Right now, I’m traveling around launching my new book in five years: a 524-page historical fiction novel called The Sleeping Dictionary. And while I’m really happy to be in the position to finally sign the title page for whoever wants one, I’ve come up against an interesting moral question--where to have the booksignings.
After so many great experiences at independent mystery bookstores, launching with old friends is awfully tempting. But my new book is not a mystery. Would seeing this book on a store’s reading schedule, or finding it on a new books rack, perplex and annoy mystery readers?
Pat Frovarp and Gary Shulze at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis said: come back to us! Kathy and Tom at Mystery Loves Company Bookshop agreed: of course you’ll come down to Oxford. These bookstore friends reassured me that past readers would come to hear about the new book, which I like to call HER (History, Espionage and Romance). But that still leaves the larger question of whether mystery readers typically read fiction that doesn’t have crime in it.
I do see some overlap between history and mystery. Many of the best-loved books in the genre are set in the past. Usually these mysteries aren’t considered different enough to garner their own award categories, although the Malice Domestic mystery convention has created a new Agatha for historical fiction (the 2011 winner was Rhys Bowen for Naughty in Nice, set in 20s Europe). A delightful bookstore in Forest Park, IL, Centuries and Sleuths, carries books about history (fiction and non) as well as mystery. And the readers I’ve met there are among the knowledgeable you can find anywhere. Which reminds me of a crucial trait in mystery readers: we don’t like the books where we anticipate the outcome. We want to be surprised. And that’s probably why reading many different sources about one historical event fascinates me.
I’d always yearned to stretch my storytelling to India, a country I love every bit as much as Japan, but differently. My father is from India, and I’ve enjoyed five long visits there, my first occurring when I was nine years old and wrote in a travel diary.
Each time I’ve visited Calcutta over these three decades, the residential streets change, because a few 19th century buildings are felled for the sake of modern commerce. These places—the old bungalows of the British and the Indian intelligentsia—were elegant as palaces and the object of my endless fascination.
Of course my India book would be set in the past, to tell stories about the people who once lived within. I’d always wanted to delve deeper into the specifics of how the British felt losing the jewel in their crown, and to what lengths Indian freedom fighters would go despite the danger of their yearning for freedom. And what about the characters who rarely appeared in colonial novels—Indian women?
The setting of 1930s and ‘40s Bengal was so wide and grand—and actual events oof the time so compelling—to put one dead body in the middle of things was not compelling. There was so much death at that time, and with my story bracketed by a deadly cyclone, a rice famine and murderous riots, there were enough hurt people for me to worry about. Death was a part of life—yet I was intent on creating a story that was not a downer, but had the same kind of beauty and warmth that I feel whenever I’m in India.
I still needed suspense, because I find it painful to read any book without an element of wonder or uncertainty—no matter what its genre. I strived to write a story that would make me breathless at the end of a chapter and ready to move onward. In the stacks of the British Library’s Asian and African Studies Reading Room, I was stunned to read recently declassified materials proving the existence of a secret spy unit within Calcutta’s Indian Civil Service branch. I’ll get revenge on you bastards, I thought, all the while taking careful notes.
Next I traveled to India, where after a great struggle I earned an admission card to the National Library of India’s newspaper archives in Calcutta. Here, in several newspaper articles in the Sunday ‘women’s pages,’ I found the voices of strong young Indian women breaking free from traditional roles to enter freedom fighting and politics. College girls raised money for the cause, smuggled arms, and even assassinated British officials. They even put on military uniforms and trained to fight the British-led Indian Army in World War II. It was much more than I’d imagined when I’d first dreamed up the project. But it was true.
This is why I like historical writing so much. The fabric of the past is often largely unknown. All that a writer needs to do is find a few sympathetic characters to bring a story to life. Like a good marriage, the two genres of mystery and history can coexist happily. For me, this is a real happy ending.