Q+A: Vaseem Khan

Jun 10, 2023
Dimitris Passas

Entering the literary establishment turned out to be a tough feat for the London-born crime writer Vaseem Khan, who spent two decades struggling to get published, with the publishing industry showing its most austere face towards him and his work. 2014 was the year that marked the release of his debut novel, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, which became a top ten Times bestseller and was subsequently translated into 17 languages. From then on, Khan kept on delivering exemplary pieces of work, blending crime and historical fiction uniquely, the most prominent example being the more recent books in the "Malabar House" series. The author, drawing from his experience of spending nearly a decade in India after acquiring an accounting degree at the London School of Economics, conveys the feel and aromas of a foreign civilization to the reader who forms his own picture of a faraway place solely by immersing in Khan's animated descriptions that feed and fuel the imagination. In 2021, he reached the peak of his career by receiving the prestigious Sapere Books Historical Dagger for Midnight at Malabar House, a novel set in Bombay, circa 1950. Further recognition at an international scale followed as in 2023, Khan was elected as the new Chair of the CWA (Crime Writers' Association), taking over from Maxim Jakubowski. I was waiting for an opportunity to ask him some questions regarding both his new role and his work, and he was kind enough to accept my invitation to this brief Q+A. Enjoy!

1) First of all, let me congratulate you for your recent election as the new chair of the Crime Writers Association. On a second note, some rather heavy-hitter names such as John Creasy, who was also the founder of CWA, Ian Rankin, Peter James, and Dick Francis to name just a few, have previously chaired the Association. It sounds like you have some pretty big shoes to fill. Does that make you feel a bit more anxious, now in the beginning of your term?

V.K.: I actually don’t suffer from anxiety. The only thing that makes me anxious is being asked to do DIY by my wife! (I absolutely hate DIY.) In reality, I am a risk taker. The sort of person who, if he’s told not to stick his head in a lion’s mouth, will do so just to see what all the fuss is about. As for filling big shoes… As a crime writer myself, one who took a very long time to get published, but who has then had some success around the world, I feel that I can understand the challenges that other writers face. I think CWA members want someone who they know can empathise with them and whose own experience can, hopefully, inspire them. I also write (and read) broadly, which means I can relate to different subgenre writers within crime and thriller fiction.

My first series was the Baby Ganesh Agency novels, beginning with The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. They are a sort of ‘muscular’ cosy crime, where I explore the dark and light of modern India. My current series is historical crime, the Malabar House novels set in 1950s, Bombay. And my 2024 release will be a standalone, a contemporary psychological thriller set in small town America called Eden Falls. All this means I find it easy to talk to crime writers of all feathers.

2) Do you think that your vocational background as a management consultant make you a fitting choice for the chair of CWA? Have you acquired some precious knowledge of how organizations work in general?

V.K.: Here’s the secret to how big organisations work. It’s like that old saying about a camel – namely, that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The key to making organisations successful when there are many voices in the room is to allow everyone to have their say… then do what you think to be right. Ultimately, a leader has to rely on his or her own instincts and experience.

The seventy-year-old UK Crime Writers’ Association (the CWA) is the oldest and largest association of crime writers in Europe. It exists to promote crime writing and crime writers. My role is to chair the association for the next two years. I am the first non-white author to chair the CWA. In that sense my main responsibility is simply to spread the gospel, to tell writers of all backgrounds that crime writing is an open field. If you like murder – come and join in!

And yes, having been a management consultant for many years, it does make it easier for me. I have a strong grounding in finance, project management, and branding. I also understand that to change an organisation, you need to gain the respect of all the organisation’s stakeholders, and to provide a clear vision. My vision is to make the CWA truly inclusive, and to embrace modern trends in crime and thriller fiction.

3) You are the first non-white person to chair the CWA in its 70 years of existence. What do you believe was the cause of this discriminatory policy that prevailed for so many decades? Do you feel optimistic for the future regarding that matter?

V.K.: To be clear - I don’t believe that the fact that it has taken 70 years for the first non-white person to be elected chair the CWA was due to discrimination. Rather, it was due to the simple fact that there were hardly any published non-white crime writers – which made it impossible to elect one as Chair of the CWA! This situation was partly due to the difficulty for non-white writers to break into the industry, but also because writing is often not considered a ‘proper’ occupation by non-white immigrant parents. My own parents, for example – and others of their generation – did not believe that the creative arts could lead to well-paid careers. They were obsessed with the holy trinity of lawyer-doctor-accountant. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging younger people to look for stable careers. But not everyone is cut out for that sort of study and nor is it everyone’s dream to be a doctor.

So my advice is not just for diaspora youth but also for diaspora parents. Listen to each other. Communicate. Because, although financial stability is important (I studied accounts at the London School of Economics and worked as a management consultant for many years), so is living a fulfilling life. If the creative arts inspire you, you should be free to pursue that. I could not have imagined that after twenty years of trying to get published I would finally see a book in print at age 40. And now, as I approach 50, I hope I can act as an inspiration for others from the South Asian community who have the same dream that I had. In that sense, yes, I feel very optimistic that crime writing has become (and will continue to be) welcoming to diverse voices.

