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A Mushrooming Obsession

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

After we had a dead elm tree cut down last year, little white mushrooms sprang up on the wood-flecked ground.  I was nervous because we had just taken in a Yorkshire Terrier puppy with an appreciation for organic material. Daisy snuffles up berries, pods, pinecones and black walnuts faster than I can stop her. But for some reason, she stayed away from the tiny white mushrooms, which I think might be Chlorophyllium Molybdites, the Green Spored Parasol, a poisonous mushroom that looks like a white button mushroom.

But Daisy ignored the mushrooms, just as I don’t see rabbits, birds and squirrels eating them. Somehow they must have a genetic aversion. It isn’t that way for people. My eyes tell me that the mushrooms in my garden are beautiful as the ones at a high end grocery. I look at such mushrooms and imagine them sautéed in butter.

Mushrooms have power: both for the bad and the good. Over the winter, I did some reading and learned that the oyster, enoki, maitake and shiitake mushrooms are taken by patients to fight tumors. And there’s one very powerful Chinese mushroom, the Red Reishi, that has been used to treat many diseases, including cancer.

What about the small wrinkled cone-headed mushrooms that grow wild in the United States called the morel? I adore the morels that grow plentifully in the upper Midwest and are hand-collected in the wild and sold in co-ops. However, I’ve learned there’s a “false morel” that looks just like it that’s poisonous. Umm….

And let’s be realistic. Morels are too pricy to be eaten more than a few times a year. However,  an 8-ounce container of local oyster, and white beech and brown beech mushrooms (also known as bunapi and bunashimeji) is about $5.99 at the local organic grocery in my neighborhood. If I get up early enough on the weekend, I can buy a similar portion of fresh maitake, fan mushrooms, chantarelles and shiitakes for $5 at the farmer’s market. I cradle all these unwashed mushrooms in a cotton bag that stays in the refrigerator. They stay happy and resist turning slimy for up to two weeks—though I’ve usually finished them well before that time.

As spring arrives, I realized that mushrooms have nudged themselves into becoming 2018’s food of choice. I’ve cooked a lot of them, and I’ve savored truffles twice—both in a truffle mayonnaise on chips at Charleston Restaurant in Baltimore, and in the truffle-stuffed ravioli at the Fearrington Village Inn in North Carolina. These are the splurgiest, most umami-laden mushrooms around, reputedly costing $2800-3200 a pound, if you get the white ones. But a little goes a long way, because the flavor is so tremendous.

Making a deep dive into a “food of the year” has become a habit for me. When I was researching India’s Parsi community in 2016, I found myself cooking more eggs in Parsi manner, often poached atop vegetables. This was a fantastic and easy food to focus on.

2017’s food of the year was quinoa, because I finally learned to make it taste good, and it went into soups, salads, and as a rice substitute. In 2009 it was homemade bread (I gave up that practice, never quite mastering it, and knowing that I didn’t want to eat bread twice daily to use it up).

I have a head start on the mushroom game because I’ve been cooking mushrooms  for years. Three out of four members of our family like them (not a bad ratio considering they are “fungi”). One of our favorite family dishes for many years was the mushroom stroganoff from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but that calls for ordinary large white mushrooms. We were happy in the past, but I think cut-up oyster mushrooms are going to vault the dish to the stratosphere. The mushroom risotto recipe I like comes from The New Vegetarian Epicure, and its author, Anna Thomas, isn’t playing. She calls for a mix of morels, porcini and shiitake, as well as dried porcini as a flavor builder.

You don’t need a cookbook to make a fantastic mushroom dish. Sauté them with onion and add lightly beaten eggs for an incomparable scramble. Garam masala or curry powder is the final touch.

For lunch, I love to make a quick Asian noodle soup, starting with sautéed onion, ginger and enoki mushrooms, and throwing in either vegetable, chicken, or beef stock. A spoonful of white miso goes in along with a little chopped raw spinach or bok choy. That last bit cooks two minutes and then I ladle in a bowl with scallions on top.

Or how about a mushroom gnocchi bowl for supper that’s ready in less than thirty minutes? Start with a cup of mixed specialty mushrooms such as shimeji and maitake, all broken apart into medium sized pieces; a quarter cup of chopped onion; two minced garlic cloves. Sauté in butter and olive oil until lightly brown and then pour in 4 cups of any vegetable stock. Simmer ten minutes and then throw in potato gnocchi from the store and 1/3 cup of frozen green peas. The gnocchi will be tender in about 3 minutes; you’ll know when they rise to the top. Toss minced parsley on top, if you are fancy, and ladle it into bowls.

I don’t know that eating small mushrooms with a grand reputation will save me from disease. But I eat them several times a week now. I might even try growing them. I’m eyeing an  “organic mushroom farm” I saw at Mom’s Market. The final frontier would be taking a mushroom walk with a forager, but after what I’ve read about evil lookalikes springing up next to morels and chanterelles, I’m not sure it’s worth the risk.

A Writer’s Lament, Revised

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A ragged, handwritten sign has been taped to my study wall for about a year.

I love this job!

A quarter-century ago, I was working full-time in university public relations and desperately longed to be a fiction writer. It seemed like an impossible dream, to stay home all day and use as much of it as I wanted for fiction. I thought I’d use each day to the fullest and greet my husband every evening with a smile and a reports of many pages written.

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

I did leave that job, and began writing full-time at the age of thirty-two. And here I am, twenty-two years later, in the same job, but with the rose-colored glasses removed. With the sale of my first book came a lifestyle where I pretty much always have a deadline. It’s a lifestyle in which I can work every day but never be finished.

