
The hotel room in San Antonio had a surprisingly versatile coffee machine, which when cleaned up made passable water for tea. Brought our own teabags, and after sending the Resident IT Consultant out for milk, life was almost perfect. He went to H-E-B, which I believe is a local chain of grocery shops. I sent along a M&S carrier bag, because one is green (and so is the bag). Then I got annoyed with him because that meant he didn’t buy one of their gorgeous Halloween bags!
This was rectified the next evening when the bridal party handed them out as goody bags in the bar where we hung out. So all was fine.
So, Halloween. It’s big over there, isn’t it? And where better to spend it than in New Orleans? Even flying there was different. The flight attendants had dressed up. The staff member on the gate was dressed as Waldo (as in ‘Where’s Waldo?’). The ‘bag lady’ at check-in wore the craziest gaudy outfit.
Pumpkins and skulls and cobwebs everywhere, and this is just the airport. New Orleans itself was heavily decorated.
But this is the thing; the next morning all the formerly orange lamp posts wore Christmas garlands. Those elves had been busy.
I spent quite a bit of my Bloody Scotland weekend trying to hunt Elly Griffiths down. This entailed looking into bars; a thing I don’t normally do. I wanted her to sign a book, but by the time I had the book, Elly was nowhere to be found.
She was one of the crime writers taking part in Vaseem and Abir’s Red Hot Night of a Million Games. It was a very silly night, but a lot of fun, and it cheered both Daughter and me up. We’ll go next year too if it’s on. Daughter’s favourite was Luca Veste singing Hit Me Baby One More Time. Again. We got to wave our lit-up mobiles in the air and everything. Elly did some good moves with her maracas. Helen Fitzgerald played a convincing corpse on the floor. There was much cheating.
And when all’s said and done, it has very little to do with crime fiction, except that these authors are fun to spend time with.
In Houses From Hell, all I wanted to do was move the furniture on the stage around. Lovely, tartan armchairs, but Helen Grant, Lesley Thomson and Stuart Neville didn’t get to interact enough, because they were not seated in a convenient semi-circle. (Please take note!) Besides that, between you and me, they are quite creepy people. No, that’s not right. They have creepy interests and they put all sorts into their books. Helen even managed to scare her own husband.
When the programme for Bloody Scotland came I wanted to go to so many events. But I know my [lack of] strength, so decided to pace myself, and opted for four, thinking I could add to them later. When the time came, however, four seemed like really quite enough.
After many years of not meeting Martin Edwards in person, there was no way I was going to miss his Cosy Makes a Comeback event. I think of him as a cosy writer. And then he started off by saying he prefers traditional; not cosy. Conveniently enough both the other participants, Jonathan Whitelaw and S J Bennett, as well as the audience, were quick to adapt and the word traditional got a lot of airing. Big audience, too, so I have to say that we are many who like cosy crime. Pardon, traditional.
Hadn’t been sure how the death of the Queen was going to influence the discussion, seeing as S J’s detective actually is the Queen. But she has many plans, and always lets fictional characters do the actual deeds, so this may well continue working. Martin’s excellence at editing [other people’s] vintage crime got a mention, with very many of us being big fans and wanting to know that there will be more from the British Library. He’d initially expected to edit two. There are now over a hundred, so that clearly exceeded expectations.
At the cosy event (sorry!) I said hello to Lizzy Siddal, who I now recognised, and was introduced to her companion Marina Sofia. This turned out to be serendipitous since Marina bore down on me outside the room for the evening event about Detective Duos. We exchanged cards, the way civilised people do, and talked. A lot. For obvious reasons we were able to talk about funny foreigners. Marina is a publisher of translated crime. When Son arrived, in his role as translator of David Lagercrantz’s book, I introduced them, and it turned out they knew about each other already, and a lot more conversation took place.
