by Kathleen Costa
This week we have a review of The Bangalore Detectives Club by Harini Nagendra and an interesting interview with Harini. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book, and a link to purchase it from Amazon.
The Bangalore Detectives Club: A Novel By Harini Nagendra
Review by Kathleen Costa
It’s August, 1921. A stranger from Majjigepura, the village of buttermilk, arrives well after dark at the address of Mrs. Kaveri Murthy, the mathematician and lady detective he hopes to meet. But, it is Sunday, and he doesn’t wish to interrupt Mrs. Murthy and her doctor husband who appear to be entertaining. He seeks out the well-kept shed behind the house where above the door he notices a sign: The Bangalore Detectives Club. Inside he is surprised to see the mass of books from technical mathematics volumes to detective novels. One book laying on a lone desk caught his attention, a notebook, neatly bound, with handwritten words on the cover: The Bangalore Detectives Club: The First Case. Intrigued, and with time on his hands, he opens the notebook…in the margin he reads April, 1921.
The Bangalore Detectives Club Earns 5+/5 Silk Saris…Intriguing & Clever Gem!
Nineteen-year-old Kaveri is adjusting to life as a young wife living in the community of Basavanagudi, just outside of Bangalore. She is disappointed by some changes in expectations and restrictions for a married woman as she is unable to study publicly, especially her favorite mathematics subject, choose what she’d like to wear, especially a bathing costume, and help people in need as she wants, especially the young milk boy Venu who is showing signs of abuse. His elder brother, Manju, who regularly delivers milk, has lately been delayed in his rounds and now has gone missing. Tonight is a reception hosted by the doctor’s association held at the Century Club, a place where everyone is welcomed, especially where Indians can freely gather, and since Manju is suppose to be there serving, Kaveri is prepared to “give him an earful” about neglecting his family.
The evening is awkward at times with the English guests, but soon Kaveri spots Manju. She excuses herself from the table in order to have a chance to get him alone for a well-deserved scolding. Instead, she witnesses Manju in an animated conversation with an unfamiliar, yet beautiful, woman, his pregnant wife is obviously distraught, and later, the same beautiful woman is manhandled by a strange man. Then, the party is interrupted by a scream. The dead body of a local pimp is found. And Kaveri is handed an intriguing mystery, and no one, including her husband, will stop her from investigating…even if her sleuthing puts her or others in peril.
Brilliant! I love historical mysteries especially when set in exotic locations during a bygone era with references to historical events and cultural sites and historical figures making an appearance. Harini Nagendra first crime novel set in India of the 1920s is an engaging read I highly recommend! The young heroine is a brilliant woman caught at a time when women’s acumen is undervalued, class, caste, or job status is strictly adhered to, and the movement for independence from British rule is heating up. This environment is ripe for greed, violence, conspiracy, and murder, and the journey through colonial India with its varied prejudices, social and gender obstacles, and religious taboos was “couldn’t put down” engaging. I was also inspired to conduct a fascinating Google search about the Prince of Wales riots in 1921, Mahatma Gandhi, and the nonviolent resistance movement that would ultimately lead to self-governing. Reading a clever mystery with complex issues and well-developed characters along with learning about another country’s history doubles the benefit of this book. Excellent!
Nagendra’s writing style is informative, yet entertaining, rich with descriptive language to illustrate well the bright and dark side of the Bangalore community, diverse character appearances and personalities, and the emotional nature of colonialism. The characters are portrayed with realistic and varied perspectives, reactions, and motives, and Kaveri shows all the admirable sides of a young woman trying to be the best wife, the best daughter-in-law, and the best friend, but she refuses to subjugate herself to anyone…unless, of course, it suits her plan to uncover the truth. Her marriage evolves, too, and including having her husband’s support in her sleuthing, it offers hope that her dreams to be more than a wife just may be fulfilled. The book is a great length allowing for in-depth investigation, personal interactions, and growth of characters. I enjoy the chapter lengths which allow for easy reading, and my favorite element…chapter titles. Definitely a top contender for Best of 2022!
Bonuses Not to Miss! Kaveri’s Dictionary provides definitions or translations for words used in the native language. Kaveri’s Adventures in the Kitchen includes the simplified versions of yummy vegetarian treats—Drinks: Majige (Salt Lassi). Salad: Sweet Corn and Pomegranate Kosambari. Main course: Bisi belle hulk annal (spiced rice with lentils). Side dish: Beans paliya (dry beans curry). Dry fruit: laddus. A Note on the Setting offers historical and cultural insights into the place Harini herself calls home. Acknowledgments gives background into the writing techniques and resources used to create this exciting book.