When I’m struggling with a chapter that’s going slowly,  it’s hard to remember that I once longed to be in this place. In a writing day—for me, that’s three to four hours—I write 500 to 1000 words, when in the old days, I could do 3000-4000. Is it because my brain has fewer cells? Probably.  Tat and the fact I’m writing historical mysteries, which make dashing off scenes and casual conversations more of a complex effort.

I am grateful to be published, and I love meeting readers and understand that my books are a fun escape for them. I wish I wasn’t looking for my own escapes within my writing day—activities like cooking, reading, napping, aqua aerobics, yoga, walking, lunch with a friend. Actually, all of these are healthy things to do. But they are methods of evading the hard business of thinking, which is Part A of writing. That’s the worst thing about writing—thinking up the sentences that I consider worthy of keeping rather than deleting. Sometimes, I feel as inexperienced and awkward as before I was even published.

A lot of writers say that they enjoy “having written” more than the writing itself. But I think that if I want to keep going at this ten or twenty more years, I’d better start enjoying the writing more. It would mean closing my laptop and moving on to dinner and evening activities in an upbeat mood,rather than a frustrated one.

We want the life that is just beyond us. Perhaps the idea of escape is something I can work with.

What if I reversed my thinking what my responsibilities are? Could I tell myself that I am working full-time again—but for needy dogs and people? What if the act of writing could be transformed into a kind of sanctuary? It would mean pretending that I didn’t have a deadline.

Okay, I’m game.

From this point forward, I am doing things that make it seem more like that. If I want to write snuggled up in bed for a couple of hours, I will allow myself to do that.

There is beautiful sunlight in my third floor study in the mornings, and that’s when I want to be there. Only then. On dark mornings,  I can sit in my dining room and look straight across the hallway to the gas fireplace and two sweet dogs napping nearby.

Then there are times I am restless and know I will wind up in the kitchen making toast. In that case, I will pack my laptop, drive five minutes, and sit among the students in the Eisenhower library at Johns Hopkins University, where I was once a student.

Moving on from place to page. One strategy is to approach my work with curiosity. Surprises will come as I discover the story that was waiting all along.Why don’t I play with words rather than task myself with hammering them out? Can I try to enjoy my characters as if they’re in a film (or a really terrific BBC historical miniseries) playing before my eyes? Does the line of dialog I’ve written truly show anger, humor, or tenderness?

Being mindful about writing could make the process feel more like pleasure reading. Which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Of Dogs and Other Furry Friends in India

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

what is it?

On my recent sojourn in India, I kept a lookout for animals.

This is because I’m striving to write a lot more about animals in my books. They may not solve a crime or talk (thank God!) but they will be characters.

In my book-in-progress, Perveen Mistry 2, I’ve included an Indian breed dog called Rajapalayams that were especially appreciated in royal households of Tamil Nadu. Rajapalayams are handsome white hounds that look similar to many of the aboriginal pariah dogs seen throughout India. The reason there are different colorations and body types of strays in Indian cities goes back to these dogs mixing with breeds brought in by Europeans. Most of the dogs I see in India are gingers. But I’ve  learned that it’s mostly dust I’m looking at, not the real color of the fur underneath.

I also have different kinds of monkeys swinging through my story. One is the rare Lion-Tailed Macaque indigenous to the Sahyadri Mountain range of Western India. He is elusive and beautiful. The other monkey I’m featuring is the Bonnet Macaque, a pink-faced monkey with a very long tail that is common in rural and urban areas. That monkey is super social and inadvertently becomes involved in a crime.

I have not heard about anyone bringing stray monkeys home from India. But I do know a few people who fell in love with stray dogs in India and brought them home.

A well-built white hound who came from the streets of India used to visit Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in Minneapolis. When I was there, the dog was extremely interested in the scent of my pocket. He was also interested in the free tiny candy bars by the cash register. His owner told me he is always looking for food.

India is estimated to have 30 million stray dogs. In some cities, dogs are rounded up and exterminated as a public health control. There is an estimated 20,000 rabies deaths to humans from animal bites in India per year. However, some animal rights activists in India point out that 75% of dog bites in India are from pets, not strays. So where’s the greatest risk?

I knew that I should not pet a dog while in India, but it was hard to resist. My trip took me from Delhi and Udaipur to Mumbai and Ahmedabad, going from north to west.  I noticed two styles of behavior with the stray dogs. Many of them roamed in family groups, and of course these dog families sometimes got in fights with others at night. I am a dog lover, but the sounds of these ferocious dog wars were pretty frightening. These dogs didn’t come near people, and people never touched them.

The other style of dog behavior was “individual beggar.” In Udaipur, I visited a college where a student club was formed to help with stray dogs. The students in the club feed the animals. When I visited outdoor areas in the college, very friendly dogs wanted to play. I could see they’d come to rely on the students for much more than a bit of supper. They were relishing love.

 In natural areas where tourists go, like the Matheran Hill Station—where I visited in 2016—and Elephanta Island near Mumbai, dogs wag their tails, cock their heads, and beg for a petting. They are also the frequent recipients of leftover snacks and lunches—just like the monkeys who hang nearby.

I traveled by boat in the Mumbai Harbor to Elephanta Island, a site where tourists come to look at a labyrinth of cave temples carved between 450 and 700 AD. While there, I noticed a lot of scavenger dogs and monkeys. I was warned that the monkeys could be more than I bargained for. I was used to the idea of monkeys grabbing food of tables and from people, but here the bonnet macaque population is known to grab cell phones and cameras. I asked why and was told some people who train the monkeys, who are rewarded for bringing them these goods. However, Elephanta Island had no panhandlers, just a lot of successful vendors, so I am skeptical about this idea, at least on Elephanta. My theory is that monkeys are smart and become annoyed at being gawked at without getting a payment of food.

