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Milano, Milano!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I send greetings from the north of Italy, where Christmas lights are twinkling and it’s time to buy panettone.

It was a grand surprise a few months ago, when my Italian publisher, Neri Pozza, share an invitation to be a literary guest at Festival In Noir, an international festival for crime writers and film makers in Milan and Lake Como. The proposed four-day visit would involve connecting with festivalgoers, as well as giving interviews to the Italian press about La Vedove di Malabar Hill (in English: The Widows of Malabar Hill).

Allora! (As Aziz Ansari taught me to say in Master of None).

I have never been to Italy, but have dreamed of visiting since I was ten years old and first ate spaghetti carbonara. My interest only grew as I grew older and discovered neorealist cinema, cappuccino, Italian fashion designers, other popular representations of the best in Italian taste. I fired back an affirmative email to Neri Pozza, and off I flew—arriving on a sunny, cold Monday morning in early December.

After I’d checked into the marvelous Hotel De la Ville, just a short walk from the famous 14th-century Duomo Cathedral of Milano, I couldn’t believe what a sweet spot I’d landed in. But I was exhausted. I transferred a stunning welcome bouquet of roses from the festival into cool water, and then I slid into a hot bath.

I woke up two hours later, and it was dusk. I left the hotel and strolled nearby streets, taking in a grand city where historical architecture and holiday light displays made a beautiful combination.

That first night in Italy, Giuseppe Russo, the director of Neri Pozza publishing, and Daniela Pagani, communications/publicity head for NP, led me through the beautiful streets to dinner at Ristorante La Brisas, where I tasted Italian haute cuisine: pork with braised greens, a salad with cod and vegetables, a rhubarb and raspberry tart. So sophisticated and yummy.

The next morning, Tuesday, my real Italian job started. I set an alarm to wake up in time for breakfast and a quick blow-out at a salon across the street from the hotel—where I spied another writer doing the same. All morning and afternoon was filled press interviews mastered  with the help of Daniela and simultaneous translator Sarah Cuminetti.

There were straight interviews with note-taking for people who wrote for newspapers and magazines, and some very interesting permutations, like the radio host who asked Sarah a question, which she then translated for me. I spoke my answer in English over the phone, and then Sarah took the phone and recorded her translation. How the producers will put it together I can’t imagine, but he did say he was happy with the sounds of our voices. We also had plenty of breaks which included macchiato and an especially delicious pastry sweeping the international landscape called a krapfen.

If you don’t like reading about food, now’s the time to check out.

More talking the rest of the morning and then lunch with my Neri Pozza editor, Sabine Schultz. She is from Germany but speaks Italian and English fluently. What did I taste this time? Arancini balls of rice stuffed with ragu—and a green salad. Sabine and Sarah taught me how to dress my own salad with salt, some shakes of balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. It turned out pretty well.

Toward the end of the afternoon I had an interview with Mirko Giacchetti of Milano Nera magazine, which focuses on crime and thrillers. Mirko asked what I’d say if I was back in the 1920s and spending time over a meal with Perveen Mistry (my series heroine). l realized that the two of us would chatter about our favorite Indian dishes, and then Perveen would probably confess she hated cooking. And then, I would try to get to the meat of things: how Perveen could make her professional dreams come true.

Tuesday rounded out with an interview with Italian journalist John Vignola at a bookstore, Libreria Feltrinelli Duomo, which is underneath a grand outdoor space, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II. I was delighted that an Instagram friend whom I had invited after she commented on the Italian edition actually came to the event. It was rather crazy to have two people talking at once—John and another person doing simultaneous translation—but I made it. And the Italians who came to get their books signed had the most beautiful names. Paola, Flavia, Gabriella… they deserve their own book.

Tuesday night, the visiting writers and filmmakers feasted on beef slow cooked in Barolo, drank Pinot Noir, and mulled over a choice of gelatos and sorbets for dessert.

After tonight, there are two more days of press interviews, a panel about British mysteries at the university and very likely more delicious fare—both literary and on the plate.

The Golden State

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Naomi Hirahara and me in a Japanese garden in Little Tokyo

The Golden State was the port of entry for me as a very young immigrant from Great Britain. Although my family’s stint in California only totaled three years of my childhood, it has always held a mythic place in my heart. Palo Alto is where I remember collecting snails in the garden during a rainy winter and my parents getting their first car. Berkeley is where I spent a mostly ecstatic eighth grade year during in which I bought my first album (The Commodores) and had an awkward first kiss (Laurence).

