Put aside Agatha Christie, Patricia Cornwell and Ruth Rendell and pick up Kalpana Swaminathan, Madhulika Liddle or Swati Kaushal instead. The Indian sorority of women crime writers talk about how they go about solving a murder or two.
They say women have devious minds. As a woman, I think that rings very true. We do indeed. Which makes us/them very good at plotting. It could be anything that is being plotted — a plan to throw a surprise birthday party, a new recipe, a company takeover, a government coup or just a simple murder.
Yes, death does delight the average woman since it is one way to deal with issues that plague her every day from demanding husbands to annoying bosses, irritating auto drivers to recalcitrant children, lifts that do not work and cars that refuse to start. The best solution to all these and many more is a dream state, a fugue, a wonderful escape into a mental nirvana where all annoyances die gory deaths and blood is as happy a vision as that perfect red lipstick.
By that logic, a murder plotted can well be a murder solved — again, logically, women are fabulous detectives and even better solvers of murder. Which in turn implies that a woman is perhaps the best crime writer there is, especially when it comes to finding a solution to a crime, the bloodier the better.
Some of the best known crime writers are women from Agatha Christie, Helen MacInnes and Josephine Tey to Sue Grafton, Jacqueline Winspear, Ruth Rendell and Lilian Jackson Braun. And the Indian sorority has been gaining ground too with the likes of Madhulika Liddle, Swati Kaushal, Madhumita Bhattacharya and Kalpana Swaminathan creating their own special story lines. The detectives they have conjured up with their fertile imaginations make it easier for us, readers, to have dreams of the particularly investigative kind, some blood and gore splashed on just for that extra tadka. But how does a woman go about solving a murder or two?
According to Madhulika Liddle, who has a series featuring 17th century detective Muzaffar Jung to her credit (including the short story Murk of Art and the novels The Englishman’s Cameo, The Eighth Guest and Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries and Engraved in Stone), it makes no difference at all whether the writer is a man or a woman.
“Remember Agatha Christie? Dorothy L Sayers, Ellis Peters, Lindsay Davis, Susannah Gregory, Ruth Rendell, PD James... all women. It basically boils down to not whether you’re a man or a woman, but whether you write effectively. Interestingly, some readers have actually mentioned that if they hadn’t known my name, they wouldn’t have realised that my books were written by a woman.”
The creator of Lalli, a new-age desi Miss Marple with a few ‘extra’ detecting qualifications including self-defence and perfect shooting skills, Kalpana Swaminathan pooh-poohs any man-woman divide. “The gender bias should be taken out of fiction writing. The writing mind should not be gender-sensitive,” she maintains.
Madhumita Bhattacharya who wrote The Masala Murder, which combines food, murder, romance and detection, agrees, “I have read some pretty gory books from the likes of Patricia Cornwell and some pretty mellow ones from Alexander McCall Smith. Some writers choose character to propel their stories; others choose plot and procedure. These seem to be individual choices not dependent on the gender of the creators.” But where a woman writing about crime is concerned, “There is a long tradition of women crime writers, and I feel privileged to be a part of it. It is difficult to sell any story, though the publishing industry is generally quite egalitarian when it comes to the sex of its writers, and very pro-women when it comes to protagonists. Women readers have always been key to the success of any novel, so if a stereotype exists I would say it is working in my favour.”
Swati Kaushal, who has swung between the chick-lit A Piece of Cake and the crime story of Drop Dead: A Niki Marwah Mystery, has a slightly different point of view when she says that while she has not run into any gender walls. “I think it’s interesting to have a woman writing about crime; it introduces a fresh point of view. I find women authors tend to focus on relationships and subplots (and fashion!) more than their male counterparts.”
But are women not supposed to be more sensitive and intuitive than men? Or is that also a myth? Kaushal does see a variance there. “I feel women notice different things than men. If a car drives by, the man will notice the make and model; the woman the colour and the person driving it. If an attractive woman walks by, a man will notice that she is beautiful, but a woman will notice her handbag, her clothes, her shoes and her jewellery too!”
Swaminathan is not of the same opinion, stating “Plenty of men are intuitive and sensitive.”
Bhattacharya, who thought up the character of Reema Ray, explains, “I think it is fun to assume they do for the sake of a good story, but I would hate to generalise! However, it is true that women professionals across spheres tend to have a different operating style. They are often more people-led, and this can be a strength in an investigation (at least the fictional ones) where so much is about the human element.”
