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#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.

The Usual Santas

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

It seems like yesterday, but it was last summer. I was dutifully working on edits when I got a surprising email. My editor, Juliet, had informed me about a Christmas mystery short story anthology scheduled for October 2017. Soho Press authors writing mysteries set in different parts of the world had turned in their contributions a year earlier—but there was enough room to add one more story. Did I want to submit something?

I thought about it for a few days.  Short story crime fiction is more terrifying a process to me than novel writing. It means grabbing an idea and introducing suspects, motivations and various twists and turns within the space of a few thousand words. While there are many writers—including right here, amongst my Murder is Everywhere comrades—who can dash off a short story in a day or two, I find the process of writing a story takes months. And when I’m done, the story is always longer than the guideline. If the average writer can take ten words to say something—I’ll use twenty.

I had to ask myself—how can I afford the time to write a short story? And would it really be good enough to go in the collection? The formidable lineup included our very own Cara Black. And speaking of lineups, the book’s title was coy: The Usual Santas.

I really wanted to do it. And despite my slowness, I had an idea.

Like many writers, I have built a graveyard of rough drafts inside my computer. I had a full draft of a story featuring my new mystery heroine, Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman lawyer. She’s a Zoroastrian living  in a city filled with others like herself—as well as Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Christians. My story was almost there—but not quite. Could I “Christmas up” the story and meet the 4 week deadline?

Madame Blavatsky with Hindu Theosophists in the 1880s

There’s nothing like a deadline to get the juices flowing. And the fact was that Bombay in 1921 was a place rich in spiritual interchanges. My story draft was inspired by the history of the Theosophists, a group of European, American and Indian seekers who had interest in shared mystical roots of world religions. The movement was divided into competitive factions in the early 20th century. It was also led by two strong women: the first, Madame Helena Blavatsky, was a fascinating Russian expatriate who settled in India, and the second, Annie Besant, was an Irishwoman who worked alongside Indians resisting British rule.

Annie Besant often wore a plain sari

Inspired by these folks, I created a fictional group of international thinkers called “Realists” for my story titled “Hairpin Holiday.” My heroine, Perveen Mistry, is just an everyday lawyer working in her family firm. She has to make sure her client, a Jewish hotelier, does not suffer any losses during their controversial lecture booked into his hotel ballroom—at the same time as the Asiatic Society’s swinging Christmas party.

Of course, the problem is more than a contract. And yes, Father Christmas makes a brief showing!

The cover has sparkly red letters—perfect for Christmas!

When the handsome, 400-page collection of 18 stories was published a couple of weeks ago, I received my complimentary copies. I opened it up to smile at funny endpapers featuring caricatures of a number of us. Even one of my dogs—the gentleman beagle Charlie—made it into the drawing! We had been asked by the artist what we usually have in our hands. Cara chose her cappuccino cup, and I carry a dog leash.

I was fascinated by Cara’s story, “Cabaret Aux Assassins.” Without giving too much away, I’ll hint that it’s a epistolary mystery that has something to do with both Sherlock Holmes and the Dreyfus affair, and the tale is set in Paris of the 1890s.

There are terrific stories by more writers you may already know: Stephanie Barron, Henry Chang, Gary Corby, Colin Cotterill, Timothy Hallinan, Mette Ivie Harrison, Teresa Dovalpage, Line Kaaberbol and Agnette Fries, Martin Limon, Helene Tursten, Mick Herron, Ed Lin, Stuart Neville, Tod Goldberg, and James R. Benn. And the inimitable Peter Lovesey, who also wrote the foreword.

“I’d better warn you there are shocks in the plenty,” Peter Lovesy promises. “Nothing will top the appearance of the heavenly host to those hapless shepherds, but there is plenty here to get your heart thumping.”

Read our starred Publishers Weekly review—and enjoy a taste of a December, bright or bleak, all around the world.

Psst! Several terrific bookstores will holding holiday parties this December 2017 where you can get The Usual Santas signed! The raft of participating authors at these book parties is a mystery still unfolding—but I’m gonna leak to you that I will be among them. Check with McIntryre’s Books in North Carolina and the Mysterious Bookshop in New York. And watch my website for more details of the Santa parties as they emerge.

The New Dog Blog

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Daisy, newest resident of the Massey household

I thought I was done with babies fifteen years ago. But there’s a baby in our Baltimore house again—a fur-baby.