It was funny to see monkeys drinking from half-filled soda bottles (especially sweet drinks like Pepsi). Monkey see, monkey do. Yet I wondered about the impact on their teeth and health.  Just across the path from the soda-drinking monkeys, dogs were tucking into the remains of food still in foil wrappers. I hoped they knew when to stop.

Most Indians don’t keep dogs in their homes, but it’s common for one stray to be fed regularly outdoors by a person. A popular news story during my trip was the behavior of a stray dog that always showed up by the ladies’ only car of a Mumbai commuter train in the evenings. When the passenger the dog waited for didn’t arrive, she would run sadly after the train, and then return to her puppies. Who was the one who fed the dog? Did she just change to a different train… or did something else happen, the mystery writer in me wonders?

Films of this black and white dog have thousands of YouTube views. The story of a loyal dog coming to the train reminds me of the tale of Hachiko, a dog who regularly looked for someone to arrive on a certain train in the evening at Shibuya Station. This dog tale, which took place in the 1930s, is so beloved that it resulted in a statue of the dog at Shibuya Station and a Richard Gere movie, Hachi, retelling the legend in an American setting.

My dogs Daisy and Charlie, who nap by a cozy, odorless gas fireplace live better than many people in my city. I will never feel comfortable about that. However, I am glad that our two dogs that had tough lives to begin—especially our beagle, Charlie, who lived caged up for years in a puppy mill—can enjoy serenity in their later years.

For animals living the free range lifestyle in India, I wish good weather, plenty of water, and a safe bite to eat.

The Kitab Tour in India

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Kitab is the Urdu/Hindi word for book and is pronounced just as it sounds. I find it a lovely word.

So too was my recent book tour in India for A Murder on Malabar Hill, A Perveen Mistry Investigation. You might notice the similarity in title to The Widows of Malabar Hill, my novel which came out this past January from Soho Press in the US. That’s because it is the same book, retitled by my South Asian publisher, Penguin Random India. They wanted to make no bones about the fact it is a mystery.

Signing at Crossword Books in Ahmedabad

India doesn’t have a large number of indigenous mysteries, but it has billions of regular readers. In fact, 43% of Indians report reading books every week for pleasure. The world’s fastest growing economy has had a leap in the number of boys and girls in K-12 education. As a result, the largest selling category of books in India is educational. It makes sense: parents are investing in their kids.

A Murder on Malabar Hill was hitting the shelves at the same time a very big bestseller was launching from the same publisher. In a sense, it was like my recent experience of having Widows released at the same time as the White House tell-all Fire and Fury. I was sitting in a car with a sales rep whose phone would not stop ringing with orders from booksellers wanting one hundred to one thousand copies of Exam Warriors.

The startling thing about this children’s educational book is that its author is India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. Exam Warriors hits publishing’s sweet spot because is a how-to study workbook for children, featuring 25 mantras for studying and reduction in stress. It includes yoga exercises and is illustrated in cartoons. Priced at a bargain 100 rupees (about US $1.60), it is affordable to many and published in English and Hindi.

Blogging Meetup in Gurgaon

Back to A Murder on Malabar Hill. So far, it’s just in English, and it costs a lot more than the Modi book—399 rupees. My novel is being published in English, and one of the amusing aspects to the copy edit was turning American English into British English. Some revised spellings of words for India were practise for practice, and jewellery for jewelry.

With English language being a subset of India’s vast book market of 22 official languages, I was interested to see that brick and mortar bookstores were nevertheless dominated by English language books. The majority are Indian authors writing in English, but Dan Brown is big, too.

I enjoyed a number of bookstore visits in Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad. One store in Mumbai was actually called “Kitab Khanna.” With my limited Hindi, I thought the store name meant something like “books food.” However, the way Khanna is spelled in the store name makes the meaning a “Book Box.”

That’s RJ Sarthak Kaushik of Radio Ishq

Visits to places like the independent bookstore Kitab Khanna, as well as multiple locations of the small chain stores Crossword, Om Books, Full Circle Books and Bharison’s, were a very special opportunity. Sales reps for these stores brought me in to sign newly-arrived books and talk about the book’s heroine to the salesclerks, who’d be better able to explain it to customers. This has never happened to me in the United States. I also did radio interviews on 3 different pop FM radio shows, two of which were syndicated.

I did have a couple of book talks and signings, but they were not in bookstores. No—in India, a book signing is closer to theater!

At right, actor Aishwarya Jha-Mather dressed as Perveen Mistry

My biggest event was in Delhi at the intimate OddBird Theatre within an old mill complex in the Chattarpur district. My editor had arranged for a talented local stage actress to read a chapter of my book aloud. The actor, Aishwarya Mathur-Jha, had dressed in an antique lace sari and arranged her hair in a curled updo typical of the time period for Parsi women. She became my character, Perveen Mistry. Her reading was powerful and had the large audience spellbound. For me, it was magical to hear my written words uttered by someone with the right accent and intonations. It’s a concerted effort for me to write dialog in Indian English; so when I heard the Aishwarya’s dialog sounding as natural and passionate as she made it, I was heartened. All I had to do after being transfixed by Perveen Mistry on stage was chat about the book with RJ (radio jockey) Sarthak Kaushik, as radio hosts are called. Lots of jokes and good fun.

The second book event was in Mumbai. This was an interview with a journalist, Jane Borges, who was working on an article about the book that came out a few days later in a newspaper called Midday. Jane’s interview and my reading was held at a small cafe where every table was set with delicious cookies. It was a small event, but the questions were good, and so were the treats.

Another event that was a new thing for me was a meet-up with book bloggers. About ten bloggers—all quite friendly with each other—showed up to the new Bharison’s bookstore in Delhi’s posh Gurgaon suburb. They’d read advance copies and peppered me with good questions. Many selfies and even a short film made by one blogger appeared very quickly after the event.

