Friday, August 6, 2021

Guest blogger - Vaseem Khan


Hello. Abir here. This week I'm handing my spot over to my good friend and co-presenter of the Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, Vaseem Khan. Vaseem is the author of the Inspector Chopra series and the CWA Historical Dagger winning Persis Wadia series, both set in Bombay. His latest novel, The Dying Day, is out now. You should buy it because if you don't, he has threatened to hit me with a stick.

Now. Over to Vaseem.

How has writing changed your life and how has life changed your writing?

by Vaseem Khan, author, The Dying Day

‘As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.’ So goes the opening line from Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s classic film, chronicling the escapades of mafia-associate-turned-informant Henry Hill. 

            I feel an affinity with Hill. Not because I wanted to be an informant or a gangster – though that was always an option in the East London neighbourhood I grew up in – but because as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. Even in school I was that irritating little kid who submitted illegible forty-page stories about three-legged goblins and talking toadstools when all our poor teacher wanted was something easy to mark along the lines of ‘what I did on my holidays’.

            As a teenager, I came across Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, prompting me to write a towering comic SF fantasy, submitting it to several agents, and then sitting back to wait for the life of riches and fame I supposed was every author’s right. 

There was one small problem. The book was crap. 

            I spent the next twenty-three years writing six more novels, each one garnering another round of death threats from agents up and down the land. (OK. So the abuse was imagined, but I’m sure they were thinking it.) Literary fiction, thrillers, even erotica, replete with toe-curlingly bad sex scenes. (Think Fifty Shades of Grey, but with a dose of Nabokovian literary playfulness to break up the gratuitous dialogue and exotic sex toys.)

            It wasn’t until I allowed life – namely, the decade I spent in India – to flow through me onto the page, that I finally found a publishing deal. It’s that old saw: write what you know. All those years of chasing what I thought the market wanted, when all I had to do was write about the country I’d found myself in at the age of 23, a wet-eared innocent thrust into the splendour and squalor of a nation changing beyond all recognition, beset, on all sides, by lepers, beggars, eunuchs, slumdogs, and the sort of mad, bad co-inhabitants that would make even Byron hurl himself off a cliff. 

            The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra chronicles that India. Published in 2015, it finally vindicated more than two decades of soul-destroying effort. (In your face, ex-English teacher!) The book introduces us to the eponymous Chopra, a rigid and honest policeman who retires from the Mumbai police service in his late forties but is beset with the need to continue pursuing justice. And so he investigates a murder. At the same time, he also happens to inherit a baby elephant, a device I used to symbolise the fabulousness of the subcontinent. 

Chopra is my alter-ego, troubled by the social inequalities of a country that local politicians continue to herald (in the face of all evidence) as a sort of modern, spice-infused Eden. The book became a bestseller, translated into sixteen languages, and selected by the Sunday Times as one of the 40 best crime novels published between 2015-2020. Four more in the series followed, permitting me to cling grimly onto the Eiger-like face of the modern publishing mountain, from whence so many authors topple to their literary deaths after a ‘promising debut’. 

            Fast forward six years. 

I have now published seven books (or more correctly, my publisher, Hodder & Stoughton has published…), five in the Chopra series, and two in a new historical crime series set in 1950s Bombay. The first of these, Midnight at Malabar House, won the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger in 2021. The book introduces us to India’s first female police detective, and her English forensic scientist sidekick.

            Why go historical? 

Well, if I might be permitted to don my pretentious-author hat for a moment (mine has feathers in it, plucked from the tail of the legendary Garuda bird, and soaked in the blood of my enemies): it was the desire to examine the roots of the modern India I wrote about in my first series, to frame the narrative that links past and present. India in 1950 is a turbulent place, just three years after Independence, Gandhi’s assassination, and the horrors of Partition. Tens of thousands of foreigners linger in the country. One such Brit, a senior diplomat, is murdered, and the case falls into my heroine’s lap.

That India, led by Gandhi’s colleague and friend, Nehru, set the tone for the country that would subsequently emerge, as the nation came to grips with running herself after three centuries of foreign interference. My hope, with Midnight at Malabar House, was to shake some of that old history loose, to edify and educate, all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned murder mystery.

            The second in the Malabar House series, The Dying Day, has just come out. The blurb? It’s Bombay, 1950.When a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy vanishes from Bombay’s Asiatic Society, the case lands on Inspector Persis Wadia’s desk. Uncovering a series of complex riddles written in verse, Persis – together with English forensic scientist Archie Blackfinch – is soon on the trail. But then they discover the first body... The initial reviews have been gratifyingly positive. The Observer calls it a ‘delicious treat of a historical crime novel’. Crime writing legend Ann Cleeves says of the book: This is a crime novel for everyone; for those who love traditional mysteries there are clues, codes and ciphers, but it also had a harder edge and a post-war darkness.’ 

Is this my subtle way of urging you to purchase a copy? Why, yes. Nothing subtle about it. There are no guarantees in this business. Each book is another leap across the canyon on a clapped-out motorbike. We authors are utterly reliant on the kindness of reader-folk. 

            So, has writing changed my life?

            As I sit on my golden throne, barking instructions at my manservant, sipping on the finest port from a gem-encrusted goblet, I reflect on how little my life has actually changed. I still love to read books (even ones written by other people); I love to play cricket (by play I mean turn up for the first match of the year, pick up an injury, and spend the rest of the season jealously sniping from the side-lines at my teammates); I love to go to the cinema (on my own, these days, as my wife has boycotted the sort of films I like to watch); I love to eat out with friends (yes, I do have some, thank you very much!); and, above all, I love to write. 

            I’m fortunate enough to be able to continue to create worlds and characters that intrigue me, and, hopefully, my readers. And that, ultimately, is a sort of literary success story, isn’t it? To know that somewhere in the world, someone is reading – hopefully with some measure of enjoyment – the words that little old me dreamed up. 

            Believe me, when I tell you, I am grateful beyond words, and more than anything else, that is what inspires me to keep on keeping on.


Note: There’s currently a free short story available on my website in the Malabar House series and a competition to win a box of crime fiction bestsellers.


Vaseem’s website:

Vaseem’s Twitter:


Catriona McPherson said...

Welcome, Vaseem! Blimey, this blog post is beautifully written. (See? I'm automatically propelled into alliteration just by reading it.)

Love the idea of a rejection so emphatic it quaifies as a death threat. LOL.

One of the perks of being a fellow H&S author was getting early copies of your books. I still maintain that BAD DAY AT THE VULTURE CLUB is one of the best all-time titles. And the inside is pretty fab too.


Vaseem said...

How lovely of you to say, Catriona.... And I wasn't kidding about the death threats... Im sure that, late on a Friday afternoon after a hellish week, even the most saintly of agents think unkind thoughts when reading submissions they really don't like...

Susan C Shea said...

Welcome, Vaseem. It's great to her more about your background and career. I really enjoy the Inspector Chopra series and the baby elephant. Fabulousness, indeed. Agree with Catriona about the titles of your books - head-turners.

James W. Ziskin said...

This is fantastic, Vaseem! I’ll be reading your two series next. Congrats!