Interview: Vaseem Khan - “Crime fiction lets us interrogate the world around us” - Hindustan Times
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Interview: Vaseem Khan - “Crime fiction lets us interrogate the world around us”

ByTeja Lele
Oct 26, 2023 05:08 AM IST

The author of the Malabar House series says his novels are driven by his desire to understand the roots of contemporary India

British writer Vaseem Khan wrote his first novel aged 17 as he thought it would be a good way to avoid having to go to university and get a “real” job.

British crime fiction novelist Vaseem Khan (Pix courtesy the author) PREMIUM
British crime fiction novelist Vaseem Khan (Pix courtesy the author)

“There was one small problem with my cunning plan… that first book was rubbish! I wrote six more novels across 23 years (and various genres) before finally being published at age 40 with The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra,” he says.

Khan, who grew up in London, studied accounts and economics at the London School of Economics, and says he has “played cricket (badly) for over 40 years in various amateur teams”.

Today, he is the author of two award-winning crime series set in India: the Baby Ganesh Agency series set in modern Mumbai, and the Malabar House historical crime novels set in 1950s Bombay.

His breakthrough novel deals with a Mumbai policeman who is forced into early retirement and, while solving a murder, also has to deal with the unusual predicament of inheriting a one-year-old elephant. It became a bestseller, and was picked by the UK Sunday Times as one of the 40 best crime novels published between 2015 and 2020.

“It was translated into 17 languages and I subsequently wrote four more books in the series, collectively known as the Baby Ganesh Agency novels,” Khan says.

While Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh Agency series is set in modern Mumbai, the Malabar House historical crime novels are set in 1950s Bombay. (Pix courtesy the author)
While Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh Agency series is set in modern Mumbai, the Malabar House historical crime novels are set in 1950s Bombay. (Pix courtesy the author)

The second in the series won the Shamus Award in the US. Awards continued to follow for Khan, who works at the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College London when he isn’t writing.

He also co-hosts the popular crime fiction podcast, The Red Hot Chilli Writers, which takes a look at the world of books, writing, and the creative arts, and has tackled topics like bestsellers, pop culture, and big fat asian weddings with top authors like Dean Koontz, Ann Cleeves, Mike Gayle, and Val McDermid.

Khan has a strong India connection. At the age of 23, in 1997, he came to the country to work as a management consultant for a group building environmentally-friendly hotels. He spent 10 years, mainly in Mumbai, but also visiting many other cities.

“I witnessed the beginning of the economic transformation that has made India a global power. It was an exhilarating time, watching a sleeping giant awaken, and I made great friends (not to mention ending up with an Indian wife) who have remained close to this day,” he says.

The years in Bombay and those “incredible memories” power Khan’s writing. He says his current series is driven by his desire to understand the roots of the India we see today, and he calls himself a historian of the subcontinent.

“I recently presented a lecture at Oxford University on the birth of this modern India. That research feeds into my Malabar House novels, set in 1950s India. The post-Independence era was a complicated time, not least because places like Bombay were still highly cosmopolitan, even as India renegotiated her relationship with Britain,” he says.

“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.” (Pix courtesy the author)
“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.” (Pix courtesy the author)

He believes crime fiction allows us “to interrogate the world around us”, and presents readers with an opportunity to learn while being entertained.

“For instance, my Malabar House novels allow me to slip in details to correct omissions and misconceptions from the British time in India,” he says.

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!” he says.

“Khan’s fourth book in the Malabar House series, Death of a Lesser God... poses a simple question: can post-colonial societies treat their former colonisers justly? (Pix courtesy the author)
“Khan’s fourth book in the Malabar House series, Death of a Lesser God... poses a simple question: can post-colonial societies treat their former colonisers justly? (Pix courtesy the author)

Khan’s fourth book in the Malabar House series, Death of a Lesser God, was released in August 2023. It poses a simple question: can post-colonial societies treat their former colonisers justly?

James Whitby, an Englishman born in India during the Raj, is 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 in India, has 11 days to find out if Whitby is innocent or guilty before he is hanged. The book begins in Bombay but ends up in Calcutta, once the capital of British India,” he says.

Khan says his novels are tightly plotted, with plenty of cryptic clues.

“I write in a Golden Age/Agatha Christie style. I use a gentle note of humour in my novels too, a wry observation of the world around us. Everything I write about is based on real experiences,” he says.

At the end of each of the Malabar House books, he provides details on all the facts that the story was based on. “My readers, Western and Indian, find it fascinating that so much that seems fantastical is based on real events,” he says.

He finds inspiration in the lives of his characters, the lives of ordinary Indians, and “the lives of my protagonists who struggle to seek justice in a society where justice is sometimes available only to those with wealth and influence”.

“This reflects the reality of most nations. My unique experience – growing up in the UK but living in India – means that I can bring a balanced view to my reportage of the subcontinent, via my novels,” he says.

Khan finds his day job at the UCL Department of Security and Crime Science “endlessly fascinating.”

“I’ve spent 17 years helping manage research projects but that’s the reason I don’t leave, even though I could now write full time. I’m currently working on projects looking at how AI is being used by organised criminal gangs, and a project on how autonomous vehicles might be turned to criminal activity,” he reveals.

In 2023, he was elected chair of the 70-year-old Crime Writers Association. He’s the first non white person to head the most prestigious association of crime writers in the world. He also became the first British Asian to chair the world’s biggest crime fiction festival, in Harrogate, England.

“Next year, I’ll be the first ever non-white speaker at the annual Sherlock Holmes Society of London dinner at the UK House of Commons. These are important milestones for me on a personal level, but also reflect the fact that, in most Western countries, the winds of diversity are blowing through the creative arts,” he says.

His desire to promote diversity (in commercial fiction) led him to launch the Diversity Project, to explain “what we mean by diversity in publishing, why it has taken a long time to gain traction, and how writers can build diversity into their writing”. The results are available for free on his website, he says.

Khan loves a variety of crime writers, with favourites ranging from classic authors such as Agatha Christie to modern masters such as Michael Connelly and his brilliant Detective Harry Bosch novels set in Los Angeles.

“One of my favourite crime novels is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, a philosophical, historical, and mystery masterpiece,” he says.

Vaseem Khan’s favourite title in the series won the Crime Writers Associatino Historical Dagger, the worlds most prestigious prize for historical crime fiction. (Pix courtesy the author)
Vaseem Khan’s favourite title in the series won the Crime Writers Associatino Historical Dagger, the worlds most prestigious prize for historical crime fiction. (Pix courtesy the author)

Which of his works is his favourite? “Midnight at Malabar House, which introduced India’s first female police Inspector Persis Wadia. She’s posted to Bombay’s smallest police station, Malabar House, where all the rejects and undesirables are sent. And then a sensational murder – of an English diplomat – falls into her lap,” he says.

Persis works with Archie Blackfinch, an English forensic scientist based in Bombay to solve the crime. “They get off to a rocky start, but we immediately know this is going to be one of those will-they-wont-they situations,” Khan says.

In 2021, Midnight at Malabar House won the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger, the world’s most prestigious prize for historical crime fiction.

Khan has advice for budding authors. “The main reason agents reject debut manuscripts is that they aren’t written to a publishable standard. So spend time honing your craft – by writing … a lot. And, of course, never give up,” he says.

Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle.

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