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The Sirens of Suspense

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ABOUT TARQUIN HALL:

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Tarquin Hall is the author of the Vish Puri mysteries, starring India’s “most private investigator” and three works of non-fiction including the highly acclaimed SALAAM BRICK LANE. The third in the Vish Puri series, THE CASE OF THE DEADLY BUTTER CHICKEN, was released on July 10, 2012. Tarquin is also journalist who has contributed to most of Britain’s major newspapers.

Find Tarquin on Facebook and Vish Puri on Twitter.

http://tarquinhall.com/

Vish Puri's India

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You've lived in many different places: the UK, US, India, Pakistan, Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, and South Asia. What about India prompted you to make that the home for your series?

I’ve lived in India more than anywhere else apart from the UK and it’s where my wife’s family’s from, too. So it’s become like a second home. But mostly I wanted to write a series set in India because I’ve always found it such a fascinating, complex place and the change that’s taking place there is phenomenal. When I first lived in Delhi in the mid-90s it was quite small – I think around five million people. And it was actually pretty sleepy. There wasn’t much to do in the evenings apart from eat tandoori chicken. It took a year or so to get a phone installed in your home. And then, bang, so-called ‘liberalization’ took place, the ‘opening up’ of the economy, and now the National Capital Region is home to something like 18 million people. Rural India is being emptied with everyone of working age pouring into the cities and big towns. Delhi is one huge construction site and lots of people have become very, very rich overnight. But then of course, in a lot of fundamental ways, India and Delhi haven’t changed at all. There’s still terrible poverty. 70 per cent of the population live on less than two dollars a day. It’s also an extremely hierarchical culture – like no other, really. And so the vast majority of the population are either struggling or really, really struggling. This summer most of the capital has been without running water and there have been constant power cuts. Inflation’s running at almost 10 per cent and the average person is having to cut back on milk for their kids. But worse, the rule of law is very flimsy and the police are utterly corrupt. So people are very vulnerable and there’s a lot of crime. So that’s obviously where Vish Puri comes in.

 

Your background is primarily journalism (both TV and print), and you've written non-fiction. Most of the journalists-turned-mystery-writers I know have chosen to give their protagonists a profession in journalism. What inspired you to pursue mystery writing in the first place, and why make Vish Puri a PI rather than a journalist? 

The whole thing came about after I wrote a piece for the Sunday Times newspaper in the UK about real-life Delhi detectives. They were great characters with the most extraordinary stories. They inspired me to write the first novel. It never really occurred to me to do a journalist. It would have probably been pretty interesting to do so. Indian journalism is seriously murky. Hacks are often on politician’s payroll and there’s an incredibly amount of editorial interference. A lawyer would be a good character, too. I’m quite surprised no one’s done it.

 

Have you always been a mystery fan? Vish Puri is so well-crafted and eccentric, reminding me of classic sleuths like Nero Wolfe, Poirot, etc. If so, which (if any) influenced your own writing?

To be honest I’ve never read a lot of crime. I loved Sherlock Holmes of course. And I suppose I read the odd Agatha Christie when I was growing up. I loved adventure stories, too. Still do – like Call of the Wild. And I’ve always enjoyed folk tales. So, no, I never aspired to write crime fiction. In fact I never really aspired to write fiction, period. I kind of have to pinch myself sometimes when one my books come out and I see my name on the front cover. The whole motivation was to write about modern India. So each book takes you into different parts of the country, shows you different cultural phenomenon, different strata of society. And there’s always this juxtaposition between the old and traditional with what’s changing.

 

How much of your experiences in India, and as a journalist and interviewer do you put into the mysteries? Obviously, there are some crossover themes, such as political corruption, which I know you've had experience reporting on. On a personal level, what was the most interesting story, in your opinion, you've ever reported? Have you ever considered writing a darker mystery or thriller based on any of these experiences?

The great thing about journalism is that it takes you into every kind of situation and you get to people from all walks of life. One minute you can be sitting in Afghanistan chatting with poppy farmers. The next you might be interviewing Hindi pulp fiction writers (as I was last week!) But I think there was one story that will always stand out. It was one of those experiences where you just think, ‘I can’t believe I’m standing here.’ And that was when I went to Tennessee with my best friend, Tahir Shah, who is also a writer, to meet first Grand Dragon of the KKK. I suppose the highlight was the cross burning in the evening. There were a lot of scary people around wearing white hoods. They kept going on about hot black people had stolen their jobs but they didn’t seem very employable to me. Anyhow, the next morning we met up with the Grand Dragon lady and her father for breakfast at a typical American diner. And she brought along her two lovely daughters who were both very sweet. We were chatting with them and for some reason, I’m not sure why, I asked them if they liked Sesame Street. The question was met with this stony silence and the Grand Dragon lady said, through gritted teeth, ‘No we do not watch that show.’ For a second I was stunned. What did they have against Elmo and Big Bird? And then I got it: Sesame Street, with its message of racial homogeny, was the antithesis of everything they believed in.

