An eye on crime

Madhulika Liddle speaks about writing crime fiction, and creating the intrepid detective, Muzaffar Jang

Published - September 26, 2015 05:40 pm IST

Madhulika Liddle

Madhulika Liddle

Muzaffar Jang, the Mughal nobleman with a penchant for solving crimes, first made an appearance in a short story. After that he went on to appear in two novels and a short story collection much to the delight of his fans. He returns now, in yet another novel Crimson City , this time with a charming wife by his side. Author Madhulika Liddle speaks about Muzaffar Jang and the nuances of writing historical crime fiction.

Is Muzaffar Jang purely fictional or is he based on some historical character?

He does share some character traits with me — his creator — his curiosity, his love for books and his interest in nature, but otherwise, Muzaffar Jang is completely fictitious.

How do you choose the names for your characters, maintain authenticity?

I look through accounts dating back to the period I’m writing about — for instance, Shah Jahan’s time — and keep an eye out for names; those, often, become the names I give to characters in the stories. So, characters are often named after some obscure courtier, soldier, one of the salatin (the Emperor’s relatives), etc., mentioned somewhere in some historical account.

Is the canvas restricted in historical crime fiction, as in the scope of the crime or the detection methods, because the world today relies on technology to solve cases and to find culprits?Crime is much more sophisticated these days than it used to be previously. Do you agree?

There are two ways of looking at this. Yes, when writing stories in a historical setting (even a few decades back, let alone a few centuries) one has to keep in mind that forensic sciences weren’t anywhere as developed as they are today. This does restrict the scope in a way, because you can’t have your detective relying on technology to help him/her forward to any great extent. On the other hand, it’s a great challenge to find ways of introducing clues that can be solved by observation and brainpower. In that sense, I think a historical setting is actually better — it can let you get more creative; let you push boundaries.

What is your process of writing a novel? Does it differ from your approach to short stories?

When it comes to novels, I usually write out a basic plot outline, mostly on paper. I jot down basic points: the crime, the culprit, the suspects, the clues, and so on. Once I have a general outline of the story in mind, I start the actual writing. Often, something occurs to me while writing and I make changes midway, so the final novel may turn out to be somewhat different from my initial outline.

Writing short stories, for me, is a completely different process. I tend to plot the entire story, complete with exact clues, how the detective investigates… all the details. Then it’s just a question of writing it all out. In the case of short stories, there’s very little difference between my original outline and the final story.

Crime fiction seems to be getting popular, though historical crime seems to still be in a nascent stage in our country. What do you think is the greatest obstacle to writing historical crime fiction?

Sadly, it seems to me that the number of people genuinely interested in history is limited in India (I’m not even thinking of those who confuse history with mythology!). And historical crime fiction, by its very nature, is a genre that is more geared to appeal to the history buff than to the crime fiction buff.

Other factors add to that. For one, crime fiction (in English) is only a fairly recent phenomenon in Indian fiction. Till about 10 years back, there were very few Indian writers in English writing crime fiction; most readers, too, used to a diet of Western writers like Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin and the like, were wary of reading Indian crime writing. So desi crime fiction itself is only just taking off. For a subgenre like historical crime fiction to become popular will probably take more time and more effort. Another hurdle, of course, is that unlike contemporary crime fiction from the West, which is still easily available in India, very little historical crime fiction (even written in the West) is familiar to Indian readers. It’s still very much a novelty, and for people not willing to read a new type of genre, it’ll probably mean a long slog for writers like me.

How difficult or easy was it for you to write from the viewpoint of a male detective?

It wasn’t difficult for me, but I think, in the final analysis, that’s probably something for my readers to decide: do I write effectively from the point of view of a man?

Can we perhaps hope for a female counterpart to Muzaffar Jang; may be his wife joins him in the next book?

Muzaffar’s wife Shireen does play a rather prominent role in Crimson City , sometimes helping him out not just by discussing cases with him, but also in more practical ways — going, for instance, where Muzaffar himself is not allowed. But she’s not really a female counterpart to Muzaffar Jang. Though, as an experiment last year, I wrote a historical detective short story — set in ancient India — with a female detective. I really liked that detective a lot, so if I ever have the time (I hope I do!), I’d like to do a series featuring her.