Be a Big Fan of Harini Nagendra!
Harini Nagendra is “a professor of ecology at Azim Premji University, and a well-known public speaker and writer on issues of nature and sustainability,” which is a fascinating set of tools for a mystery writer. But, oh, how it works! “The Bangalore Detectives Club is her first crime fiction novel. “Harini lives in Bangalore with her family, in a home filled with maps. She loves trees, mysteries, and traditional recipes.”
Interview with Harini Nagendra:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
HARINI: I can’t really remember a time when I was not writing. I was an early reader and had my nose in a book from when I was about five years old. I wrote short stories and sent them to local magazines and newspapers, and won a couple of medals for writing competitions (I still have some of the stories with me!). And I wrote little books for my dad, who traveled a lot on work, trying to make sure he would always have something to read. When I began working on my PhD, I started to write popular science articles to accompany my academic writing, and I also published a few fiction pieces for children and adults in newspapers and online literary magazines. Since then, I have written and edited a number of non-fiction books. And of course, as a scientist and academic, I write scholarly literature all the time. Venturing into writing a full-length fiction book has been a completely different journey for me, though. I started writing my first novel in 2007, but it took until 2022 for it to be published.
HARINI: My first novel is The Bangalore Detectives Club, and was published in May this year. The book is set in 1920s colonial Bangalore, and features a 19-year-old amateur sleuth, Kaveri, a new bride with a lot of spunk, who stumbles upon a murder when she is dining with her husband in a swanky club. Kaveri loves mathematics, cooking, and swimming in a sari. She has a great deal of spunk, and balks at being told how women from ‘good families’ should behave by her acerbic mother-in-law. Of course, she has to solve the mystery, especially when their milk-man, Manju gets implicated, and a beautiful young woman in desperate circumstances is jailed. Kaveri has a strong supporting cast who helps her, including her very supportive husband Ramu, a doctor in the Bowring Hospital; Ramu’s British boss Dr. Roberts; the policeman in charge, Inspector Ismail—who likes Kaveri because she reminds him of his feisty daughter; and Kaveri’s friendly (and very gossipy!) back-door neighbor, elderly Uma Aunty who is always willing to accompany Kaveri as she snoops around the bungalows and brothels of Bangalore in her quest to find the murderer. The book is very much on the sunny spectrum of mystery fiction. At the same time, it delves into the issues of caste and gender injustice that dominated the 1920s, and explores the growing tensions between Indians and their colonial rulers, with the rumblings of the Independence movement gathering force.
KRL: What was your first novel called, and would you tell us a little about it?
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense and if not, what else have you written?
HARINI: I have largely written non-fiction before, focusing on nature and ecology. This includes academic books for a scholarly audience, nature books for a wider readership, and picture books for children. I’ve always read mysteries and suspense, which is one of the two genres that are my favorite, alongside fantasy. So when I wanted to turn to writing full-length fiction, it was natural for me to begin with mystery writing.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
HARINI: My academic research is on Bangalore. I have studied the city for over 15 years, and have written a book on the ecological history of Bangalore, with masses of data, maps and other documents to support this work. Bangalore is also the city where I live, and which I love more than any place in the world. So the setting was a given for me. I also wanted to write a strongly women-centric book. The 1920s are a fascinating setting to explore the early origins of feminism, with many women moving into the workplace for the first time, agitating for the right to vote, and launching businesses, magazines, and educational ventures, while also running homes and taking care of their families. The main protagonist of my story, 19-year-old Kaveri, parachuted into my head one day in 2007, and was very insistent that I write about her. From there, the supporting cast of characters evolved over the years.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to experience from your work?
HARINI: Entertainment is essential; I certainly wouldn’t want to write a book that was a hard slog to read. But I do also want readers to engage with the time and place in which The Bangalore Detectives Club is located. Nineteen-twenties Bangalore is a fascinating microcosm of the world between the two great wars of the 20th century, with the struggle against colonial oppression gathering force, women agitating for suffrage, and science and technology beginning to re-shape daily life. At the same time, caste and gender oppression was very real. Societal expectations of women from reputable families who lived lives of privilege, as did Kaveri, could also be extraordinarily stifling. Women navigated these complex constraints in very creative ways, and I would love readers to be able to see and experience some of these in a very different setting, that of early 20th century colonial India.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just work whenever you can?
