The Hindu Lit for Life | A crime wave: Detecting what makes mystery writers tick

Crime fiction is at its best when it moves beyond ‘whodunits’ to ‘whydunits’ and ‘howdunits’, says Anuja Chauhan; Harini Nagendra shares how her own family history inspired the feminism in her stories

Published - January 27, 2024 08:57 pm IST - CHENNAI

Anuja Chauhan, Harini Nagendra, Kiran Manral and Tarun Mehrishi in  Conversation with K.C.Vijayakumar at The Hindu Lit for Life festival 2024 held at The Hindu Pavilion hall in Chennai on Saturday.

Anuja Chauhan, Harini Nagendra, Kiran Manral and Tarun Mehrishi in Conversation with K.C.Vijayakumar at The Hindu Lit for Life festival 2024 held at The Hindu Pavilion hall in Chennai on Saturday. | Photo Credit: B. Velankanni Raj

How popular is crime fiction as a genre? What goes on in the world of crime and in the minds of writers as they belt out murder mysteries? These, and multiple other mysteries were debated at The Hindu Lit for Life session, ‘A Crime Wave’, in a conversation with authors Anuja Chauhan, Harini Nagendra, Kiran Manral, and Tarun Mehrishi, moderated by The Hindu sports editor K.C. Vijayakumar.

Discussing the often inevitable book-to-movie nexus, Ms. Chauhan explained how writers could not afford to ignore the call of Bollywood or the wider film world when it comes. “If you are looking to make decent money writing, you cannot turn down people who want to convert your book into a screenplay. When I read a good book, I feel like it’s the author’s vision, which my imagination takes forward. In a good way, though, the book will become a screenplay which is the director’s vision,” she said.

‘Whydunits and howdunits’

Much of her joy in writing, she said, lay in getting into people’s heads, the beef, and the politicking. “Nothing happens in a vacuum. Crime doesn’t happen in isolation. I enjoy writing ‘romcrom’ — romance, crime, and comedy. Everything happens in a busy, buzzing ecosystem, so you can’t pull it out and leave the other threads out. Murder mysteries aren’t merely ‘whodunits’ but ‘whydunits’ and ‘howdunits’. The motive and character are important. What we love is the psychological tropes and the slippery slopes that accompany such mysteries,” she added.

Read our live updates of The Hindu Lit Fest 2024, Day 2

The authors also discussed what made them fall in love with crime fiction. Ms. Nagendra spoke of historical crime fiction and how she grew up loving golden-age fiction such as Agatha Christie’s mysteries. “What I enjoy about historical crime fiction is the flourishing of writers today. Historical crime is something we can relate to. There is the horror end of the spectrum, or lighthearted stuff that I write about. While I was growing up, there was Feluda and a few others, at best, but not much diversity. Today, though, there is more variety on the bookshelf,” she said.

She also explained how, in her book, she has largely dealt with Bengaluru, and a strong sense of nostalgia for the city plays a role. “It is therapy. The 1920s was a time when women were asking to sit in the representative assemblies, stepping out of homes, and so on. We always think of Bengaluru being a cosmopolitan city, but for me, it is an accepting one. I love the 1920s as, at a time when lines were being drawn rigidly, there was something about this city that made people come from any part of the world and make it their home,” she added.

Origin stories

What makes authors zero-in on the specifics of what they write about? For Ms. Nagendra, the reason why she wrote a lot on feminist issues, for instance, was because it was personal; there were women in her family who were denied the opportunities to read and write. “My grandmother wanted to read and write, but was married off at 12. My mother and mother-in-law’s greatest regret was they got into medical colleges but they couldn’t study. Their regret that they couldn’t do anything stays on in my life, and maybe, that’s why I made sure my character, Kaveri, could do whatever she wanted,” she explained.

Ms. Manral said she enjoyed reading the local flavours that come through in such books. “They often bring out places which we feel a certain sense of a familiarity with. They aren’t hard-boiled detective fiction; they are fun reads that take us through local places, people, and more,” she said.

Historical inspiration

Mr. Mehrishi shed light on how he did not have to jump through hoops to complete his book. “The trick is in balancing reality with fiction. In that case, you aren’t trying to demean history. You can interpret it slightly differently as no one really knows all of the truth. For example, everyone knows the former Indian Prime Minister died in Tashkent, but no one known if he was assassinated, or poisoned, or so on. As long as you aren’t misinterpreting what happened, one has the liberty to write around the particular event particularly if they are subjective in its assessment,” he said.

As for how he managed to gather information from the Intelligence Bureau or the police, he said: “My parents were bureaucrats and that gave me some insights. The intelligence agencies, however, are difficult to crack into. The best files are the ones you’ve never heard of; the best operations are those you have never read. Even after retirement, officials are just as unwilling to share information as their previous operations may have ongoing investigations today. So, there is a certain level of discipline even from those who are retiring, and often, the ex-files remain ex-files.”

No-go areas

Even writing about criminal activity, all the authors have their own no-go areas. “I am clear that I prefer writing about cosy stuff, so I won’t go to sexual molestation issues, cruelty to pets and children. Whilst I may read about them as a reader, I won’t write about it,” Ms. Nagendra said, laying out her boundaries.

Ms. Chauhan, on the other hand, said that she may not even read about certain things as she is careful about what influences her thoughts. “There are some visuals I don’t want to see, so I don’t watch certain movies. Similarly, I have my own pace of preferences. As a writer, my readers are aware that my palette is sunny, but there is shade too. So, there are certain themes and places I just won’t go to,” she said.

Ms. Manral admitted that while her murder mysteries are sunny and happy and she does not do too many gruesome things, there are dark spaces she goes to in her psychological thrillers, and she inhabits both spaces. Mr. Mehrishi, on the other hand, said that he does not really have any no-go areas. “I will go wherever the character takes me, but I do realise that the character is a vice I put on paper. So, if it takes me to a gruesome murder, I am happy to do it, and I will explore the character to the extent it can be explored,” he said.

Unlike romance fiction, where competition is cut-throat, horror and crime writers are supportive of each other, Ms. Nagendra said. Ms. Manral, however, admitted that she worked in a bubble. “Clearly, I don’t interact much, But I am a peaceful person in real life. So, I think Harini is right,” she said. Mr. Mehrishi added that people were often willing to help, blurb, or talk about other authors’ books, or what they thought of a plot, which is immensely helpful, something he had not seen in the corporate world or elsewhere.

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