The Detective Duos event was interesting, and I was pleased to finally come across Ayo Onatade who chaired it. Must have been aware of her for ten years at least. And I had thought it was her I saw down at the Albert Halls the previous night. It obviously was.
One day I’ll have to explain to David Lagercrantz about spoilers. Like not mentioning them too much at events… I liked new-to-me author Ajay Chowdhury, who is a Bloody Scotland-made success, having won a competition to write new crime. Having decided against buying his book before the event on the grounds that it was a hardback, I hurried out afterwards to hand over my money, and still make it to be first in the signing queue.
Simon Mason talked about his two DI R Wilkinses, and if I’d not already read and loved his book, I’d have bought that too. At the end Ayo put them all on the spot, and David agonised at great length before giving up on answering. (In case you want to know what it was about, I’m afraid I can’t remember.) When asked about their personal favourite detective duos, I was very pleased that Ajay chose Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Haven’t heard those names mentioned in a long time.
I then proceeded to confuse everyone by chatting to Simon and David at more or less the same time at the signing table, about different things in two different languages. I think maybe I won’t do that again. But it was nice to reminisce a little with Simon, and good to introduce myself as the mother of you-know-who to David, who got quite carried away. And he finally got to meet his translator. So I suppose that was all good.
Afterwards Son and Dodo and the Resident IT Consultant went for a beer somewhere. Probably not where I was looking for Elly. Instead I hugged an author and talked about cows with another while I waited outside on the pavement for Daughter to pick me up. It’s quite nice this, finding yourself right next to some favourite writers on the pavement (where many of them go to smoke. But not these two!).
As you may have guessed the cow conversation was with James Oswald, which in turn started Vaseem Khan on the Scots use of the word coo. I worked out later that they might have been on their way to Crime at the Coo. Talked elephants with Vaseem. Obviously. And said what fun we’d had the previous night. Soon after the hug Daughter turned up and she tried to invite him round for chilli. Vaseem turned us down very nicely. But we can try again next year.
So, as I said, you find a lot of authors milling about both in and out of the Golden Lion. And when the ticket table remained unstaffed for rather longer than it should have, Gordon Brown came to the rescue.
Vaseem Khan has left his baby elephant and moved back in time to New Year’s Eve 1949 where Persis Wadia is India’s first female police detective in a new crime series. Persis is on night duty at Malabar House when called to the scene of the murder of a British diplomat.
It’s not easy being a woman in such a role where most people want to speak to ‘the man’. Persis is not afraid, however, and as the mystery unravelled she struck me as quite possibly being autistic. If so, it helps her persist in doing a good job, but also alienates others, including potential suitors. Not that she needs a boyfriend. She has a job.
Set soon after Partition, this is an fascinating period to learn more about, regardless of the crime solving. Admittedly, Vaseem isn’t old enough to have been there at the time, nor is he a woman. But he writes his female detective surprisingly well. And he gives her a sidekick in the shape of a white English male; someone who seems to suit Persis really well.
I suppose it’s unavoidable that this is still a pretty white [British] story, with lots of strings being pulled from London. I liked learning more about this side of India; the established Indians and their British counterparts, rather than poverty-stricken villages and people hoping to emigrate.
Persis and her sidekick show a lot of promise. As does the young nation. Hopefully we’ll see more of them.
The fact that I actually bought an ebook is testament to my fondness for Baby Ganesh, my most favourite baby elephant. I discovered that Vaseem Khan had published a novella about Ganesh and his Inspector Chopra, [retired]. And I had to have it. (Took me a while to manage to get it to climb into my Kindle, but that’s my lack of IT skills.)
And it’s set on a train! What could be better? Well, according to Chopra, the size of the dead birds they served for dinner could be greater.
Like the Orient Express, this is luxury train travel, Indian style, and very lovely. Or it is for those who don’t end up murdered, or are suspected of having done the deed. To make up for it, there is of course Ganesh. Because there is nothing strange about taking your elephant on board a train. At all.