HARINI: I have an intense day job as a university professor, administrator, and teacher. We have a teen daughter, and my 85-year-old mother also lives with us. If I don’t set aside time for fiction writing, it would never get done. Deadlines work well for me. When I need to meet a manuscript deadline, I schedule two hours for writing, four days a week. This includes Saturday and Sunday, on which days I sometimes write for a longer stint. On the weekdays, I usually squeeze in a couple of hours in the morning before starting my workday; but at times I can only manage to write late evening or at night. I set myself a daily target of 1,500-2,000 words, and usually manage to meet it, which means I can often get the first draft done in a couple of months.
KRL: What is your ideal time to write?
HARINI: My ideal time for writing is in the morning, after my daughter heads to school, and before I start my work day. If I open my email, get into a meeting, or start to do some academic writing, I find it hard to switch gears to write fiction. I don’t often get to choose my ideal time, though. With practice, I find I’m getting better at being able to quickly switch into writing mode whenever I get a window of time, no matter what time of day it is. Unless it’s late night. I used to be a night owl, but as I’m getting older I find more and more that I do need a good night’s sleep.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
HARINI: By nature I am a pantser, but with The Bangalore Detectives Club, that meant I needed to rewrite the plotline several times before I was finally satisfied. I have settled on a hybrid approach, writing the outline without plotting, and seeing what comes out. I then tweak the outline a few times, and then send it to my agent and editor for comments, incorporating their feedback. This seems to be a better approach, but it’s still a fairly high-level outline, leaving plenty of space for changes along the way if a new or better idea occurs to me while I write. Writing does seem to be an evolving process though, and I suspect this will also change over time.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
HARINI: I was fortunate in that I was relatively well established in the academic field when I started to write my first non-fiction book. I didn’t use an agent for that book. Since it (Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future) was based on my own research, and it was relatively easy for me to get published. For The Bangalore Detectives Club, my preference was automatic. Priya Doraswamy, my wonderful agent and the founder of Lotus Lane Literary, is a childhood friend from Bangalore. She immediately ‘got’ the book, and was excited about the idea of representing it, generously read very rough drafts, and she gave me some great feedback. Although it took me 12 years to write the book, once she sent it out, everything happened relatively quickly. Within a few weeks Krystyna Green from Little Brown’s Constable Crime had acquired world rights for the book and two unnamed sequels. And Claiborne Hancock from Pegasus Books later acquired US publication rights from Little Brown. So I’ve been very fortunate, really, and am very thankful for it!
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
HARINI: I was once commissioned by a publisher to write a non-fiction book. They wanted a popular book aimed at the general reader, but then sent the proposal and first chapter to academics for review without giving them the brief. The reviewers then slammed the proposal because the book wasn’t sufficiently theoretically framed, i.e., it was too ‘popular’ in slant. This kind of strange cross-talk happens in the writing world all the time, but it does sting, nevertheless. I ended up withdrawing the book, since I wasn’t interested in changing it to fit the reviewer’s recommendations. I’m glad they rejected it though, because just a few months later the publishers closed down that entire section. I would otherwise have poured heart and soul and months of effort into a book that ended up nowhere.
KRL: Most interesting book signing story in a bookstore or other venue?
HARINI: My best experiences have been when an older person comes up to me and shares a story about the past, either from their own life or from someone they knew, and it gives me a glimpse into a different world. I savor those, and often find a way to work them into future books.
KRL: What are your future writing goals?
HARINI: I’m now writing a book on water in cities, for Penguin India, with my colleague and long-term co-conspirator Seema Mundoli. We have written a couple of books together: Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities, which is a popular book aimed at all tree-lovers, and So Many Leaves, a picture book for young children. The ‘water book’, as we are calling it for now, looks at water in all its aspects—from chemistry and biology to history and song. We are on a tight deadline to complete this by November, and right now, I am mostly hustling to get this done! At the same time though, I’m also wrapping up final edits on Book Two of The Bangalore Detectives Club series, which features Kaveri and Ramu in a new adventure. In this one, Kaveri and her acerbic mother-in-law, Bhargavi, are thrown together more closely—which is not easy for either of them! Once I get both of these out, I want to return to a contemporary mystery set in Bangalore, which I wrote a couple of years ago during NaNoWriMo, and then edited once. My agent had some great suggestions for revisions, and I’ve been itching to dive back into it, now that I’ve got some distance from it in the past few months. My brain is buzzing with ideas for this book. And of course, after that I need to return to Kaveri and Ramu, to write the third adventure, so I’m currently also working on research for that part of the book. I was worried it might be overwhelming, but I find I quite like the juggling of multiple ideas and plotlines, keeps things interesting.