The beloved house that we rented in the Berkeley Hills was destroyed to a wildfire that raged up from Tilden Park in the 1980s. So I know that fire is both shocking and a fact of life in California.

It has been terrible to follow the news of the devastating fires of Fall 2018 currently raging through residential areas in both Northern and Southern California. These fires—more than 7600—are the most destructive in California’s history. There are reportedly more than 14,000 people fighting fires, including a number of volunteers and prison inmates.

Arguments abound about whose fault these fires are and whether global warming is a factor. I have no argument with global warming and the increasing dryness of California has been well-documented. This article in Slate gives a great explanation of many factors, including the dangerous conditions caused by building very close to wilderness. In some areas, like the town of Paradise, the fire jumped from building to building, and trees were actually left standing.

A vintage academic building at Occidental College

A few days ago, I flew with my teenaged son to Los Angeles County for college visits planned several months ago. I was almost certain that CalArts, the school we were visiting near Santa Clarita, would have been evacuated. It turned out the flames hadn’t come that close, and the campus was open for visiting.

Historic student housing at Occidental College

It felt surreal to drive along the typical crowded highways visiting schools during the three day period. The sky was hazy sometimes, and there was something in the air that gave me slight cough, now and again—but it was manageable. Yet probably twenty or thirty miles away, everything was burned black. The reports from Northern California were even worse; one of my friends has to wear a mask when she goes outside, the air is so filled with particulate matter. And people are living with the knowledge that hundreds are likely dead, and thousands displaced with no chance of rebuilding their homes.

Most California citizens and officials have worked hard not to speed up global warming by regulating energy, cars, and potential sources of pollution. On the trip, we saw electric charging stations for cars everywhere, and my son was surprised to be billed 15 cents for a bag when he was buying sundries at a gas station. The colleges all had well-identified recycling stations and served food in compostable containers. But still—a lot of people want to live in California. And developers and towns have allowed buildings to go up very close to areas with a lot of dry brush.

Rebuilding existing cities takes on new meaning. It was heartening to see reuse of old buildings in many areas we visited. Inside Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, the crime writer Naomi Hirahara took me to an oasis tucked within city buildings—a Japanese garden that honored the neighborhood’s population and was filled with lush California and non-native plants. I visited writer Jerrilyn Farmer at her beautiful 1920s Spanish home located within a completely urban district in Glendale.

At the University of Southern California, my son and  sat in a former sound stage that had been turned into a performing arts theater. The CalArts tour guide was proud to show us what may be the country’s last modular theater. As I walked around Occidental College, I was taken by many lovely 1920s buildings that spoke of a nostalgic era. And just like in my day—not all the dorms had air conditioning!

The Mayfair Hotel in downtown Los Angeles

The hotel we stayed in was a recycle, too. The Mayfair was once one of the largest hotels West of the Mississippi. This 14-floor hotel was built in 1927 in what was once the heart of Los Angeles, but now is a little bit lonely.  The hotel’s claim to fame is that American crime writer Raymond Chandler lived here in the 1930s. Chandler references in the beautiful renovated hotel were frequent, from Eve’s American Bistro to cocktails named “Windemere” and “Farewell My Lovely.” It made me smile to see 1920s design cliches like potted palms and clamshell motifs and curvy velvet conversation settees in the lobbies. And because today’s creative needs are quite different from that of the 1920s, there are some interesting innovations: a soundproofed podcast studio for guest use just off the bar, and a beautiful writers room on the main floor with many seats around a long, high table. I was the only one writing there at 7 AM on a Sunday morning, but I could imagine a team of television writers breaking story there at a much later hour.

Mayfair’s stylish lobby

The Mayfair’s podcast room

Rain is supposed to be falling on California the day that this blogpost goes to print. I hope that it lasts long enough to give the firefighters an extra hand in quenching the fires and saving the Golden State.

The Race is Done!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Two years ago, it was my rotation for blog duty the day after the US presidential election. I planned to write something about it that night—because nothing else seemed relevant. I spent the day buzzing around, feeling anxious yet certain the stress would soon end, and I’d be celebrating my first woman president.

I turned out to be wrong. And as the shock at Donald Trump’s surprise victory turned into a dull pain, wore off, people like me began thinking, how can we come back from this? The hope was for midterm elections in 2018. Many people who would not have considered a career in politics before decided to run for office, and there are record numbers of women and immigrant Americans on the ballot.

