First Monday Crime is back a week today on the 6th November with Stuart McBride, Elodie Harper, Simon Booker and Vaseem Khan. The lovely people over at FM asked if I would like to do a little Q&A with one of the authors. Since I have heard so much about one of these authors in particular, I asked if I could interview Vaseem Khan. Thankfully, he said yes!
Vaseem Khan has had three books published so far – The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown and The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star. All three books are part of the Baby Ganesh Agency series. They can be bought here.
Q1. I’ve only just started to read book 1. Could you tell me a little bit about your protagonist, Inspector Chopra?
Inspector Ashwin Chopra is a rarity – an incorruptible police officer in the Mumbai police service. We meet him in The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra where, on his last day in office (he is forced into retirement in his late forties), he is confronted by the body of a local boy. Chopra quickly realises that his seniors do not wish the boy’s death to be investigated – but when the boy’s mother suggests that he is letting the death slide because they are poor it rankles. Chopra is a man who cares deeply about the social ills in his country, the vast inequalities, the grinding poverty. He is nostalgic about ‘old India’, but understands that new, globalised India has its own problems. He is a man whose actions are guided always by a desire to see justice done in an often unequal society.
Q2. I love your opening line of The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra – ‘On the day that he was due to retire, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered that he had inherited an elephant.’ Why an elephant?
You could say the idea of the elephant was born on my first day in India back in 1997 when I arrived in Mumbai to work as a management consultant. I was in a taxi and we had stopped at a set of traffic lights. As I looked out into the passing traffic of rickshaws, trucks, bikes, cows, goats and dogs, I saw, lumbering through the chaos, an enormous grey Indian elephant – not something you see in East London where I was born! This surreal sight stuck with me and eventually led to an elephant being cast alongside Chopra in the novel I wrote when I returned to England ten years later. On a purely practical level elephants possess all the qualities of the best detectives. They’re highly intelligent, and have those amazing memories – yes, that’s not a myth. They also have a great range of emotions, which is important because part of the charm of my books is the dynamic between Chopra and the baby elephant he is forced to adopt.
Q3. You were born in London and grew up there but you’ve spent ten years in Mumbai. Two major cities. What differences did you find between the two? I particularly liked your description of the high rises in Mumbai resembling ‘a giant pin cushion’.
Mumbai is a non-stop assault on the senses. I’ve tried to encapsulate this in my book, to give readers an idea of what the city looks like, feels like, sounds like, smells like, and even tastes like. However, once I’d spent some time there I began to see that there were aspects of this amazing place that required me to take a closer look. My first trip to the Daravi slum, for instance, left me open-mouthed. Extreme poverty, poor sanitation, limited medical facilities, terrible transport infrastructure, all the things we take for granted in the West. There is a massive gap between rich and poor, and although social change is taking place, there are still prejudices ingrained in people’s thinking (such as the caste system). In this respect Mumbai is not so different from London, which also suffers from inequality, though not on the same scale – the recent Grenfell disaster brought this sharply into focus.
Q4. You have just won an award for your second book, The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown. Could you explain a bit more?
The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown has just won the 2017 SHAMUS AWARD for the Best Original Private Investigator Paperback. The Shamus Awards are one of the world’s most prestigious crime awards, awarded by the Private Eye Writers of America. Previous Shamus winners include the likes of Harlan Coben and Dennis Lehane, one of my favourite writers, which makes this honour particularly pleasing. The book sees Chopra on the trail of the world’s most famous diamond, the Kohinoor, first mined in India during the Raj, ‘appropriated’ by the British, and ever since installed in the Crown Jewels. The Kohinoor is brought to India for a special exhibition, and stolen in a daring heist. Chopra is soon tasked to recover the great diamond.
Q5. I’ve heard others compare you to Alexander McCall Smith. Who are the crime writers that you admire?
I freely admit that Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency has been an inspiration for me. I only hope my books do justice to the comparison. (My favourite such comparison is by Jake Kerridge of the Sunday Express: “There have been many insipid imitators of the Alexander McCall Smith formula … but Khan has the quirkiness and hint of grit to make his portrayal of modern Mumbai memorable.”)
I am also a fan of some other usual suspects: Rankin’s Rebus series is wonderful, as is Louise Penny’s Canada-set Inspector Armand Gamache. I love Jeffrey Deaver’s quadriplegic hero Lincoln Rhymes. (Deaver is brilliant at putting in twists.) But America’s Michael Connelly is my favourite – his L.A. based detective Harry Bosch is my kind of crime fighter – grim, gritty and utterly implacable in his mission. In terms of newer authors I’m a fan of Abir Mukherjee whose Sam Wyndham series takes us back to 1920s India. They are beautifully written books and evocative of the period.
Q6. I asked Amer Anwar this question so I’m going to ask you too – are you excited by the rise of Asian crime writers in Britain?
Diversity in the creative arts is very much on the agenda right now. I waited 23 years to be published and there were times during that long apprenticeship when I doubted that I ever would be. My experience since being published, however, has been wonderful. I have had nothing but friendship and support from the crime fraternity – from publishers, writers, bloggers, bookshops and readers. I think one reason Asian writers are late to the party is that traditionally writing has not been considered a viable career option by Asian parents – so support and encouragement is lacking. Yes, I am excited by more Asian writers coming to the fore – but the bottom line is that readers are astute – they can spot a good crime novel from a mile away, and don’t care who wrote it.
Q7. Would you like to see your books made into a TV series/film?
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra has been optioned for film. It would be great if it was actually made – so many readers have said the colour and vibrancy of the books would look great on screen. Personally, I’d love to sit in on the casting of the baby elephant!
Scenario – you’re due to be speaking at a big literary festival but you’re given VIP tickets to see England v India at The Oval. What are you going to do?
This one’s a no-brainer. Yes, I love all things cricket, but having waited two decades to be published, nothing is more important to me now than connecting with readers. I do a lot of talks and find it easy to engage with an audience. I love sharing stories – not just about my books, but about literature and life in general. Put it this way: no one leaves one of my talks without a smile on their face!
Thank you for answering my questions, Vaseem. And if you want to test Vaseem on his final sentence, then you can reserve your place at First Monday Crime here.
Vaseem Khan first saw an elephant lumbering down the middle of the road in 1997 when he arrived in India to work as a management consultant. It was the most unusual thing he had ever encountered and served as the inspiration for the Baby Ganesh Agency series.
He returned to the UK in 2006 and now works at University College London for the Department of Security and Crime Science where he is astonished on a daily basis by the way modern science is being employed to tackle crime. Elephants are third on his list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, and not always in that order.
You can took a look at Vaseem’s website, which, apart from telling you about the books and Vassem himself, also has some photos of some very cute baby elephants. Surely that’s got to be worth a look – vaseemkhan.com