KRL: Who are your writing heroes?
HARINI: Robin Hobb. I love her books, and admire the way she fits in writing into a busy schedule of parenting and grand-parenting, running a farm, and doing a thousand other things. Despite which, she writes books that transport you to another world! I think most writers, certainly most women writers, rarely have the luxury of untrammeled time to just think, read and write. It’s not easy to slip out of a real world filled with obligation and distraction into an imagined world, and then to describe it in a way that makes it feel authentic to the reader. I find Robin’s description of how she wrote one of her books while minding her young daughter, giving her endless re-runs of a children’s movie to watch as she worked on edits. I find her to be very inspirational, especially during the times I struggle to balance home and caregiving responsibilities with work and the need to write.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
HARINI: I have masses of archival documents, largely because I also study the history of Bangalore as part of my academic research. I look at maps and photographs to understand how the old city looked. British travelogues and memoirs provide rich descriptions of the landscape, and also help me understand the prejudices and biases of colonial visitors, struggling to recreate their ways of living in a foreign land. I also read through diaries, old newspapers and gazettes and ledger files to find incidents and facts that would be interesting to weave into the storyline. Then I speak to my mother, who is 85, and always has an interesting story or two to tell me about her grandparents and parents, and the food and culture of those times. And finally, I read old cookbooks so I can weave in some old recipes, which is something of an obsession.
KRL: What do you like to read?
HARINI: I read widely, but mostly in two genres: mystery and fantasy. I love golden age mysteries; Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth are special favorites. I am thoroughly enjoying the recent growth of historical mysteries set in colonial India, including those by Nev Marsh, Sujata Massey, Abir Mukherjee and Vaseem Khan. I also love fantasy, in particular the books of Robin Hobb, Mark Lawrence, and Robert Jordan.
KRL: What are your favorite TV shows or movies?
HARINI: I don’t watch a lot of TV, but in the recent couple of years I have enjoyed watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and The Wheel of Time with my husband. When I was younger, the British detective serials that I love used to come on Indian TV, but it’s hard to get many of them in India now.
KRL: Have you any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
HARINI: The best advice I got can be encapsulated in two points. First, don’t take anyone’s writing advice literally—do what works for you. Many writers say you should write every day. For my life, at this current point, that’s just impossible. I write when I can, and am thankful I can manage at least that. Similarly, many writing books and courses will tell you to follow the three-act or five-act structure, or the hero’s journey. I can’t write like that. My characters are central to my story, and I need to get them onto a page to see what happens, and then what happens next. I know many writers who write like this too. But the structured three-act approach works well for many others. Do what works for you.
The second piece of advice follows from the first. You can’t know what will work for you until you actually write; that means start and complete a book or two. It took me more than ten years to complete a first draft of my first fiction book, because I didn’t know how to complete it. And then, once I wrote it, I knew how it worked for me. For my second and third books, I was able to complete a first draft (a very rough first draft, but still a complete one) in a couple of months. Complete that first book. It will change everything.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
HARINI: That’s a tough one! I wish I could make up a story of a dark and secret past, but alas inspiration is deserting me at this point. But when I was younger, I badly wanted to be an archeologist. Perhaps that’s where my obsession with re-staging the past began.
KRL: Is there anything you would like to add?
HARINI: No, these are such great questions, I’ve had a blast responding to them, and I hope you enjoy reading the answers.
KRL: We have enjoyed having you! Website? Twitter? Facebook? Instagram?
Personal website: www.harininagendra.com
Work website: azimpremjiuniversity.edu.in/people/harini-nagendra
To enter to win a copy of The Bangalore Detectives Club, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “club,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen September 10, 2022. U.S. residents only, and you must be 18 or older to enter. If entering via email please include you mailing address in case you win–we will delete it after the contest. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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