Body of Evidence: Notes from a Crime Fiction Conference

It is tough being a writer of crime fiction in India. Especially if you happen to write in English.

I have actually had other writers – of more ‘literary’ fiction, generally – look at me with faintly raised eyebrows, as if wondering if I’ll be able to respond intelligently, should they condescend to address a few sentences to me. I’ve had readers ask, “Since you’ve done so much research, why don’t you use it to write something constructive? Like a book on what India might have been like if Dara Shukoh, instead of Aurangzeb, had succeeded Shahjahan?”

(That reader actually added that crime fiction, after all, was a ‘hobby’).

So it is a very refreshing change to be part of something that doesn’t tolerate crime fiction, it celebrates it.

From February 24th to 26th this year, the English Department at Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College organised and hosted Body of Evidence, an International Conference on Crime Fiction. Hachette India, along with Quill and Canvas, set up a bookstall – with a mouth-watering range of books, especially crime and detective fiction – on the lawns next to the library.

That was fun (though I ended up buying only two books, since most of what I really liked, I’d already read) – and even more fun were the three days of sessions. Okay, I should probably amend that to the one and a half days of sessions that I sat through. I wasn’t able to make it on the 25th, and could stay only for half of the day on the 24th, but I liked – really liked – a lot of what I heard and saw during the time I was present.

Body of Evidence (St Stephen’s called it a ‘ConFest’ – a combination of a ‘conference’ and a ‘festival’) included a number of interesting papers and presentations by students, academicians, writers, journalists and other crime fiction enthusiasts. Most of those that I listened to were of exceptionally high calibre: analytical, smart, and entertaining.

Among my favourites were ‘Masculinity in the Construction of Feluda as a Detective (Surangama Dutta, Jesus and Mary College); ‘Mary Higgins Clark: Crime in New York and the World of the Urban Heroine – an Overview’ (Arjun Rajkhowa, St Stephen’s College), Anarchy in the UK: Crime, Capital and the Child in Michael de Larrabeiti’s “Borrible” books (Aishwarya Subramaniam, Freelance writer and reviewer), and a delightfully visual presentation, by Avinash Mudaliar of Indiatimes, on ‘Reinvention of Crime Fiction: The Recurrence of Classic Crime Fiction in the “New Age”’.

The evenings – which I admit (very sheepishly) to have missed – consisted of more relaxed events: a quiz, a movie screening (of The Perfect Murder) and a play (Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound).

So – what was I doing here, besides enjoying myself? Well, for one, I was part of a discussion panel that met on the last day. Jaya Bhattacharji Rose chaired the session, and on the panel were Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Partha Basu, and yours truly. It was a wonderful, relaxing chat – one of the most pleasant and insightful panel discussions I’ve ever been part of.

And yes, the last day’s sessions began with an address from me. When Dr Giti Chandra, the Conference Convenor, had asked me if I’d like to do that, I’d immediately sprung at the chance – because here was my opportunity to share my love for historical detective fiction with others. My talk, while it did (naturally) touch on my own books about Muzaffar Jang, was wider than that in its scope – I talked about some of my other favourite historical detectives, about TV and film adaptations of these detective stories, and of the main challenges one faces when writing in this particular subgenre of crime fiction.

If you didn’t know about the ConFest or couldn’t attend it, do pray that it becomes an annual feature of the St Stephen’s calendar. It’s a brilliant, informative, delightful way to interact with people who do take crime fiction seriously.

And, if you’d like to know what I said, click here to read the speech I’d prepared as a reference.


10 thoughts on “Body of Evidence: Notes from a Crime Fiction Conference

  1. Yes, the event was open to the general public as well. It was very enjoyable as well as informative, so if you like crime fiction (and, if the powers that be will it, Stephen’s continues to hold it in the years to come), it’s a must-attend.