Dismissing any difference, “A gender stereotype, I think,” Liddle says. “It all depends on the individual’s own instinct, powers of observation, and experience in life to make a good cop or detective.”
Good murder mysteries need bodies and a little blood. Women should ideally be more squeamish about corpses and crime scenes, preferring poison to more evident (sic) violence. But that is a rather chauvinistic perspective, it seems.
As Liddle puts it, women can get “‘nicely’ bloody and violent, yes — certainly. And if one stuck only to poison or something less messy, it would get boring after a while. There’s only so many times your readers will accept poison as a means of murder.”
And how would she ideally kill someone? “I’ve never been asked to choose how I’d like to murder someone though, being as fastidious as I am, I guess I’d choose a slow-acting poison that would allow me to make a getaway and not have to deal with washing off lots of blood.” But she has a point to make in that “I don't equate ‘crime fiction’ with murder, necessarily — there are other crimes too, like kidnapping and theft that can make for interesting mysteries. Murder, of course, remains the most popular type of mystery in crime fiction.”
Bhattacharya sees “no reason to assume that women are less gruesome in their murders than their male counterparts. Though they sometimes have a physical disadvantage when it comes to sheer muscle over their victims, it is not as though women in real life don’t overcome this. Poison and more subtle tools are the weapons of premeditation. What about crimes of passion? Rage is a powerful force, as is fear. And guns, for better or for worse, can be a great leveller.” And when it comes to a good killing, “I prefer my murder to be fictional! And ripe with narrative possibility....”
But she chose her detective to be a woman who bakes when stressed, does get distracted by a man with that special something — a glint in his eye and a penchant for being there when needed making him someone every woman dreams of — and has parental pressure to deal with.
As she explains, “I was interested in what it takes to choose a career as difficult as one of a private investigator. It is unconventional, whether for a man or a woman. What does that involve in terms of motivation, logistics, a career path — the things that most urbane young women such as Reema would consider when starting out their lives? What are her strengths, what are her failings? She is not a super sleuth gifted with miraculous powers — she is you or me.”
“Women are certainly capable of violence and bloodshed,” Kaushal insists. “However, I do feel that, with women, emotion and intuition play a larger role than with men. Perhaps women will be less overtly violent; but they can be just as deadly.” She herself prefers a “smart, intelligent, well thought out murder. Something with finesse, that requires a really smart detective to solve.” And the woman detective presents a challenge too, “to make her feminine and at the same time have the unique qualities that will make her a good detective.”
Swaminathan’s Lalli of a different ilk, very unlike Reena Ray, Niki Marwah and, of course, Muzaffar Jang. This intrepid lady is in her 60s, stylish, elegant, acutely observant, a collector of curiosities. The author has said in an interview that “I created Lalli in her 60s as women of that age are usually less restricted and have no hang-ups. They are more curious and are naturally interested in human beings. Therefore, they often make better detectives when compared to men.”
The process of creation was, in some ways, simple. “Lalli was just there. A character arrives on the page when you write. You have to then strike acquaintance. You just sit and take dictation.”
But her detective is not a reflection of Swaminathan herself, as she says, “Hardly anything of Lalli is me. I am not such an imaginative dresser; I do not have such physical qualities or capabilities. Her gentleness, trying to understand what is completely repugnant, her sense of fairness where even the person who should be damned to hell is still a human being... I find sometimes very hard to do.”
The author explains that writing a crime novel can include “a lot of reality, which may not be contextual. Sometimes it is a remembrance, an observation. I think more than memory, when you write, you extrapolate — at some earlier level you have actually felt, seen, understood, absorbed violence that may lead on later to something terrible. When you write a detective story, the violence is there, but you are dealing with a human reaction. It is a literary ruse to jolt people out of the masks that they wear in everyday exchange. You put them in an impossible situation that they react in some way. Literature offers experiences that life protects us from, short-changes us from, vicarious experience of fiction. The feelings that are portrayed have to be intensely human. The bad feelings are part of life. Writing cannot be a feel-good exercise. It consumes and exhausts you. You draw upon your own experience to illuminate your characters and how they behave, react, speak, etc.”
As a surgeon in real life, Swaminathan says, “Every act, movement is directed towards cherishing life. All of us surgeons deal with blood. It becomes the liquid that we have to conserve to the maximum. In a story about murder, you write about detection, not murder. In a detective story, you write about a puzzle. What happens? Why it happens — the puzzle is more important than the body.”
And for readers of detective fiction, the puzzle is indeed everything!