An unpleasant man dies. Before too long it seems as though just about everyone on that train had a reason to want him dead. Chopra just has to choose which one it might have been.
Still trying to get my head round being ‘back to work’ properly.
One of the many interesting books the Resident IT Consultant was given for Christmas – not by me – was the one about Dishoom, which some of you will know is a chain of rather tempting ‘Indian’ restaurants in the UK. It’s both a travel book and a recipe collection.
As I was idly looking through it, I noticed the map of Mumbai folded into the inside hard cover. Once unfolded by me, it revealed place names I recognised.
They were from another book, or rather, series of books. Vaseem Khan’s crime novels are set in Mumbai and his retired Inspector Chopra drives around his city, taking in these places. I realised I’ve just never had a visual idea of how these places relate to each other, or indeed, what Mumbai looks like at all, apart from the odd photo.
So that was nice; two different genre books having this in common. Both are about food, in fact, since Mrs Chopra always cooks and always makes me hungry. As does Dishoom.
Then I finished off by reading up on how the divine chai at Dishoom is made. I will have to make it, although I will use less sugar.
Bookwitch hasn’t ‘bitten’ for a long time. But better late than never.
Danny Weston has a new book out, which he launched in Edinburgh on Friday. He had to do it without me, but I gather it went well enough despite this. It’s called Inchtinn, Island of Shadows. Danny had even baked Inchtinn cakes. I bet he ate most of them himself, or possibly his friend Philip Caveney helped with the eating. (I won’t post that picture here. It is too dreadful.)
If it’s dreadful you’re after, you only need to look at this photo from when the witch met Vaseem Khan at Bloody Scotland last month. Vaseem looks just fine, but, well, that creature on the left… Sorry.
That was the event when we discussed humour and how important it is, while not being taken seriously (!) by enough publishers. This is what Sarah Govett has found as well. After her dystopian trilogy a few years ago, she has tackled teen humour, much in the vein of Louise Rennison. If she’s to be believed – and I see no reason why not – teens are crying out for more funny books. India Smythe Stands Up is the book for you, fresh from Sarah’s keyboard.
It’s important to keep track of children’s books. Even the Resident IT Consultant seems to feel this. I was a little surprised to find his companion in the holiday reading sofa, but who am I to say anything?
And, I knew this news was coming, but it’s still good to have it confirmed. There is another book from Meg Rosoff. It’s old YA, or some such thing. And not very long, apparently. We will have to wait until next summer, but the witch who waits for something good… (The Great Godden, since you ask.)
‘Man cannot live on dhansak alone.’ But they certainly try, those Parsees at the Vulture Club.
It’s time for Chopra and his baby elephant Ganesh to solve another murder when a wealthy and respected Parsee is found dead, in the place where the dead are put to be eaten by vultures. Could it have been an accident?
As usual Chopra does his best in the face of lack of belief in this ‘murder’ and meanwhile his partner Rangwalla is investigating a collapsed building. And Poppy, Mrs Chopra, has a new cause, Poo2Loo, much to Chopra’s embarrassment.
This latest crime novel by Vaseem Khan looks at some of the richest people in Mumbai, and also how some of the poorest people live, both in regard to their homes and jobs, as well as their [lack of] toilets. We get to know more about India today, with the help of fictional crime and a good dose of humour. Singing turds, anyone?
At times Chopra seems more literal than ever, even going so far as to point out to Poppy that ‘I don’t have a husband.’ And this time his mother-in-law actually has a point, and she’s starting to grow on me. Well, I suppose she is responsible for how the lovely Poppy turned out.
The crime turns round and round several times, and both the reader and Chopra think they know who did it, and they don’t, because they didn’t. And we don’t want it to have been one of the people we like.
But more than fairness in finding a murderer, we want a better and safer life for all Indians, at the mercy of crooks everywhere. This is neither cosy nor noir, but entertainment with humour, while educating us about that which we didn’t know or had forgotten about.