Speaking of social media, the publisher shared the surprising news that movie star Amitabh Bachchan had tweeted a photograph of his adult daughter reading in his home. If you zoom in on the book in her hands, it turns out to be A Murder on Malabar Hill. Somehow, this woman had a copy of it before it reached the bookstores. Nobody could figure out how.

Perhaps it’s just pure marketing magic. I  met with some future marketing geniuses—India’s business students—at the Indian Institute of Management Udaipur’s Leap Year Literary Festival. The kids had taken their Sunday to sit and listen to six of us—authors, comedians and screenwriters—talk about our work. It was a pleasant surprise that business students would care enough about creative writing to organize a writing festival.

But this is India. After all, the prime minister has written a dozen books!

#MeToo: When Women Travel

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

When women began posting accounts of sexual assault a few months ago, I listened. I counted myself fortunate to make it through a little more than a half century without rape. Also, I haven’t experienced workplace harassment. But as the #MeToo stories have continued, some uncomfortable memories are surfacing.

The first time, I was fifteen. It was a summer that I traveled with my mother and younger sister, exploring Germany and Austria. A summer of great times: going bowling and disco dancing with my cousins, eating lots of curry wurst, taking long rides on trains and watching little villages flash by the window. We had arrived the Nymphenburg Palace, a famous site in Munich. My mother was in the ticket line and I was standing around with my younger sister. A middle-aged white German man approached me and spoke in broken English. He was a professional photographer. I was so pretty. Could he take my photograph?

That was exactly the kind of language to flatter an awkward teenager and make her acquiescent.

The photographer told me to stand a little bit away from the crowd; he was getting the angle right. I smiled as he took a few pictures. And then he suddenly rushed forward and began unsnapping the front shoulder fastenings of my overalls. I felt his fingers fumble at my breasts. I began weeping as I twisted away, realizing that I’d been tricked. My little sister rushed toward me, also crying loudly, and the stranger vanished into the crowd. I cannot remember if my sister and told my mother. I know that I considered myself to blame in allowing the man near me and my precious little sister.

Decades passed, and I became a young woman who dated a lot of nice guys and a few jerks. I was comfortable saying no and setting limits on behavior that made me uncomfortable. At 27, I married and began a career as a self-employed writer. I wrote novels that took me on solitary research trips to Japan. I marveled at being able to walk around at eleven or twelve at night in Japan without fear, at being able to eat alone in restaurants without interruption, at disembarking at lonely train stations without hassle. It was a pretty charmed travel experience.

Yet my second bad experience happened while I was traveling again in Europe. I was sent on a short book tour to Finland, a country where the Rei Shimura novels are very popular. Meeting readers was a very cheering experience. I chatted, signed books, and thoroughly enjoyed the company and assistance of my Finnish editor as I traveled through the capital city, Helsinki.

During the tour, I had two days free, so I traveled by myself, taking an efficient train west to a small town with a spa where I booked a night’s stay. I looked forward to some long walks outside, and perhaps some spa treatments.  I requested an hour-long massage at the spa. The receptionist was sorry to say that all the regular massage therapists were booked. Then she had an idea. She would phone in an alternative massage therapist, not a regular spa employee, someone in the area who had offered to work part time if the need arose.

When I checked in for my massage the next morning, I wasn’t worried to discover the masseur was a male. I’d had excellent, professional massages from therapists of both genders. I walked into the massage room, and when the door closed, the man told me to undress and get under a sheet. But here’s the strange thing. It is standard operating procedure for a massage therapist to leave a client alone to undress and get underneath the sheet. This man stayed put, his eyes glued on me.

I would like to say that I walked out of the room then and there, but I didn’t. I was a traveler, and I thought maybe they did things differently in Finland.  I felt very uncomfortable as I turned my back to him and began undressing, trying to wrap the sheet around myself for privacy while doing that (an impossible task).

Once on the table, he began the massage. I was lying on my stomach, and I noticed right away that his touch was very light and did not seem to be following a pattern. He was unskilled at therapeutic touch, I thought with annoyance. And then he told me to turn over.

Suddenly, I decided to believe what my instinct was telling me. This man wasn’t a professional massage therapist at all. I told him sternly that the massage was finished and I ordered him to leave the room. It took a little more yelling, but he did go. I dressed in a flash, my body shaking, and I went to the reception desk.

The person there didn’t realize the extent of my complaint about the nonprofessional, ogling therapist. I was likely too upset to be able to communicate the seriousness of the situation. I had prepaid for the massage; there was no refund. And honestly, money wouldn’t have helped. He saw what he saw of me. Nothing could erase the sense of violation.

With my Asian appearance and American accent, I stand out as a visitor in Europe. And the sad reality is that women who travel are an easy mark. Molesters can make quick hits, guessing that victims have nobody nearby to call to for help, and that victims will chalk it up to bad luck during travel. Such perpetrators also know that foreign women are less able to communicate effectively with local police and give the kind of details that would lead to apprehension.

Women who travel cannot anticipate these sudden intrusions. Also, we don’t have enough time to mentally store the details of attacks, the way you would about a coworker you know or someone you’re dating. Think about all the groping incidents on subways and buses throughout the world. Even planes are territory for molestation. A first-class airplane seat was where a woman reported relentless physical harassment from Donald Trump in the early 1980s. The New York Times video of her account is embedded below.

An effort to shield women from sexual abuse in public is one of the arguments behind purdah, the conservative custom of women staying behind veils or confined to their homes. Purdah began hundreds of years ago among mostly Muslim families in the Middle East and South Asia, but included wealthy Hindus as well. (I write about purdah in The Widows of Malabar Hill, my latest novel). The custom largely died out in the early twentieth century, but it helped build an international misbelief that good women stay home and disreputable ones roam. And now that the Taliban, ISIS and other radical conservative groups have taken over villages and towns in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, enforced purdah is back and crueler than ever.