What isCrimson Cityabout?

Crimson City is set in the spring of 1657. The Mughal armies under Aurangzeb and Mir Jumla are besieging the Fort of Bidar, and Dilli is full of rumours of what’s happening down in the Deccan. In the neighbourhood of Muzaffar Jang’s house, a cloth merchant is found mysteriously murdered — and nobody can come up with any plausible motive for his killing. Muzaffar would like to investigate, but his brother-in-law, the Kotwal of Dilli, puts his foot down and tells Muzaffar not to interfere. Meanwhile, other crimes are committed: a money lender’s infant son is kidnapped; a prosperous and influential nobleman is found dead; and yet another man is killed in Muzaffar’s mohallah .

Crimson City uses the serial killer theme, but weaves in other, shorter episodes too. This was done to give readers a feel of the turmoil in Delhi at the time. The Empire was in a state of ferment, and the capital was, I think, bound to reflect it.

How important is research when writing historical fiction?

I can’t stress adequately the importance of research when writing historical fiction. It’s the canvas on which you paint your story, and it must involve a deep understanding of the times. Not just the sort of things one typically read in history textbooks back in school, like the politics and the economy of a place and time, but little details about daily life, about society and culture. Folklore, traditional professions, food, drink, clothing, medicine, technology — all of these help create a believable picture of the period, and if your research is insufficient (or non-existent), it can wreak havoc with your book.

What is your advice to aspiring writers of historical crime fiction?

First, read lots of historical crime fiction. There are plenty of excellent historical detective series out there (famous authors include Ellis Peters, Peter Tremayne, Steven Saylor, Robert van Gulik, C.J. Sansom, P.C. Doherty, etc.), and get a feel of how this subgenre works. This is because historical crime fiction is often a very different ball game from contemporary crime fiction: for instance, the amount of detail about daily life that’s woven in is often much more than you’d find in modern settings.

Second, do a lot of research. Not Wikipedia. Read books by scholars, search for books on obscure aspects of the time and place you want to write about (one of my most prized possessions, for instance, is a slim book on medieval Indian technology). Travel. Thoroughly explore the setting (this is even more essential if the place you’re writing about hasn’t completely vanished since the period you’re setting your story in).

Third — and this is very important — remember the forensics angle to it. Depending upon the period and place you’re writing about, the level of technology used in crime investigation will vary. A story set as late as the mid-1800s, for instance, will not be able to even draw on something we take pretty much for granted these days, such as fingerprints or identification of blood groups. In such situations, your detective will naturally have to use other clues, and depend more on observation and deduction than on technology.

Short stories or novels, what is your favourite medium to write, and to read?

I like both equally, when it comes to reading. When it comes to writing fiction, I have a preference for short stories. I started as a writer of short stories, and they’ve remained, even now, my preferred style.

You have written short stories as well as novels with Muzaffar Jang in the central role, how do you make the distinction of restricting an idea to a short story or expanding it to a novel?

When it comes to detective fiction, the main difference between short stories and novels is in the level of complexity. In short stories, you have to wind up everything — crime, clues, motives, suspects, red herrings, investigation, denouement — in a few thousand words, which doesn’t often leave much room for other elements, like character development or much historical detail. The length of a novel, on the other hand, allows this. So, when I have an idea that is complex — say, multiple crimes, a complicated plot — I put it into a novel, where I can do justice to it. Simpler plots I find more suited to short stories.

Do you have a set routine for writing?

My daughter’s a toddler and I have no domestic help, so it’s close to impossible for me to set any routines for writing! I do set daily a daily goal for myself, though — 1,500 words of creative writing per week day. How I fit it in is my problem, but I do it.

The authors who have influenced you the most?

O. Henry’s and Saki’s style of the ‘twist in the tale’ is something I enjoy a lot, so those two writers can be said to have inspired me to write several stories with that particular element. When it comes to historical crime fiction, some of the more established writers in that genre (like Ellis Peters, Robert van Gulik, and Peter Tremayne) are among the ones who’ve influenced my writing.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.