Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
An endlessly fascinating aspect of the golden age of detective fiction is its identification with a certain kind of Britishness. Many of the authors who are widely read from the genre’s heyday in the 1920s and 1930s either were from the UK or were based here for some of the time that they were writing, and as such a certain amount of that context came to be strongly identified with these books. But at the same time, the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham and others had readers all around the world, and the international fanbase for mystery fiction is growing all the time. How does the version of Britishness conveyed by these books land in other places, and what influence has it had on how crime writing has developed elsewhere? These are questions that I’m keen more to explore on the podcast, starting with today’s episode.
For today, we’re going to look at the whodunnit in India. This is a place with strong historic connections with Britain and British culture because of colonisation, and also somewhere with its own deep traditions of storytelling and mythology. I am very far from being an expert in this, though, so luckily my guest today is someone who knows a lot more about being both a reader and a writer of crime fiction in India. He is R.V. Raman, author of both thrillers and whodunnits set in his home country. In fact, I’ll let him introduce himself properly.
RV Raman: I write as RV Raman, although my full name is R Venkataraman. It’s a, it’s a bit of a mouthful, especially when you go for international audiences so I shortened it to RV Raman. Now I’ve been a reader of crime fiction, among other genres, I’ve been a reader of crime fiction from the time I was in school. So Christie and Conan Doyle, and some of those golden age writers, they’re my favorites.
And I have always wanted to write, but never had the confidence, never had the time to do it. So when I was about 50 years old and I was approaching retirement, I decided to take a shot. And I started with fantasy. From fantasy I moved on to crime fiction and I ended up writing four books set in corporate India, corporate India because that’s a place I’m very familiar with. So I wrote about that. And once I had some confidence in myself. I took a shot at writing a traditional mystery and that is A Will To Kill.
Caroline: That first contact you had when you were at school, how did that come about? How did you first get into crime fiction?
RV Raman: In my house, so my mother, my sisters, my father, they were all big readers of books. And, you know, at that point of time in the sixties and seventies, we didn’t have television, we didn’t have any of that. So our entertainment was largely reading books. So one of my sisters, my elder sister, introduced me to Christie and Conan Doyle and I really stuck with that. And my other sister introduced me to Asimov and science fiction and I got stuck into that as well. So that’s how it started. And I thoroughly enjoyed myself in reading these books.
Caroline: Beyond Christie and Conan Doyle, what directions did you explore in crime fiction?
RV Raman: Oh, mostly British authors, it could be GK Chesterton, there could be any of the Edgar Wallace, all that. And of course, the American authors Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, you know, the whole, the whole suite. I tried all of them. Of course, what I read was limited by what was available in libraries. And since we didn’t have Kindle those days, I found later when I bought my first Kindle that there were a whole number of golden age authors whom I hadn’t even known about. So I spent a lot of time now picking up old books and reading them there. I’m still very fond of a lot of the golden age.
Caroline: Were there particular things about it that you liked, particular aspects that drew you to it?
RV Raman: The golden age takes me back in time to a world, which I did not, I have not seen. So that was one huge attraction. Second is that almost all of them are cerebral puzzles and I am a person who was a little, I give favour to that. I like cerebral things rather than necessarily emotional stuff. And golden age is very much like that.
And you know, even at that point of time, when I would read golden age mysteries and some of the thrillers, I always had a liking for plain writing, which doesn’t have profanities and stuff like that. It’s just that I’m a person like that. So these are the three things that really appeal to me.
And that’s, if you see my books today, it’s, it’s a lot. I don’t write one word of profanity. It’s all clean. I would like my writing to be read by everybody in the house. It could be children could be schoolchildren. So that’s how this,
Caroline: That makes sense, I guess, given that you were quite young, when you came across these books yourself, that you’d want to write to the you of today.
RV Raman: Yes, exactly.
Caroline: And you mentioned there that these books enabled you to experience a world and places that you’d never seen. And is it right then that most of those books that you were finding were Western or even British and American?
RV Raman: I would say about 80% of them were actually British, 20% American. I don’t really recall very many other books. I do remember reading a couple of French books that were translated in English. I don’t remember reading, let’s say Japanese books or, or Chinese books, which are available now. So that’s how it was. It took me to the UK and London, at least in 19th century, it seemed very, very familiar to me.