I suspect the men who went after me were locals in their communities who acted alone. But there are increasing situations where groups of men set out to simultaneously molest a lot of women and girls. Consider the multiple attacks by an alleged 2,000 men against approximately 1,200 women celebrating New Year’s Eve 2015-16 in public in Cologne, Germany—and copycat incidents in other countries.

Men who prey on women travelers usually get away without being named.  But our voices do carry, and my hope is that molesters will someday find their sordid occupation is no longer a safe adventure.

Announcing The Widows of Malabar Hill

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

January has been a big month for Murder Is Everywhere writers. After cheering for the long anticipated launch of Jeff Siger’s An Aegean April, Anna Maria Alfieri and I had the crazy good luck to share the same pub date, Jan. 9, for our new historical mysteries. On Pub Day, the two of us found ourselves not in a pub but with elbows on the same table at Mysterious Bookshop in New York. It turns out that we have both written mysteries set in the World War I era about dangerous and degrading customs women living in the British Empire. No, it’s not the same book. I have a signed copy of Anna Maria’s fine book, The Blasphemers, that I mailed home.

I’ve got no room to carry books because I’m on a book tour. And what a tour it is: starting off in the golden warmth of Scottsdale Arizona, zipping up and down the Atlantic Seaboard with its rain and snow, steering south to Virginia and North Carolina, and treading on thin ice in snowy Minnesota and Wisconsin.

January is a tricky month to tour in the U.S., but it’s high season in India, the setting of my book.

Here’s my spiel: The Widows of Malabar Hill is the first novel in a new legal mystery series. In 1921 Bombay, a young solicitor named Perveen Mistry works under the supervision of her father, Jamshedji Mistry, at his small but reputable law firm. Perveen is the first woman lawyer in Bombay, and many clients are wary of her abilities. She’s eager to prove herself and get beyond the numbing routine of handling contracts and wills.

Looks like Mumbai but it’s Scottsdale, AZ, near Poisoned Pen Bookstore

First book signed on the tour at Poisoned Pen

An opportunity presents itself when a man sends a letter to Mistry Law asking for assistance in helping three widows donate all their inheritances to a family trust. The widows live in purdah in a communal household that was once headed by their husband, Omar Farid, who has passed away. This leaves the widows unable to go out into the world to talk with bankers or anyone else. When Perveen goes to call on the Farid widows, trouble ensues, and she becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. Should she protect the widows—or is doing so leaving a dangerous criminal unfettered?

Signing in Chicago with Soho author Samira Ahmed, left

Fun sign at Subtext Books in St. Paul

This novel is inspired by India’s first two women lawyers, Cornelia Sorabji and Mithan Tata Lam. In the 1890s through the 1920s, respectively, these pioneers specialized in serving women and children whose voices had gone unheard. Cornelia Sorabji is well known enough to finally have a bronze bust statue in London’s legal power place, Lincoln’s Inn. Its fitting as this is where she was admitted to the London Bar after her years working as a solicitor in British and princely India. Mithan Tata Lam is not as famous as Cornelia, but she was the first woman admitted to an Indian bar association  (the Bombay Bar) and was instrumental in revising the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act in the 1930s.

Winter lake scape in Milwaukee. I signed at Lynden Sculpture Garden

The laws that kept women down are a major force in my novel—a force that Perveen Mistry has to reckon with when seeking to protect the women’s interests. This part of the book is only too real. Indian family law was established by the British government and senior men in the Muslim, Hindu and Parsi communities. Each faith group had a separate legal code that outlined rules such as the allowable age for marriage, what percentage various family members were allowed to inherit from an estate, and whether divorce was allowed.

Winter wonderland in Minneapolis

We were all dressed for a snowstorm at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis

The other big element in Perveen’s story is the city of Bombay (now renamed Mumbai). It’s a setting I’ve visited several times and truly adore.  The book has scenes all over the city, in places ranging from the title’s Malabar Hill (a lovely hillside neighborhood for the rich) to Fort, the original British settlement in the center of town, which includes Elphinstone College, the Sassoon Library, and Bruce Street, which houses the family law firm and Yazdani’s, a delightful Irani café that actually does exist. There’s even a jaunt to Bandra Beach, a popular spot for lovers now… and back in Perveen’s day.

Today I may be in Connecticut, where the sky is gray and snow is supposed to fall. So what else is new on this tour? I’ll find a way to get to the Wilton Library.

But Bombay’s on my mind.

Phil Schwartzberg, who drew the beautiful maps of Bombay in my book, shows the antique inspiration of an old map he used.

Funny, Foul-Mouthed Ladies

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a treat!

Watching standup and skit comedy shows became a kind of medication for me in the last year. Mental health maintenance, you know? I feel empathy in the jokes made by Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, and the cast of Saturday Night Live.

But there’s also considerable relief in escapist humor that takes me completely away from the 21st century. Like an answered prayer,  “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” an eight-episode comedy series, appeared on Amazon Prime in November. The holidays are the only time of each year that I allow myself to binge-watch a series—and this was my choice.

Actors Alex Borstein and Rachel Brosnahan as Susie and Midge

Here’s the premise. In 1958, Midge Maisel is a 26-year-old, happily-married mom of two young children living in a gloriously large apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Her husband Joel is a rising executive who dabbles in stand-up comedy at a beat generation nightclub in Greenwich Village. The problem is, Joel doesn’t have a special knack for it, and after a humiliating performance, he lashes out at Midge by walking out on her and the kids to live with his secretary. This shock propels Midge on a drinking spree. She shows up at that same nightclub where Joel bombed. She commandeers the stage and launches into a powerful, hilarious monologue about her predicament. Thus a career is born. Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Midge, is tidily pretty, sharp as a tack, and unafraid of the F word. She hides her experimental career from her parents. Midge’s uptight mother is just as attractive as the daughter—and in fact has schooled Midge in the arts of excessive feminine behavior (like going to bed with makeup on, jumping out to remove eyelashes and put on night cream, and applying fresh makeup before hubby awakens).