As for writing dark thrillers…well, no I don’t think I ever would. I don’t find the world that dark. Messed up maybe, but I don’t really understand this fixation with people who carve up other people up for pleasure. I read the Silence of the Lambs which was fantastic but how often do I really want to get into the mind of a serial killer? I think I’m more interested in describing the real world around me and that means I use a lot of humour and irony. There’s actually a lot of humour in the world. If there wasn’t none of us would be here.

 

You live in India and are familiar with the culture and the lingo. You paint such a vivid picture, readers are immersed immediately in a different culture, yet, your books have immense cross-culture relatability, unlike so many which provide only a stereotypical view of an exotic locale. Was that a natural thing for you, having experienced the country as an outsider, or does it take additional research and careful crafting to strike this balance?

Thanks. I’m not sure, really. I guess it helps a lot that my wife comes from an Indian family, even if she grew up all her childhood in the States. I do get her to read the books and I also get them fact checked by a couple of avid Indian readers. Sometimes they come back to me and point out that I have something totally and utterly wrong. I have to do a lot of research as well, ask an awful lot of questions. Often I find description, observations, turns of phrase go straight from my notebook into what I’m writing. In Deadly Butter Chicken, for example, my detective Vish Puri had to travel overland to Pakistan – and while I’ve traveled many times from India to Pakistan I’d never done it on foot. So I made that journey and a lot of what happened went into the book. For example there was no electricity on the Pakistan side. And it was steak night at the hotel where I stayed in Rawalpindi so I found myself wondering what Puri, a Hindu, would do if he saw pictures of big beef steaks up on the wall. I realized that given his appetite that he’d probably want to eat one, but then he might feel like a traitor!

What's coming next for you, and for Vish Puri? Any upcoming US appearances?

I’m more than half way through Vish 4. The working title is ‘The Case of the Love Commandos’. It sees our Punjabi hero having to work in rural India where we’ve not really seen him operating before. I don’t want to give too much away but the plot revolves around a couple from different castes – the girl’s from a high caste family, while the boy is an untouchable. They try to elope and get married but he’s abducted. And of course Mummy is in there, too! And she’s as interfering as ever.

Poisoned Pen has been kind enough to invite me back so I’m there on July 16th. I’m also the opening speaker at the Crime Writers Conference in San Francisco on July 19th. The event is billed as ‘An Evening With Tarquin Hall.’ Gulp.

 

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QUESTION FOR TARQUIN? COMMENT ON THE INTERVIEW? Tell us your thoughts further down on this page, or commenting on this blog entry on our Facebook page and be entered to win one of two copies of THE CASE OF THE DEADLY BUTTER CHICKEN, one of which comes with some special Vish Puri masala tea

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QUICKIES WITH JOHN:

Writing ambience: I work in a barsati in Delhi. It’s basically a room on top of the roof. Barsat means rain in Hindi. So it’s basically where you go to watch the rain during the monsoon.

Outline or no: No outline. Setting is the top priority. I make it from there.

Reading now: Nothing! I’m writing this! Ok, sorry, seriously, I’m actually reading Emma. I’ve never read Jane Austen before.

Book he wishes he could read again for the first time: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Book or e-reader: BOOK!

Cats or Dogs Fish.

Favorite protagonist (other than his own): I like Jason Webster’s Max Camara a lot.

Favorite big or small screen detective: Monk. It makes me laugh.

Favorite sentence he’s ever written: Too hard! I really don’t know. But when I’m writing the dialogue in the books I often find myself laughing out loud at my own words. That’s a great feeling.

If he could have any profession other than writer: Historian, probably of the Islamic world.

He’d like to travel to: Sumatra.

Period in history he’d like to time travel to: Victorian London. I’d love to walk down the street, go down to the docks, see what it was like for myself.

Favorite Indian dish: Oooh hard one. I can eat a lot of Rajma (spicy kidney beans).

Favorite independent bookstore: Daunt’s, London.

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