Where's India's Agatha Christie?

Jan 26, 2014, 11:08 IST | Anu Prabhakar

The recently-concluded Jaipur Literary Festival saw the launch of the Crime Writer's Association of South Asia, to encourage crime writing. Publishers, too, are looking for good crime writers

In the US, disgraced Indian army officer Ranjit Singh is in a race against time to save his family, while battling his own demons from the past. In cyclone-hit Milwaukee, the time is ripe for the murder of Indian techies by an American serial killer. In Shillong, a guitar player has to shell out Rs 50 lakh to save the life of his brother, involved in a botched up arms deal.

These are, in a gist, the plots of three crime fiction novels, The Caretaker, Behind the Silicon Mask and The Girl from Nongrim Hills, which hit Indian bookstores late last year. Besides being engaging, they are also refreshingly Indian. In The Caretaker, a novel primarily written for an American audience, a plate of dal khitchri even makes an appearance.

The interest in writing and reading Indian crime fiction is probably as old as detectives Feluda and Byomkesh Bakshi. Yet, the genre never really took off. Ankush Saikia, author of The Girl from Nongrim Hills, opines that for some reason, India seldom had well-written crime fiction. “But it looks like its starting to change,” adds the author, who is now writing a crime novel set in Delhi.

Ankush Saikia believes Indian crime fiction is turning the corner

With good quality thrillers and crime novels lined up for release this year, publishing honchos and authors are hopeful that crime writing in India will finally find its voice.

Talent hunt
It is a great time to be a crime fiction fan and writer. HarperCollins Publishers India is working to bring better quality crime fiction to readers, by putting together a series of thrillers by Indian writers. So this year, Anita Nair’s Old Monk-sipping, Bullet-riding Inspector Gowda (seen in Nair’s Cut like a Wound) will be back, embroiled in another mystery. Medical thriller The Death of Mitali Dotto, by Anirban Bose, will also be out this year. Besides Kota Neelima’s crime fiction novel, The Honest Season, Random House India is also releasing a novel co-authored by James Patterson and Ashwin Sanghi called Private India, which is one of the existing series of Private novels by Patterson.

Amin Ahmad is pitching his novel to Hollywood

Karthika VK, publisher, HarperCollins Publishers India and a self-confessed fan of crime fiction, says that as a publisher, the real challenge came when it was time to position these books in the market. “It was always, should we position the novel like an Ian Rankin novel or a Patricia Cornwell novel,” she laughs, hinting at the lack of Indian references.

There is no dearth of initiatives that encourage good quality crime writing. Zac O’Yeah, the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic! explains that he has organised a two-hour interactive thriller writing workshops in Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi and Jaipur, in an effort to try and get new writers interested in developing their sense of craft. The author will be conducting the workshop at the Kala Ghoda Festival in February.

Penguin India has also launched a joint publishing imprint called Blue Salt dedicated to crime fiction. “We will publish two to three titles, particularly under Blue Salt this year,” says Hemali Sodhi, the VP of Marketing and Corporate Communications, Penguin (Group) India.

Elusive international fame
The author of The Caretaker, Amin Ahmad, who writes novels in the nom de plume of AX Ahmad, is currently busy pitching his novel to Hollywood. The only issue? Hollywood is gobsmacked by the idea of an Indian action hero. “They asked me Indians can be doctors, but how can there be an Indian action hero,” laughs the US-based writer. “They said they’ll have to change the hero to being Bosnian or Serbian,” adds the author, whose sequel to The Caretaker will be out in June this year.

So while the crime fiction genre may have, in Ahmad’s words, “exploded”, Indian crime novels remain largely undiscovered by readers abroad. Ahmad points out that most thrillers never even make it to the US. “I have to either get them from Kindle or get them from my friends coming to America,” he adds.

“An Indian crime novel can be very topical and there is a lot of interest around the country here,” he says. “I am waiting to see the first Indian author that will go big on an international level.” Penguin India’s Sodhi admits that that breakthrough crime novel in India has remained elusive so far. “Maybe 2014 will be the year it arrives,” she says. “Who knows.”

An association for crime writing

The Crime Writer’s Association of South Asia was recently launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival by author Kishwar Desai and festival director Namita Gokhale. They will organise a short story writing competition and a festival in New Delhi. “We want to promote crime literature and provide a better platform for crime writers,” says Desai.

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