The show also features interesting characters like Susie, Midge’s talent manager, played by Alex Borstein, who is so masculine that most of Midge’s family and friends think she’s a man, rather than a lesbian. Also featured as a character in the show is Lenny Bruce, the ground-breaking comedian who serves as an occasional helper to Midge, following her kindness of bailing him out of jail after being arrested, like she has been, for verbal obscenity.

Joan Rivers chatting with Johnny Carson in the 1960s

Critics have made comparisons with Midge’s character to Joan Rivers, who also hailed from an affluent Jewish family and joked about female anatomy, birth control, and housework. Joan Rivers Confidential, a scrapbook of writings, programs and items saved by the late comic, was published recently. After seeing the challenges faced by Mrs. Maisel, I’m interested in learning more about Joan’s early days.

The Sophie Lennon character played by Jane Lynch

One of the most interesting episodes within the series deals with Midge getting an invitation to open for a famous woman comic who wears a fat suit and does a routine where she plays a loud-mouthed, folksy woman. Sophie Lennon, who’s played by Jane Lynch, turns out be very hoity-toity and elegant off stage. Midge learns that Sophie is a drama school graduate who’s taken on a character because she believes a male audience won’t listen to jokes from a woman who looks like someone they could f***. She advises Midge to become an oddball character rather than talk freely about issues of the day.

I realized Sophie Lennon is a lot like Minnie Pearl, a hillbilly comic who was famous in the mid-twentieth century for her down-home slapstick style. Minnie actually was an upper class drama school graduate putting on a show. Bustle Magazine ran a thoughtful article discussing the potent stereotypes of female comics raised by Sophie Lennon’s character.

I won’t give away whether Midge follows Sophie’s suggestion to refashion herself into a sexless oddball. I recommend you watch the show and consider that the women who dared to stand on stage and swear in public were a special breed of early feminists: women who wouldn’t shut up, even when heckled.

We could use a few more women like that in Washington.

Nuts to Christmas

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Mixed families often double their holidays. Which means the culinary options are rather excellent.

Take Christmas.

I grew up the daughter of a German mother who still makes hundreds of beautiful cookies each year. I have learned to bake some of these cookies, but I can’t hold a candle to Mom. My father is from India, where most people don’t celebrate Christmas, and the majority of homes don’t have ovens. A typical Christmas dinner dish for us, growing up, was chicken biryani.

But I believe there is one Indian delicacy with the power to satisfy like a cookie can. This treat is crunchy, sweet, salty and as spicy as you’d like. I call it Masala Nuts.

In India, you’ll find a man on a street in any village or town or city roasting nuts in a big steel pot set over a wood fire. The roasted nuts are tossed with spices and a bit of sugar. Everything’s poured into a small paper holder and handed off to the salivating customer.

In the West, you can visit a South Asian store and buy a factory made “hot mix” coated with heavy spices, oils and preservatives. They’re not terrible—but they’re nothing like the real masala nuts.

At Christmas, I’ve begun to make my own spiced nuts. Savory nuts are welcomed by people who don’t want as much sugar as a cookie or cake contains. Pistachios, almonds, walnuts and their near cousins are recommended anti-inflammatory foods high in good fats. They are great at cocktail parties and also used anywhere else you’d put very special nuts: a salad, oatmeal, and rice pilaf.

There are probably as many recipes for spiced nuts as there once were princely kingdoms in India. The diversity of nuts must be credited to Moghul invaders of the 15th century, who brought their plants and culinary traditions. Nuts such as almonds, pistachios and cashews began decorating rice dishes and were incorporated into curries and sweets and even beverages. Who knows if the royal couple in this small painting I bought in Rajasthan are sharing a goblet of wine? It could also be a creamy punch with ground almonds or pistachios.

The ultimate joy of making masala nuts is they don’t take a lot of time during a busy holiday season. I can whip up seven gift-sized portions of spiced nuts in about 45 minutes if I use a microwave.

Yes, a microwave.  The genesis of my spiced nuts comes from Julie Sahni’s 1990 cookbook, Moghul Microwave. The book has 5 different recipes for candied or roasted spiced nuts. In the 25 years I’ve had the book, I’ve found one recipe that is my favorite, and I’ve tweaked it a little bit. For instance, I’m not a fan of kala namak (black salt), so I skip it in my version. This year, I threw some chia seeds into the dry spice rub. Chia seeds have no flavor, but they  have a slight crunch that reminds me of kalonji seeds—Indian black onion seeds. And I like adding more Omega 3 fatty acids to make up for the fact there is a bit of sugar coating the nuts.

Happy holidays!

Spiced Mixed Nuts (inspired by Julie Sahni)

2 cups (10 ounces) shelled raw whole unsalted mixed nuts such as pistachios, unblanched almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts (I use 3 to 4 varieties per recipe)
1 tablespoon ground cumin (I roast the seeds before grinding, but that’s optional)
½ teaspoon ground fennel seeds
1-2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon amchur (*dry mango powder sold in Indian stores. See headnote for an easy lemon juice substitution)
¼ teaspoon chia seeds (optional)
½ cup of sugar
1-2 teaspoons kosher salt, depending on taste
1/3 cup water

*If you can’t find amchur, substitute 2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice. Combine the lemon juice with the water, rather than the dry spice rub.