Baker Street felt like the street next door. So that’s how much I liked it. And the American writers, but largely, New York and LA. So it made me , at that point of time, international travel wasn’t there, as I said television wasn’t there. I hadn’t, If I were to see anything in London or LA, it would have to be in a movie or read it in a book.
Caroline: Did you start to think, you know, I really enjoy this kind of writing, but where are the stories that are set in places I know? Where are the stories from India?
RV Raman: Oh, yes. Oh yes. That was certainly a very strong thought in my mind. And quite honestly, if you look at what was available in India… India is a very, very old civilisation, thousands of years old. So we have some ethics, we have a lot of stories in different, different languages, not necessarily English, but for some reason, mysteries didn’t seem to be very popular. There was a lot of mythological stuff, there was a lot of thriller kind of stuff. But mysteries were very, very few.
I don’t go, you know, One or two old writers who used to write mysteries, even if you look at the non-English. So I did want to read mysteries that were set in places that I knew that I could, you know, like I would think that if I were living in London and I was reading a Christie novel, I could walk out to Baker Street, I could go to Paddington, you know, those kinds of things I couldn’t do in India. So that was certainly a lack, I wanted to do that, but didn’t have much opportunity. There weren’t any mystery writers.
Caroline: Are there mystery writers, Indian mystery writers, that you now read and enjoy?
RV Raman: Now, there is a whole slew of writers in the last about 10 years or so. A number of new writers have come up. But as a group of mystery writers, we are still in our infancy. Many of these stories are, I would say, copies of international stories, right? That, that uniqueness hasn’t yet come through. And one of the things that I think we need to do a lot better, when writing mysteries in India is that we need to really Indianise it, that there is so much of uniqueness in any country and certainly India does have it.
We need to use that, and that is probably starting to happen now. I would say that in the last two years, or since the pandemic began, I must have read about between 50 and 70 Indian crime writers, not just mysteries but others also. It’s a, it’s a very long, It’s a hugely varied lot. And so I do like it, there are some of them are current and many of them are present-day. Some of them are set in the Mughal India or in the British India. That’s fine as well.
Caroline: Because obviously, as you say, there’s many, many hundreds of years of history there so it does make sense that historical fiction and crime fiction would be a fruitful area to write in. And so you having you know, become a fan of crime fiction very early on. Where did the ambition to write your own mystery come from?
RV Raman: Ah, but two to three things, Like I said earlier, when I was approaching 50 and retirement was looming, one of the concerns I had was what would I do after retirement? Because I’ve been having a professional career, which is very, very taxing.
And suddenly there is nothing to do, that vacuum would be very difficult to manage. I’ve seen that with my father. So I said, one of the things I should do is to try and write to keep myself intellectually occupied, but that all started, like I said earlier with fantasy that time my children were in school and they are big fans of Lord of the Rings.
So what I did was I, the three of us after dinner would sit and talk and we created a fantasy world of our own. And once you created the fantasy world, one of the boys said, Why don’t you write something? So I wrote one scene and then showed it to them, they liked it, they said what happens after that. I wrote the second scene, and that went on and on and on.
Within two years, I found that I had a four book series of fantasy, which I self published on Amazon. Then I realised that I could write, and I decided that I would take a shot at something a little more contemporary. I wanted to do Christie kind of a thing, but really good mysteries are very difficult to write because logically they have to fit very, very well.
And like I said, I didn’t have the confidence, so I wrote a thriller, a thriller set in corporate India. I knew it very well. It’s set in banking, it’s about banking fraud. Those things are done. So that’s how I started. And now I find now I’m 60, so this was 10 years back, now that I’ve retired I find that this is an excellent hobby to have.
Caroline: And you chose to write in English as opposed to any other language?
RV Raman: Yes. My medium of instruction in school has always been English. A few subjects would have been in Hindi, but otherwise largely English.
Caroline: That makes sense. Once you’d got your confidence up with your fantasy novels and your, your corporate thrillers, you then embarked upon writing your first golden age style mystery. What was the process of doing that like? How did you, How did you begin?
