I’ve always considered historical detective fiction one of the hardest genres to pull off. Unlike historical romantic suspense, you can’t depend on the characters’ chemistry to take the heat off your plotting skills. Similarly, while historical fiction allows you to take interesting little detours into intriguing deadends as a writer, the “detective” part of this genre demands you hew to a certain pace that tends to cut out the excess bits, no matter how much you love them. It’s a bit like creating a whole another universe for a fantasy novel, complete with strange customs and languages, except you’re stuck with actual events and yet have to create a real feel for it in your reader.
I don’t know why anybody would ever sign on for such grief, but I’m always glad when they do. Especially when someone does it as well as Madhulika Liddle (filmblogistan knows her better as DustedOff) in The Englishman’s Cameo.
In the book, Muzzafar Jang is a minor aristocrat in Emperor Shahjahan’s decadent, not to mention nearly bankrupt, court in Delhi. His taste for low company (read: commoners who do a bit more with their time than cultivate respectable vices like courtesans, opiates and pretty young boys) leads him deeper and deeper into the shadowy underbelly of a slowly rotting empire when he involves himself in the false arrest of a friend on charges of murder.
From its opening scenes at the Red Fort, or the Qila-i-Mubarak as it was called back then, to Jang’s hilariously furtive jonesing for a cup of coffee, Cameo had me hooked and didn’t let go until it was done. At the end, there were just so many things I wanted to know, I decided to ask Madhulika if she’d answer a few questions.
And she did! Thanks Madhulika:
Q. 1. What made you choose the last years of Shahjahan’s reign as the historical setting for The Englishman’s Cameo?
A. This was the result of a combination of interest and necessity—I’d decided I wanted to write a historical detective novel, so to make life easier for myself, I had to set it in a time period that I liked, and which wouldn’t be too difficult to research. Shahjahan’s reign in Delhi is ideal for this: it’s colourful and fascinating (the court at that time was probably the richest in the world), and thanks to contemporary travellers and diarists, there’s plenty of material available for research.
Q. 2. Was the research difficult?
A. Not for the broader aspects of the setting. The political background; how people lived; what they ate and drank and read—all of that isn’t difficult to find. The really tough bit was to figure out the obscure details. For instance, how much paperwork was prevalent in administration at that time (plenty. I discovered that the invention of paper was one of the technical advancements that enabled the Mughals, and the earlier medieval dynasties that ruled from Delhi, to control the administration of their empires). Other things that took me hours to unearth: how the Mughals drank coffee; what their boats looked like; what porcelain they used… and more.
Q. 3. In your acknowledgments you mention the historical walks you took with your sister. I grew up in Delhi and I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t even know there was such a thing! Do you have recommendations or a favorite part?
A. Yes, there are people in Delhi who conduct historical and heritage walks, usually for a very nominal sum. The Delhi Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), for example, does fixed-route walks on weekends in areas such as Shahjahanabad, Mehrauli, Nizamuddin and the Lodhi Gardens. So does the India Habitat Centre, though they tend to explore some very obscure places as well. Among my favourite walks are in Mehrauli (Delhi’s oldest continuously inhabited area), Shahjahanabad (especially Katra Khushal Rai, Naughara and Namakharam ki Haveli), and Nizamuddin: all very historic areas where many of the buildings are fairly well preserved.
Q. 4. What drew you towards historical detective fiction as a genre?
A. I have to confess I’m nuts about history. And about detective fiction. So the combination’s irresistible! I read my first historical detective novel (Robert van Gulik’s The Chinese Maze Murders) when I was a kid, and I’ve been fascinated by the genre ever since: the exotic nature of a historical novel—a way of life that’s alien, and often surprisingly similar to our own—combined with a socio-economic and political scenario that one’s (usually) read about only in school or college text books: I think that’s so amazing. Used as a backdrop for a good old-fashioned whodunit, I think a historical setting can be both informative as well as entertaining.
Q. 5. I know from your movie blog that you’re a fan of noir. And I thought I could see the influence in your work. Was I just imagining things?