  1. Arrange nuts so they lie flat on a microwave-safe pie plate. Roast uncovered for 3 minutes 30 seconds, or until the nuts are lightly browned and puffed. You can stir them once during the process. Take out of the microwave and let them stand.
  2. Mix all the spices in a small bowl and reserve this dry spice rub for later use.
  3. Mix the water, sugar and optional lemon juice on a glass or ceramic pie plate or casserole dish. Cook uncovered for 2 minutes 40 seconds, stopping the microwave to stir twice. You will end up with a thick syrup.
  4. Add in the nuts and continue cooking uncovered for 45 seconds to one minute, or until most of the syrup is absorbed into nuts.
  5. Transfer nuts to a sieve held over a sink and drain off the excess syrup. Spread nuts onto a cookie sheet. Sprinkle spice rub a little at a time over the nuts and mix, turning and tossing, until nuts have an even coating of the masala.
  6. Keep stored in an airtight tin for up to six weeks, in fridge for six months, and for a year in the freezer.

Death in the Dollhouse

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


Dollhouses have a shelf in my life. I played with dolls and miniatures for a very long time—longer even than my little sisters. Our house had a tall, narrow built-in bookcase on the second floor landing, and I set up rooms for my tiny doll family on five “stories.” These went from kitchen to living room, dining room to bedrooms. The coup de grace of a Victorian bathroom with pull chain toilet and free standing china tub. I could play “A Little Princess” or “Borrowers” or a story of my own devising.

While I made doll clothes and tablecloths and tiny books, the home was furnished mostly with dozens of very fine wooden and porcelain furniture pieces, a long-term loan from a kind neighbor. These beds and sofas and dining cabinets dated from probably the 1940s and ’50s and were often in the nostalgic Victorian or Colonial style. Was it the dollhouse that gave me an appreciation of antiques? And was the art of playing family stories set in the past practice for later writing historical and mystery novels?

Frances Glessner Lee, born in 1878, also loved dollhouses. But she transformed a picturesque child’s hobby into a dark art. Her miniature rooms are the center of a magnificent show currently at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

A parlor scene with victim

Frances’s path to her gory, tiny rooms was utterly original. She was a lady of privilege, the only daughter of the industrialist John Jacob Glessner, who owned the International Harvester agricultural and construction machinery company. Frances and her brother were tutored at home; he attended Harvard, but her parents denied her the chance for higher education due to her gender. It was a sad, too familiar story.

Some of the activities that filled Frances’ time as a girl were making dolls and miniatures and reading the novels of Sherlock Holmes. Her marriage to a lawyer named Blewett Lee was unhappy; she wanted much more than life as a society wife. Frances appreciated the central concept in Sherlock Holmes stories about clues being essential—and often overlooked. But her husband didn’t want her to pursue the forensic pathology work that she spoke about learning. The couple divorced, and her parents dissuaded her from trying to enter the field.

But Frances didn’t give up. After her brother died, she had access to her inheritance and used some of it to endow a brand new department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. She realized this could be a venue where she could contribute. The school was named Magrath in recognition of her lifelong friend, the doctor George Burgess Magrath, a coroner who was on Harvard’s faculty. Her idea was to take a crime, create a tiny room filled with a victim and clues, and let police and coroners study it for their own education.

Frances and Ralph Moser, her estate’s carpenter, spent between three to six months fabricating a “nutshell,” as she called these incredibly detailed dollhouse rooms. To make the piece known as “Barn,” Ralph was directed to shave pieces of wood from an aged shed on her property and put them together to be the barn’s boards. Frances knit tiny stockings using straight pins and recreated tiny newspapers by hand.

The Barn. Did the farmer suffer suicide or murder?

All the ideas for the crimes presented were hers, and often featured women at risk in domestic situations, and the poor and working class. Her dollhouses show the real world of the United States between the thirties and the fifties. Some of them are still used by the Baltimore Police Department for training.

I visited the exhibition over the Thanksgiving weekend, and it was packed with viewers, young and old, peering in at the lit-up nutshells. The line went out the door, the show was so popular. It was heartening to see a woman like Frances appreciated after her death. In her late years, she was the inspiration for some fiction by her friend, Erle Stanley Gardner. She also is said to have been the model for Jessica Fletcher in the television show “Murder She Wrote,” although Jessica was a writer, not an artist.

The exhibition, “Murder is her Hobby” runs through February 2018 and is well worth a peek. If you visit the Renwick’s web page about Frances Glesser Lee, you can take a virtual tour and also hear a podcast about the show.

Princess Only After Death

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

When times are frightening, worry comes easily. It’s much harder to be the one to step forward into harm’s way.

Recently, my attention was drawn back to World War II and one of its greatest heroines, aka the “Spy Princess.”

I am thankful for what she did—and I wish more people knew about her.

Noor Inayat Khan was born in 1914, with a background that feels uncannily familiar to my own. She had a father born in India, and a mother from the West. A cross-cultural marriage at that time seems unlikely—but it really occurred.

Noor’s mother, Ora Ray Baker, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At age 20, Ora Ray attended a lecture in San Francisco given by Inayat Khan, a musician born in Punjab in the Sufi dervish tradition. Ora asked him for an interview, and the two fell in love and married. Inayat came from a fascinating lineage: his own father was Maula Baksh, founder of a famed music academy in Baroda named the Gyanshala, and her grandmother was Casimebi, a descendent of Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore who died fighting the British in 1799.

