Wednesday 19 August 2020

Midnight at Malabar House: Writing that difficult second series

After five novels and two novellas in the Baby Ganesh Agency series, my next book is a historical crime novel set in 1950 in India. It's called Midnight at Malabar House and introduces Inspector Persis Wadia of the Bombay Police, India's first female police detective. 

So… why would I leave behind a successful series, published across 15 languages, and instead go back to the drawing board and all the nerve-wracking uncertainty that comes with launching a new idea? 

Writing a new series is a daunting prospect, rather like trying to begin a new relationship following a divorce – but, in my case, without the divorce. Fans of the Baby Ganesh Agency have besieged me with letters, emails and tweets expressing their alarm that there may be no more books in the series. I offer here the same explanation I have given them. 

As a writer, you have certain milestones that you want to achieve. Get published. Get published around the world. Get nice reviews. Achieve a bestseller. Win an award or two. Establish a connection with your ‘reader base’. Having now ticked off everything on that list, I came to a point where I wanted to challenge myself. Could I do it all over again? And if so, could I come up with an idea that excited me and that would appeal to readers too – both my current ones and a new audience? 

The Baby Ganesh books are set in modern India, featuring Inspector Ashwin Chopra and the baby elephant sent into his care. I lived in India for a decade and these books are my chronicle of a country that has undergone an incredible transformation over the past two decades. 

But modern India is also a reflection of her past. 

India’s historical legacy permeates everything you see on the streets of a place like Mumbai (once Bombay), from the slums to antiquated cultural attitudes. A large part of that legacy is tied up with the Raj, and the cataclysmic end to that period in late 1947.

Midnight at Malabar House opens on New Year’s Eve 1949, just two years after Independence, the horrors of Partition, and the assassination of Gandhi. India is still trying to work out what sort of democracy it is going to be. Social, political and religious turmoil is rife in the country. Economic reform is pitting the old nawabs, maharajas and feudal classes against the newly enfranchised masses. Yet Bombay remains in its own bubble, incredibly cosmopolitan, a city of jazz and self-indulgence, with tens of thousands of foreigners still living and working in the city. 

As India celebrates the arrival of this momentous new decade, Inspector Persis Wadia, still the only woman on the force, is summoned to the Bombay home of English diplomat Sir James Herriot. Herriot has been murdered. Soon, Persis, accompanied by Scotland Yard criminalist Archie Blackfinch, finds herself leading an investigation that becomes more political by the second… 

This new series is my way of drawing together the threads of India’s past and using them to shed light on India’s present. It is also a celebration of female pioneers on the subcontinent. Indian society has a reputation for being intensely patriarchal. Even now many women struggle to enjoy the same rights that women in other countries take for granted. Persis, however, is a woman who refuses to be told what her place in the new India should be. She believes in herself and in her own notions of justice and equality. She is a singular woman, fierce, committed, intelligent, a trailblazer in a sea of antipathy. 

I would love for you to join her on this journey.

Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan (Published by Hodder and Stoughton) 
Bombay, New Year's Eve, 1949. As India celebrates the arrival of a momentous new decade, Inspector Persis Wadia stands vigil in the basement of Malabar House, home to the city's most unwanted unit of police officers. Six months after joining the force she remains India's first female police detective, mistrusted, sidelined and now consigned to the midnight shift. And so, when the phone rings to report the murder of prominent English diplomat Sir James Herriot, the country's most sensational case falls into her lap. As 1950 dawns and India prepares to become the world's largest republic, Persis, accompanied by Scotland Yard criminalist Archie Blackfinch, finds herself investigating a case that is becoming more political by the second. Navigating a country and society in turmoil, Persis, smart, stubborn and untested in the crucible of male hostility that surrounds her, must find a way to solve the murder - whatever the cost.

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