She arrived by car!

The adventure began when my college student daughter was scrolling Facebook and found a frantic post from a woman overwhelmed with four children and two dogs. The smaller dog was a winsome puppy who was too hard to train. My daughter bought the dog and had it headquartered at a friend’s place. The two of them named her Dazy. In our house, she became “Daisy.”

What the hell is this little animal?

Daisy is an odd looking scamp—sometimes I think she looks more like a weasel or fox than hound. Some have said she looks like a Wookiee from Star Wars, but I don’t remember Wookiees. Chewbacca? The dog appears to be a Yorkshire terrier mix, with the addition being perhaps Chihuahua or something else. She’s about ten months old, weighs a tad more than 8 pounds.

Charlie is the canine patriarch

We did not appreciate our daughter buying a dog, even if she was ostensibly bunking somewhere else. We already had a beloved dog—an elder statesman beagle. Charlie has three jobs: firstly, sleeping on the couch; secondly, writer’s muse, and finally, the harbinger of any suspicious dogs passing the house. Given his solitude and set routine, we didn’t think a 12-year-old gentleman would like a high-spirited puppy running around. We expected snarling or avoidance.

Now they’re family

From the moment he met her, Charlie fell in love with Daisy—perhaps because she’s female, small and cute. Daisy is non-dominant and very affectionate, but she sometimes shows her jealous streak, trying to cut Charlie off when he heads for the comfort of my lap. Her best trick is to begin barking at the side door, which causes Charlie to jump down from the couch to run and defend the household. Once he’s vacated the couch cushion, Daisy gracefully jumps into it.

This is to show scale!

Over time, the big boy and the little girl got to know each other beyond the pretty faces. Daisy began spending whole weekends here when my daughter was busy. After the friend lost housing and became an ex, Daisy moved in with us for the duration. We are working with a dog trainer on walking and other important behaviors, but it seems that Daisy’s working equally hard training us. We sound like idiots now. “She’s done both numbers!” is the victory cry I make during a good morning or evening. There is a lot of walking going on—yes, it cuts in on writing, cleaning and bathing—and also lots of throwing of chew toys.

Sadly, Daisy’s idea of a really good chew toy is a mahogany dining table. Bitter Apple spray only dissuades her temporarily. She’s a lot of work, but she has taught Charlie to play like he’s young again. The sight of them tangling together with gentle grunts is as sweet as when my human children played Legos.

Belly cushion for nap time

The Secret Life of Maharanis

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Searching for maharanis at Jagmandir Palace in Udaipur

One of my favorite parts of a recent India trip was staying at the City Palace in Udaipur. This is the seat of the Mewar kingdom—a dynasty of Rajput kings who were never conquered by the Moghals or British. Mewar joined with other Rajput kingdoms in northern India to become the state of Rajasthan in the Democracy of India after 1947.

Guest room view at Shiv Niwas Palace hotel within the Udaipur palace complex

While the Government of India doesn’t provide funds to support the old maharajas’ lifestyles—and their properties—the nobles at least had the pleasure of retaining their titles and homes. The Udaipur City Palace has a maharaja with wife and children still living in their own guarded residence—a proximity that adds glamour to the visit.

But in the historic section of the palace that serves as a museum, I began revising my ideas about what it was like to be a maharani. The zenana section in which royal women were protected from view was hot and shadowy due to the windows being carved jali screens rather than open to views. I was overcome by a sensation of being closed in. Even the women’s outdoor courtyard was small and dull, compared to other outdoor spaces at the palace.

After that short tour, the life of an Indian maharani seemed like imprisonment.

The book I found at Ames Library

But there’s nothing like hearing the story from a maharani herself.

Recently, I was at the Ames Library of South Asia in Minneapolis. I came across an old book titled Autobiography of an Indian Princess. I knew I had to read it—and thank goodness I was able to find a reprinted edition online to add to my own library.

Autobiography of An Indian Princess was penned in 1921 by Sunity Devee, the 57-year-old Dowager Maharani of Cooch Behar, a small northeastern kingdom near Bengal that remained independent of British rule. Actually, the title’s a bit of a misnomer. Sunity was a maharani, which means queen. The English government insisted on calling Indian maharajas and maharanis “princes” and “princesses” so as not to overshadow the Empress of India: Queen Victoria.