The daring young couple married in London, and Ora Ray took the Muslim name of Amina Sharada Begum and began dressing only in sari to show her enthusiasm for India. She traveled the world with the musical group that Rahmat Khan founded, the Royal Hindustan Orchestra. Their eldest child, Noor, was born on January 1, 1914 in Moscow. After the outbreak of the Great War, the family fled to England. During their years in London, Inayat performed for both Mahatma Gandhi and Indian soldiers convalescing in hospital—as well as for grand opera productions such as Lakme that capitalized on the European interest in the Far East. Inayat came under government suspicion due to his connection to Gandhi and his skill at establishing Muslim and Indian community groups in Britain. He was seen as a risk to the stability of the British Empire. So in 1920, the family shifted to Tremblaye, France, so the musical group and other activities could continue without as much surveillance.

Noor plays the sitar

Noor grew up with interests in poetry and mysticism, as would seem natural for someone with such a creative family life rooted in the Sufi tradition. Her happy life changed in 1927, when Inayat Khan traveled back to India to see his family, and fell ill and died in Delhi. So it was under tragic circumstances that the fourteen-year-old Noor had her first visit to India in 1928, to pay respects along with the rest of her family at Rahmat’s tomb. Now she had to be the mother leading the family in their existence in France, because her grieving mother retreated in to a life of seclusion. Their Indian uncles living in France supported them financially. Noor played sitar, piano and harp; but she also had the gift of story. After attending a French university, she began a career writing children’s stories and translating Indian stories into English. Then the Germans invaded France. Their way of life had ended. This was a watershed moment for the family who had grown up believing strongly in nonviolence. Would they aid the British, who had been the enemy of their father?

Noor as “Nora Baker” serving with the SOE

Noor understood the the danger of the Nazis. She and her brothers felt called to support the resistance, and they decided the best way to do that seemed to return to England and offer their service. Here she used the name Nora Baker to fit in with the other women workers and not attract suspicion due to her half-Indian heritage. The story of her childhood and the challenge she faced is well-described in a biography by Shrabani Basu. A PBS documentary-drama, “Enemy of the Reich,” is another take on her story.

Noor was one of the first women radio operators trained in Morse Code—and decoding messages for the government could have been the extent of her work, save for one fact. She was a fluent French speaker, and that attracted the attention of the office of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the famed espionage organization set up by the British to sabotage Nazi operations in Europe. Noor was interviewed by Selwyn Jepson, the British crime writer who became the SOE’s chief recruiter. Jepson asked if she would be willing to travel back to France and transmit messages. He said she would not be protected by international laws of warfare, and only receive ordinary service pay that would be held for her in England and given to her upon return—or to her survivors, if she didn’t.

Despite the dangers of the job, Noor immediately agreed. While Jepson felt confident about her, other men in the SOE were concerned that perhaps she was too naïve and honest. Her own father had taught her that the worst sin was to lie. While in training as an agent in Britain, she spoke to a police officer who stopped her and said she was in the SOE—a major mistake. She was counseled and allowed to continue, in large part because her speed and skill at transmitting messages was top notch.

Noor parachuted into France in 1943, clinging fast to the 30-pound suitcase carrying all her transmission equipment and false identity papers naming her “Jeanne-Marie.” Her codename, “Madeleine,” was one she chose from the stories she wrote. Just like her own mother—she had changed identity. Noor’s first action was to unite with the spy network, Prosper, to which she was assigned; but within a week, all of the members of the group were betrayed and arrested. The rookie espionage agent was on her own. The London office ordered her to return—but she refused, saying that since she was the only information conduit from Paris, she would stay until a replacement came. The government knew her capture was inevitable, but saw her act as the sacrifice of a soldier in the line of duty.

“Jeanne-Marie” worked hard sending messages and running from one part of Paris to the next, evading capture several times. She was doing the work of a six-person group alone. She communicated with a small group of French agents as well as the British. Some of her achievements during her first four months of work were identifying places for British to drop arms, assisting agents in getting out, managing distribution of arms, and insuring the escape of 30 airmen who’d been shot down in France.

The Germans knew of her existence, so she began changing her hair color—first to red, and then to blonde—and went back to the old neighborhood where she’d lived as a child. Former neighbors were willing to take her in, despite the danger she posed.

With the frequent captures of agents all around her, she must have known how close she was dancing to the fire. One day, she went to meet Canadian agents per London’s directions; the problem was, the Canadians had been captured and the people she met were non-German Nazis. Noor worked unknowingly with them for several weeks, but she was ultimately arrested and questioned in a Gestapo interrogation prison set up in an elegant mansion at 84 Avenue Foch. Unfortunately, it took quite a while for the British to understand she’d been captured—they kept sending messages on the radio, and the Germans answered using false information.

Other people held at the same time said that Noor resisted giving information even under torture. She attempted escape at least twice; in the end she was kept in solitary confinement and shackled. I can only imagine how dispiriting this must have been, and I wonder if she turned to the prayers and songs of her childhood for comfort.

The war had definitively turned in the Allies’ favor in September, 1944, and it became crucial for the Nazis to eliminate imprisoned agents who might later reveal their actions during the war. Noor and other women resistance agents were transferred from France to Germany and the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. There, Noor was identified as an especially dangerous type—they called her “the Creole” and was given the most sadistic treatment. She spent her sole night at Dachau being kicked and beaten and was ultimately shot to death along with the other women agents. It was September 13, 1944—seven months before the camp was liberated by the Allies.

Noor Inayat Khan was just one of many women working against Hitler who were killed in the line of duty. She is popularly called her the “Spy Princess” due to the long-ago link to Tippu Sultan, although she was by no means a royal.

Noor never was able to see her family after leaving England for France in 1943—and she certainly didn’t get the service pay the British government promised for her service. But she was one of three SOE women awarded the George Cross, and she also received the French Croix se Guerre.

Five years ago, the British artist Karen Newman sculpted her image. Her likeness stands in London’s Gordon Square near her former childhood home. Fortunately, it does not say “Spy Princess,” a title she would never have been called, had she lived. Noor’s face holds a quiet, melancholy expression—as if she knows this, too.