After ten years in the business, killing people was becoming an irritation. This wasn’t a good omen…because where is a mystery novel without the supreme felony, cops, and the rest of it?
I enjoy writing mysteries, but have never been excited about the rules that govern most cozy mysteries. Such as: the murder victim can never be an animal or small child. She shouldn’t be the narrator, or someone who’s featured heavily in the series. Ideally, the dead one has something dislikeable about him or her. The murderer is someone within the victim’s social circle, a person with no criminal record or no previous history of domestic violence. Finally, there must be something wacky and indecipherable about the death scene, which will make it so tricky to solve that a smart reader will miss every clue. If a reader does pick up the killer’s identity before the last page, they will write you and say the book’s a failure.
Before you’re tempted to knock me off for having a bad attitude, let me explain what drew me to the genre in the first place. I love everything about story telling: creating an adventure with a clear beginning, a rise in suspense, and a smashing dénouement. And then there are settings. I’m a passionate traveler, and never have trouble finding intriguing settings—Japan, Hawaii, Washington DC and San Francisco so far.
But my favorite part about writing is exploring ideas about culture, usually in the past: say the courtesan culture of 1800s Japan, or the Hawaiian sugar plantation world of the 1920s. Even the unspoken history of orphans left behind after the US military occupation of Japan.
As my writing career has progressed, I’ve pinned most of my books on events that have happened decades or even centuries ago. I began wishing I could write from the viewpoint of these long-gone figures—and also that I could expand my settings to India, where I’ve been traveling in recent years for family matters. Calcutta, the city where many relatives of my paternal relatives live, was once the largest and richest city in the British Empire outside of London. The grand, wedding-cake buildings of the 1800s are now dingy with grime—but as I gazed up at them, starting in the late 1980s, I felt as if they were whispering stories of past adventures within. As I explored Calcutta, I also became intrigued with a nearby home of Bengal’s most famous revolutionary, a man who tried to wrest India away from the British with the help of the Japanese during World War II.
The events and characters of Calcutta’s history were so spectacular they would overshadow any mystery I might concoct. The only story I needed to tell was India’s painful fight for independence—fictionalized, of course. While most stories of this era are narrated by British men or women—or perhaps an educated, elite Indian man—I wanted someone different to speak. The quiet, ignored servant girl, who was much smarter than anyone could believe.
It wasn’t until I lost the ongoing contract for Rei books with a longtime publisher that I had the chance to actually sit down and try a historical novel. It felt like a vacation to undertake the reading, traveling and interviewing involved in getting 1930s and 40s Calcutta just right.
As I’d expected, I didn’t miss creating an implausible murderer and the victim. But some mystery writing habits were so ingrained that I couldn’t help from using them in the new book. For instance, when research led me to read about the existence of a secret spy unit within the Indian Civil Service in the 1920s through the war years—and also, the participation of Indian women college students in the revolutionary movement during the same era—I had to add espionage to the plot. And of course, there had to be emotional suspense, which is taking the form of a mother-daughter story, as well as a romantic love triangle.
It was also natural that in my historical world, I found dead bodies. More than 50,000 people were killed during “The Week of Long Knives,” also known as the Calcutta riots of September, 1946, a climactic part of the book. Also, an estimated 500,000 died from starvation in the 1944-45 rice famine. Witnessing loved ones fade away from malnutrition or disease, or suffer sudden violent deaths, was a terrible reality I couldn’t exclude. So I wrote death into the novel, but the fact that these losses can’t be blamed on one individual makes them all the more powerful for me.
After five years of writing and rewriting, I’d produced a 500-page novel called The Sleeping Dictionary. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel closure. The history around India’s independence is so fascinating that I am tempted to write more about it. Just like an ambitious mystery author, I’m envisioning a series, some kind of hybrid history-espionage-romance (HER!). The setting is always Bengal, but as geographic boundaries fluctuate over time, a character’s home might be in Pakistan, or Bangladesh. Just as the young daughter of the heroine in the first book might become the star of another story.
It seems that the literary rules I worried about should not have been so important. I was the one with a problem, not the genre itself. In light of this novel, I hope to finish a Rei mystery later this year…or bury myself whole-heartedly in another Indian historical. The key is just to keep writing—and stretching.
Sujata Massey, formerly a regular commentator with the Femmes Fatale, lives in Baltimore with her family. Her most recent book, a historical-espionage-romance novel set in Calcutta, is The Sleeping Dictionary.