4) In your Letter From the Chair, published on the latest issue of the Red Herrings magazine, you summarized your vision for the CWA in 4 bullet points. I was meaning to ask about the second one: "The CWA should be a place where writers of all backgrounds can come and know that they will be treated with respect. A place where they won't be insulted, harassed, looked down upon or disregarded..." Is your demand for respect towards the authors perhaps a reaction to certain injustices that you have personally experienced throughout the course of your career as an author?

V.K.: Actually I have been very fortunate. I have never experienced any disrespect since being published. I have had the same agent for nearly 10 years and the same ‘Big 5’ publisher – Hodder & Stoughton at Hachette. But, having been around the industry for a while, I hear things, and I know sometimes authors are not treated as well as they should be. Thankfully, this is changing. Most author organisations and festivals, for instance, have adopted new codes of conduct to help ensure that all authors are given due respect.

5) You have said in some of your previous interviews that it took you a considerable amount of time until one of your books got published at the age of 40. Did that stretch of time, which lasted for nearly two decades as yourself have stated, helped you realize some things regarding both the craft of writing and the realities of today's publishing industry, thus aiding you to move in the right direction eventually?

V.K.: I wrote my first novel aged 17, and submitted it to agents. It was a comic fantasy ... and it was rubbish! It took me seven more rejected novels to be published, at age 40. During that period, I realised that most books are rejected by agents because they are not written to a publishable standard. So the lesson here is… do the hard work to learn your craft! The second lesson I learned is that when you write something that holds a personal meaning for you, your writing will be inspired.

My first published novel is called The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, about a middle-aged policeman in Mumbai, India who retires in his mid-forties and solves murders while having to look after a baby elephant. (The book is the first in the Baby Ganesh Agency series of novels.)

Although I was born in the UK, I lived in Mumbai for ten years in my twenties – and of course my heritage is from the subcontinent. The Baby Ganesh Agency books showcase my incredible memories of India, both the amazing changes that have transformed the country in the past two decades, but also the legacy issues that continue to linger, such as the slums that are part and parcel of cities such as Mumbai. During my ‘India’ years, I came across a retired circus elephant living close to my apartment in Andheri East. That memory stayed with me, and so I decided to include a baby elephant in The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, which I wrote when I returned to the UK. That elephant is both a symbol of India and also allows me to humanize my detective, Chopra, who is a grim and serious man, but one who cares deeply about the changing Indian society around him. In effect, Chopra is me!

Many readers write to me from around the world telling me that this series takes them to India, to the sights, sounds, and smells of Mumbai. The nature of the books also leaves people feeling positive, warm, and with a smile on their face. (I use a gentle note of humour in my books, even when examining dark topics). For me, that is the best feedback!

6) I read in an interview that you gave in the past that your are heavily influenced by the work of Agatha Christie and that you're also a big fan of the TV adaptation casting David Suchet as Poirot. Can you name some of her novels that specifically shaped your understanding of the crime fiction genre?

V.K.: Yes, my first introduction to crime fiction was via Agatha Christie’s Poirot books. That’s why my novels are written in a Golden Age-Christie style, so much so that I was invited last year as a Guest of Honour at the International Agatha Christie Festival in her home town of Torquay.

The first book in my historical series, Midnight at Malabar House, was compared to Christie by a national UK newspaper. In it I introduce India’s first female police Inspector – Persis Wadia – who is posted to Bombay’s smallest police station - Malabar House - where all the rejects and undesirables are sent. (The Times compared the set-up to Mick Herron’s brilliant Slow Horses series.) And then the sensational murder of an English diplomat falls into her lap. Persis is working with Archie Blackfinch, an English forensic scientist based in Bombay. This is 1950, just three years after Indian independence, the assassination of Gandhi, and the horrors of Partition. But we immediately know that this is a will they-won’t they situation… But how can Persis possibly consider Archie as anything more than a colleague?

Midnight at Malabar House won the CWA Historical Dagger, the world’s main prize for historical crime fiction. So often history is written by the winners. My Malabar House novels allow me to slip in details to correct misconceptions about the British time in India. For instance, in The Lost Man of Bombay, the third in the series, 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 his name on any map.

Books such as Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express taught me a great deal about how to use red herrings, cryptic clues, and a twist ending to set an intellectual challenge for readers. I try to use those lessons in each of my books.

7) Your latest novel "Death of a Lesser God" is due to be published on November 14, 2023 by Hodder & Stoughton. Can you tell us a bit about the story? Will be there more installments in your lauded "Malabar House" series in the future?

V.K.: Death of a Lesser God asks a simple question – can post-colonial societies treat their former colonisers justly? James Whitby is an Englishman born in India during the Raj, convicted, post-Independence, of murdering a prominent Indian lawyer. He claims he is innocent, the victim of a form of ‘reverse racism’. My detectives, Persis and Archie, have eleven days to find out if Whitby is innocent or guilty before he is hanged. The clock is ticking! . . . The story starts in Bombay and then the action moves to Calcutta, which was the original capital of British India. In these books I explore some of the amazing history of the Raj and post-colonial India. Discussions about how post-colonial nations interact with their former colonizers are still being had today, and so I feel this book is particularly relevant.

This is the fourth in the Malabar House series, and yes, there will be more instalments. The books have found readers around the world and as long as they continue to support me, I will be asked to write more by my publishers. So the lesson is – if you like an author’s books buy them! Otherwise, they won’t be able to write more.

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