Maharani Sunity Devee photographed in London

Sunity was a commoner born of “good family” in Calcutta. Her father, Keshub Chunder Sen, was a famous minister and social reformer who converted from Hinduism to the Brahmo Samaj, a faith founded by Bengali Hindus who wanted to worship one deity (Brahma) rather than multiple Hindu gods and goddesses. The British in India thought highly of Mr. Sen and worked hard to persuade him to allow a match between 13-year-old Sunity and 16-year-old Nripendra, the crown prince of Cooch Behar. Sunity’s father had worked hard to ensure passage of a law setting the minimum age of marriage for Hindu girls living in British India at 14. The bride’s tender age resulted in considerable verbal backlash against Keshub Chunder Sen, although the actual marital cohabitation did not begin until she was sixteen and her husband nineteen and returned from his schooling in England.

Sunity’s sons photographed in London during their school days: the two eldest boys became maharajas

Sunity and Nripendra’s arranged marriage turned out to be a very happy one. The royal couple shared interests such as traveling, fashion and jewelry, literature and art, and high society. They had four sons and three daughters, insuring the security of the royal line—which pleased Cooch Behar’s population.  Sunity spoke just Bengali at the time of her marriage, but learned other Indian languages and English fluently. She was constantly in London and became arguably the most popular Indian woman in British society. Sunity was friends with Cornelia Sorabji, the Parsi woman lawyer who represented the interests of many Indian noblewomen in the early 1900s. Cornelia stayed with Sunity in the zenana at Cooch Behar so the two could discuss books. Sunity and Cornelia tried to establish a nursing school for Indian women, but it never came to be.

Sunity’s granddaughter Ayesha, on far right of one of her brothers, became a maharani and then was elected member of India’s parliament

Reading Sunity’s autobiography, I learned that in Cooch Behar, purdah and zenana were customs observed at home only. This meant Sunity traveled in a heavily curtained palanquin so the country’s people could not catch sight of her face, and she cooked and prayed and concentrated on childcare and lived in the palace zenana. She obeyed her husband’s directive not to ride or play tennis. When Sunity was away from Cooch Behar, though, she posed happily for photographs in French couture gowns.

And while Sunity adored her British royal friends in Britain, she chafed at the way the British in India treated Indians. In exchange for the right to rule over their own lands, maharajas were forced to pay annual taxes to Britain—taxes that could be raised if the British political agent took a dislike to the maharaja. The British government also had the power to investigate a kingdom’s accounts at any time, and to even choose a successor to the throne if the maharaja didn’t have a son.

The controls over royalty were as tight or even tighter than for everyday Indians. A maharaja had no right to travel outside of India without getting permission from his British political agent. This agent might tell him where his sons must go away to school, and they created their own boarding schools for Indian noblemen inside India where they received a biased education (Maharaja Nrirenda himself went to such a place before finishing up in England). The elaborate supervision seemed meant to create a line of obedient princely states.

Sunity’s boys were all educated abroad at the order of the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal—despite her wish to have them stay longer at home. As a result, the sons came home from Eton speaking French and Greek, but having forgotten their local language.

The Cooch Behar royal family was regarded throughout India as the most westernized royals—and in most eyes, this was not a compliment. They were envied, but not really able to live lives of their choosing. For instance, when Sunity’s eldest son, the crown prince Rajey, finished his Oxford education and wanted to work with his father’s ministers in the Cooch Behar government, the plan was refused. The British government said he had to join Lord Curzon’s Army Cadet Corps instead—a fancy honor guard. This diversion kept him from learning what he needed to know about Cooch Behar to be an effective ruler.

Rajey and his younger brother Jit grew up to serve as maharajas of Cooch Behar. The three daughters (Girlie, Pretty and Baby) were taught to ride, play tennis and dance, and all had sophisticated educations. The parents matched Girlie to a respectable, non-royal Calcutta boy of Brahmo faith and allowed Pretty and Baby to marry Englishmen and live in England. Ironically, the Cooch Behar princesses’ lifestyles in the 1920s were too advanced to make them suitable for marrying Indian maharajas at the turn of the century. And the England that both enthralled and frustrated Sunity was the place where she thought her daughters would do best.