RV Raman: Okay. I had made one decision earlier, and that was the setting. So I said, if I’m going to write a traditional mystery, I want to put it in a remote mansion, which is just a setting, which is very often used, not just by Christie and Conan Doyle, but many others. , excuse me.
So that was something I had decided. And as I was writing my corporate thrillers, there was this mystery bubbling up inside me. So once I finished the fourth book, I said, okay, now I want to take a shot at it. And I started writing A Will To Kill. And what was really interesting about that book is that I managed to write it in something like seven weeks max, about 50 days.
I usually take about six months to eight months to write a book. But this thing, because of those bubbling in me and everything, then in my head, it just came out and it became a well, I was just lucky that when my agent showed it to a publisher they picked it up immediately so I was quite happy with that.
Caroline: After the break: we go on a mystery tour of India.
So you mentioned there that the setting was something that a decision that you made early. Tell us a bit about the setting, because I think for lots of my listeners, they won’t have ever heard of the part of India where the book happens.
RV Raman: Okay. India, as you can imagine, is a vast place, it’s a huge place. If you look at it just by sheer numbers it’s thousands of miles across and before 1947, when independence came, we were actually many different countries and kingdoms. It’s only 1947 that we became a single country. So if you look at India, the variety is huge, hugely heterogeneous place, different cuisines, different languages, everything.
Now, one of the things I have wanted to do is to set each of my books in a different place and A Will To Kill is set in the hills of southern India, which is close to where I live, Chennai. That’s a place which has a lot of plantations, coffee and tea plantations. Very nice, it’s a very, very, picturesque place, lots of rains, lots of fog, all that.
And when the British were in India — Madras, not Chennai, was one of their capitals. So there’s a lot of activity there. And in the summer, they would go away to the Nilgiri hills, which is where this is set. As a result in the Nilgiris you had a lot of British built buildings, mansions, offices, various things.
So I have visited this place a few times when I was a kid and it’s an absolutely delightful place. I think when I look at it and I read some of these books, which are set in some of the moors in England, it doesn’t seem very different.
So that’s where it is. And I set it in a valley and a landslide takes place and the residents of the mansion are cut off. This again a classic setting in the golden age. So you have a situation where you have a group of closed circle people, about 10 to 12 of them, and then a murder takes place, another murder takes place. And it’s the classical story of how you, how do you unravel that. There’s a bit of modern day thrown in, because WhatsApp and mobile phones are there — it is set in the present day.. So that’s how it works.
Caroline: Because that’s a very interesting dilemma, isn’t it, for the modern novelist working with golden age tropes is how do you account for things like mobile phones and instant communication?
RV Raman: Yes, it is. It is. And if you will remember Sue Grafton to conquer that problem, she sets her her stories back in the 1980s before the mobile phone was around. So yes, it is a challenge. But I think we need to write for new audiences, so it’s set in the present day.
Caroline: You mentioned wanting to introduce people to different parts of India, to show readers parts of the country that perhaps aren’t on the standard tourist destinations and it’s difficult to travel now anyway. Where else do you want to take your readers after this first book?
RV Raman: Okay, so the first book is in the southern hills of India. The second, which is out in the US and is coming out in the UK later this year, that is set in a it’s set on the banks of a river in central India, a place called Bundelkhand, which is very rich in history and legend. So you have It’s by the river there, and there is an island in the middle of the river, which is said to be haunted and then murder takes place in various ways. That’s a second book.
The third book is in the foothills of the Himalayas, the big mountains. Right. And there again, it is an older building. That’s fracking there and stuff like that. There’s some very picturesque spots that, which are world famous. I take them there. The fourth book that I’m just about starting to write is in the backwaters of Kerula in south India where you have vast backwaters coming in from the sea. And it’s a very, very popular tourist spot. In the last 10 years has become very popular. People stay in houseboats. And you are not just staying in a resort in a building, but you going to spend a couple of nights on a boat, a houseboat where you live in there.
So that’s what I’m writing as a fourth one. There are so many more possibilities there are deserts here, there are beaches here, there are forests here, that the possibilities are endless.
Caroline: And it sounds like you’re really inspired. You’ve done three already, you’re working on the fourth. So it’s a style and a process that you’re really enjoying?