  2. You are amazing! I just finished reading the speech you delivered, and continue to be amazed at the amount of research you have done in this field. Now all I have to do is to find someone who is going to India this year and will buy your books for me, so that I can also find out what life in the Mughal period was like.


  3. Lalitha, I am overwhelmed that you actually took the time to read my speech! Thank you so much. You’re very encouraging. :-)

    By the way, if you’d like to order the books, they’re available online – Amazon UK has both, though only the first book (The Englishman’s Cameo) is right now available on Amazon worldwide:

    The second book (The Eighth Guest and Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries) should become available on Kindle shortly.

    Both books are also available from Book Depository:

    (That’s where Stuart got his copy of the second one).


  4. As a journalist I had the opportunity of attending similar events,frankly I do miss these sessions. I will not deny that had this event been taking place in Bombay and if it was open to outsiders I would make it a point to attend it. I am really glad that leading colleges like St.Stephens are taking the effort to draw attention to this genre, you see what happens any child who probably has a literary bent would be encouraged to see you giving a speech. Nowadays children are stressed out because most parents would still like their children to be either a doctor or an engineer, it is high time parents realize that there is a life beyond that and that a child can be a success even in such fields. You see all my cousins are engineers or into some area of science as a result I have nothing in common and what is worse the next generation is also either studying in an engineering college or preparing to.
    Lord what have I done! I just poured out my frustration but I hope this becomes an annual event and I hope older school children are invited to such events so that they are introduced to a life beyond science and engineering.


  5. Thank you for stopping by, Shilpi! Yes, I know what you mean when you talk about everybody in the family being engineers or into some field of science – it’s the same in mine. All my older relatives and cousins are either doctors, engineers, lawyers, government employees, or teachers (that’s if you’re female!). My sister and I were lucky because our parents told us to go ahead and do what we wanted to do, not what they wanted us to do. That’s why I’ve been a very eclectic lot of professions – trained in hotel management, and worked in hospitality, advertising, etc.

    I’m so glad a prestigious college like Stephen’s took this initiative – it’s certainly time people started thinking of writing as a career (and began realising that writing ‘non-literary’ books – crime, humour, fantasy, etc doesn’t mean you’re stupid). I do hope this continues, and that news of the event spreads so that more people attend it the next time round.


  6. I’m really happy to know that the third Jang book is already done. I’m enjoying the Eighth Guest very much, especially for the way it’s educating me at the same time as entertaining me. I absolutely love “The Bequeathed Garden”, it’s made me want to save up for a nice copy of Golestan! Is the third book another collection of short stories, or one full-length mystery, or is that itself a mystery we must wait to have revealed?


  7. Stuart, thank you so much! I usually check my website in the morning, and you just made sure that my day starts off perfectly, with that comment. I’m glad you’re liking The Eighth Guest – I enjoyed writing that, especially as I got to dabble in different types of crime, AND learnt a lot about other things (I too hadn’t known too much about Golestan before I wrote The Bequeathed Garden).

    By the way, if you’d like to get a taste of Golestan without buying the book, MIT (as well as other university sites) offer a free copy for either online reading or download:

    Have a go if you like – I found the poems engrossing; lyrical and philosophical and easy to relate to.

    The third Muzaffar Jang book is a full-length novel, to answer your question.


  8. Thanks for the link to the Golestan online. I definitely want to buy one though, so that I can read the English while enjoying the beauty of the Persian calligraphy. On the subject of beauties – how nice that Jang seems to have found one – I hope he and we will be seeing more of her!


  9. I’m glad you like Shireen. That’s good, because there’s a lot more of her to come.

    P.S. You know what would be the ultimate Golestan I’d love to get hold of? A copy with Persian calligraphy and illustrations. I had gone to the City Museum at Alwar a couple of years ago, and it contains a superb collection of Mughal miniatures. I’d seen only reproductions before (barring some at the National Museum in Delhi) and these were a revelation – so absolutely and utterly gorgeous.


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