I was fascinated with the idea of princesses when I was a child—and in my adulthood I’ve turned into a serious India royalty buff, thanks to the fascinating backstories of many of India’s princely states. In addition to The Autobiography of an Indian Princess by Sunity Devee, I am digging Lucy Moore’s Maharanis: The Extraordinary Tale of Four Indian Queens and Their Journey from Purdah to Parliament and Posing for Posterity: Royal Indian Portraits by Pramod Kumar. There’s a great series on the Indian NDTV channel called Royal Reservation which gives the viewer a quirky, inside tour of various palaces and has candid interviews with the royals who still live there. Watching one of the programs, I was intrigued to learn that a Muslim begum (equivalent of maharani) in Gujarat hopes to open the doors to her palace’s zenana as a hotel for women tourists.

The Horrible New Face of Clowns

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Pennywise

As noted recently in The Washington Post, now is a bad time to be afraid of clowns.

Because they are everywhere.

Pennywise the Dancing Clown features in the film It, based on Stephen King’s famous book. And when I tuned into the FX program American Horror Story Season 7, I found more than one very twisted, homicidal clown. Later this year, a film called Behind the Sightings releases that is inspired by alleged menacing clown appearances in 2016.

This coming Saturday, September 15, 2017, clown-styled people will be gathering to protest in Washington, D.C. These self-described “Juggalos,” who first organized in appreciation of a band called Insane Clown Posse, are protesting their classification as a gang by the FBI and US Department of Justice. The Juggalos claim that people with Juggalo clothing, makeup and paraphernalia have gone on criminal watchlists, lost jobs, and more. After looking at their photos, it appears most of the Juggalos are not in full clown drag, but enjoy elements of clown makeup and clothing.

So when did clowns become frightening enough to get the government involved?

It seems a journey centuries in the making. Early clowns appeared in Europe and Asia as court jesters or buffoons. They were mainly jokers and not necessarily dressed to obfuscate their identities. These clowns played a role in government—not just to entertain royalty and their visitors, but to sometimes provide inside information. Then came circuses—with exotic animals often led by trainers in clown costumes, and clowns onstage and in parades and at children’s parties. A clown seemed like shorthand for fun.

In the 1960s, a clown with a bright red wig became an upbeat symbol for McDonald’s hamburger chain. Ronald McDonald, and a small cast of cartoonish friends, were designed to make children beg their parents to stop at the restaurant’s trademarked Golden Arches.

However, the longtime, happy go lucky McDonald’s clown image became tainted when subversive Japanese filmmakers made short film clips purporting to be commercials showing a Ronald McDonald character stalking young women in their homes. These images went viral and resulted in McDonald’s downplaying Ronald.

This corporate action is striking, because Ronald McDonald houses provide overnight shelter for the families of sick children are all over the United States—sometimes for weeks at a time. And inside many hospitals, amateur and professional clowns regularly visit children on the wards. The World Clown Association supports traditional clown work in circuses and in parades and service activities aimed at military veterans and senior citizens. They have spoken against nonprofessionals using a clown image to frighten the public.

I don’t suffer from fear of clowns, which has a formal name: coulrophobia. I grew up of age when clowning was highly popular, and in fact evolved into a huge 1970s fad for mimes with beautifully painted faces. The greatest pantomime of all, a Frenchman named Marcel Marceau, performed in white face. Seeing a picture of Marceau in his skinny outfit with top hat and fabric flower triggered pleasant memories for me.

I grew up to witness my own children’s natural discomfort with people covered up in outsized costumes, whether they were familiar Sesame Street characters or clowns. I get it. If you see someone who doesn’t have the skin or hair or hands of a person, and whose face is fixed into a false, colorful grin, your brain registers alarm. A face that doesn’t react with empathy or other expressions feels unsafe.

I imagine that the people who dressed up as clowns and appeared near playgrounds and on the edges of woods in 2016 and other recent times enjoyed carefully putting on makeup and costume and becoming something unrecognizable. There is a real power when one transforms the everyday appearance.  If you’ve ever changed your appearance for a wedding, dance, job interview, military occasion or religious event, you may have had this feeling of becoming bigger and bolder than your usual self.

Former Trump advisor and current Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon labeled white supremacists as “clowns”—notwithstanding the fact that many of these so-called clowns are followers of his right wing website.

The irony is that on Saturday, Sept. 16, Trump supporters will rally on the Mall in Washington very close to where the Juggalos have their permit. Any resulting interactions may become a circus—but I doubt there will be happy laughter.