RV Raman: Oh yes. Oh yes. I thoroughly enjoy this. Like I said earlier, it gives me something to do. It gives me something very intellectual to do so it’s great fun. If I compare writing to reading. So reading gives me pleasure, but if I take a book, it takes me a day, two days to read it so that’s maybe 12 hours, 14 hours it gives me pleasure, but writing gives me pleasure for 20 times, 30 times the amount of time. So it’s wonderful.
Caroline: And are you someone who ha you know, lots of writers talk about writer’s block or getting stuck. Is that something that ever happens to you?
RV Raman: I actually don’t know whether it happens or not. There are lots of times when I don’t feel like writing or I’m at a point in the story where something is not right.
So I don’t, I, Something stops me from writing the next one, the next scene. I don’t know what I’d call it a writer’s block or anything fancy because sometimes you can write, sometimes you don’t feel like writing, sometimes a part of you saying, listen, there’s something wrong here before you go ahead, try and fix this. So that happens to me very, very often, but I don’t know whether I would call it a block.
Caroline: Do you have a routine where you sit down for a certain amount of time every day or anything like that?
RV Raman: No, nothing. See, since I pick this up after retirement, this is a hobby. And, if I put any structure to it, it looks like work. So I don’t want it to look like work, I just do it when I want to do.
And generally I don’t take deadlines from publishers. I write my stuff and then give it to them. Then it’s up to them, the ball is in their court. So I don’t want, I dealt with deadlines enough for forty years, so I don’t want anymore.
Caroline: And what’s the response been like to the books from your readers in different places? So Indian readers, American readers.
RV Raman: Okay. So Indian readers, the crime, the corporate crime series has been discovered extremely well because I’m practically sure that there is nothing similar to that in the Indian market. So it has been received very well. Unfortunately, whodunnits are not very popular, still, in India.
And so publishers don’t get the volumes, so it becomes difficult. So for me, I did face that problem after after A Will to Kill, trying to sell my second mystery, I did have a problem in India. I still have a problem, but fortunately for me, a US publisher, picked it up and then Pushkin in London picked it up. There are more readers for whodunnits there.
For some reason, I don’t know why, but even when you look at Indian movies, there are a zillion movies being made every year, there are no mysteries. For some reason, nobody really creates murder mysteries either on the screen or on the printed page. So that is a bit of a disappointment, but it’s okay. I intend to write a variety of things. I started with fantasy, then I did corporate fiction, then I’ve done whodunnits. Next time, I’m going to write a science fiction.
Caroline: Yes. Well, that’s fascinating that you say, cause I mean from the little I know about it, I’ve heard, you know, the Indian book market itself is enormous, so many people, so many readers and so on. It’s interesting that this genre that is so popular in other places hasn’t really taken off there yet.
RV Raman: Yeah, the Indian market is huge, but when we get into the details of the numbers, you will find that textbooks, self-improvement books are what constitute about 98%. Fiction is very, very small. Here most people consume fiction on the screen, TV and film. So reading is not very much, reading for pleasure that’s not as popular in India as it is in the UK and the US.
Caroline: Well, I hope that does start to change because it does seem like there should be, you know, teenagers out there having the same experience you did getting into crime fiction and wanting to read about where they are.
RV Raman: Yes, it is changing and it’s changing in a slightly different way. You see, Indian mythology is vast, it’s bigger than Greek. It’s bigger. So we have lots of new writers who are retelling mythology, Indian mythology in books and there’s a huge market for that. A lot of first time readers are going in for it. And I’m pretty sure that in the next 10 years or so, they will move from mythology to other genres, including crime.
Caroline: That’s really interesting, yes. And I’m glad as well that it’s, it’s something distinctly Indian that’s happening. That it’s, it’s not being imported from anywhere else.
Thanks to R. V. Raman for sharing his experience of crime writing in India with us. His first whodunnit, A Will to Kill, is out now in the UK and the US, and the second in his Harith Athreya series, A Dire Isle, is coming soon. There are links to his books in the episode description and to his website, where you can learn more about him and his work.
This episode was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books we mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/amysteriousglossary. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.