A. No, I guess not! I love mysteries, noir or not. Personally, I don’t think The Englishman’s Cameo is as dark as a noir film would be, but some of the elements are definitely there. Unintentionally, I may add. It just so happened that after the first draft was written, I realised the plot and the main character needed spicing up. The first thing that came to mind was to include noir-ish elements (probably because I’m familiar with them?), and so that’s what happened.
Q. 6. Speaking of film noir, as a Joseph Cotten fan struggling against the Humphrey Bogart juggernaut, I have to ask – who’s your favorite? Or what are your favorite noir movies?
A. Frankly, I’m not much of a fan of Bogart (great actor, but not a favourite of mine!) or Joseph Cotten. But yes, I do like noir a lot. Some of Hitchcock’s darker films—Rebecca, Spellbound, Rope—are among my favourites. Also Gaslight, The Night of the Hunter, Pursued (though that’s noir crossover, Western + noir), Crossfire, and the unusual The Crimson Kimono, which is noir + romance + anti-racism. Two of my favourite Kurosawa films are superb noir: Stray Dog and High and Low.
Q. 7. There’s something charmingly mid-20th century pop-fiction about The Englishman’s Cameo (and I mean that as a complete compliment because I love that stuff and constantly bemoan the deterioration of talent that has made barely literate trash rocket to the top of bestseller lists these days), and one of the things that struck me about it, especially given its title, was the way it took the standard “white man in exotic climes gets caught up in shenanigans” story and flipped it. I’m so used to reading novels in which Muzaffar Jang would have been the brownie supporting character in the story of William Terry, ace English gunner on a personal quest. Was this deliberate or did the story just naturally evolve to that point?
A. Another confession: the book had no white characters to start off with. From the beginning, I’d decided my hero was going to be a Mughal nobleman. Then someone at a publishing house, to whom I narrated the plot, suggested I bring in a European—for a mundane reason: it would make the book more attractive for publishers abroad. I was initially hesitant, but after I did some research and discovered that there were a fair number of Europeans bumming about in India at the time, I decided to give it a try, mainly because I thought it would make the book more interesting, foreign markets or no. Thus William Terry (whose last name, by the way, is the same as that of an English traveller called Edward Terry who visited India in the 17th century).
Q. 8. Are we looking at the first of a series? (You should totally do a series.)
A. Thank you! And yes, this is going to be a series. Right now I’m writing a set of short stories, all of which feature Muzaffar Jang, the detective of The Englishman’s Cameo.
Q. 9. One of the things that made me laugh was Muzaffar’s addiction to coffee. Was that a sly take on detectives with bad habits like House with his Vicodin and Holmes with his cocaine?
A. What’s a detective without a vice?! Muzaffar started off being too goody-goody: he had to be given some weaknesses. I didn’t like the idea of a hero who was an opium addict or partial to pretty boys, so (since I’m a coffee addict too), coffee seemed like a good option.
Q. 10. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this! One last question for those who liked The Englishman’s Cameo and would like something in its vein while they’re waiting for your next book: any recommendations?
A. There are loads of historical detectives out there, and some of them are really, really good. For a sensitive, warm style of writing and a detective whom I instinctively liked a lot, I’d suggest any of the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters. Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma series, about an ancient Irish princess/lawyer/nun, are excellently plotted; and Robert van Gulik’s novels and short stories about the medieval Chinese magistrate Judge Dee are fabulously rich in detail—besides being superb whodunits. Also check out Lindsey Davis’s Falco books, a series featuring a detective in ancient Rome. Excellent, and very funny.
Other writers who mostly write historical detective fiction: C J Sansom, Ariana Franklin, PC Doherty, Boris Akunin (look out for his Sister Pelagia series, in which the detective is a nun in Czarist Russia), Giles Brandreth (his detective is Oscar Wilde) and Jason Goodwin. In India, I’ve rarely come across these in bookstores, but they’re easily available on Amazon.