Typically, the voting turnout for midterms is quite low—but the early voting for the 2018 midterms is significantly fired up, on both sides of the divide.

I live in Maryland, a state where the most apparently important choices for me were whether to re-elect our incumbent Republican Governor Larry Hogan, our Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh, and our U.S. Senator, Democrat Ben Cardin. I’m telling you, although a lot of people feel strongly about keeping their voting private. That’s why there are curtains around the tables-for-one where we fill out the ballot. I’m glad that where I am, it’s still done with a pen.

This midterm election has hung in my psyche like a suspense novel for two years. And today, I woke up to pounding rain and no sunshine. My mind went first to young voters, and whether they would think it was worth leaving their cozy nests to vote. Even though Uber and Lyft are offering free and reduced fares for people going to polls.

But is weather worth the worry? On November 8, 2016’s election day, it was warm and beautifully sunny. I left Maryland to help with voter turnout in Pennsylvania. The people I met were lovely, the volunteers were stoked. It seemed like the very best kind of day to enhance voter participation—but in Pennsylvania, the state voted red for Trump.

I feel like I have a type of PTSD from being so disappointed in the last election. Perhaps that’s why I’ve given money to senator candidates in various states, but I did not abandon my own work to drive out of state to volunteer in different states, as I’ve done in the last two national elections. I am a shadow of myself.

Today I worked on writing in the morning and went to the grocery store and water aerobics. It was raining, and I didn’t want to be drenched on my way to the neighborhood’s elementary-middle school that is also my polling place. The rain was just a faint sprinkle when I walked over at 1:30 with my husband. The school fence had a few political advertisements on them meant to remind voters of the obvious, but I saw no workers. I did see a friend from the neighborhood who joked he had just voted, and his vote would cancel mine. Is my choice written on my forehead—or was his assumption based on the fact that I’m an Asian woman? A joke between friends took on a curious subtext. That has what has happened, since the last election.

Inside the cafeteria where I once opened yogurt for kindergarteners, I greeted a few more neighbors. There were a few people waiting, and it took about ten minutes to check in—much easier than the hour-and-a-half line of my early voting friends told me she’d experienced. As I carried my ballot to an available curtained voting station, a five-year-old boy playfully ran out from underneath it, bringing back a sweet memory of voting here with a toddler daughter hanging onto my leg.

I thought it was important that my daughter, followed by my son, visit the poll with me. I wanted the children to think of voting as something to look forward to, and today I saw the voting officials give “I Voted” stickers to children, perhaps hoping for the same thing.

The first time I voted I was in my thirties. I had finally gotten naturalized, exchanging British citizenship for US citizenship. While I was naturalized in 1998, 2000 was the first year I voted in a US election. I voted for Al Gore, who lost to George W. Bush. But then—I had eight years of Barack Obama.

At ten o’clock tonight, I turned on the television to see what was happening with the election. I saw evidence of a much anticipated senate contest in Texas go to the incumbent, Republican senator Ted Cruz. I had been fixated on his challenger, Beto O’Rourke.

Yet Jacky Rosen, a strong woman Democrat running for Senate in Nevada, won. And many more women appear to be winning House seats, perhaps as continued fallout from the behavior of senators during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I am intensely grateful for this and looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Two different sides seem to present us the chance for a balance of power.

The race is done, and I’m ready for a glass of water.

The Taj’s Triumph

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

On a hot Saturday afternoon in early October, I was in the Mumbai Harbour, taking the slow tourist boat back from the cave temples on Elephanta Island. The water journey had been almost two hours, and I had only a few drops of water left in my bottle. I was overjoyed to spot a tall rounded red tower appear over the waves. I knew that if I could see part of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, I wasn’t so far away.

The Taj is a city hotel, but it was designed with its turreted front facing the sea, which was very unusual for 1903.  The hotel’s sea-facing facade also offered its earliest guests a wonderful view from their bedroom windows. This philosophy of focusing on a guest’s views—rather than a hotel’s prestigious appearance on a cityscape—was a new way of thinking.

The Indo-Saracenic showpiece was conceived of and built at a cost of 500,000 Pounds Sterling. Not by the British, who ruled India at the time; by an Indian.

Jamshedji Tata, a brilliant Parsi entrepreneur, had the idea of building the Taj after a devastating bubonic plague epidemic in the 1890s caused many to lose faith in the city. He also created a nondiscriminatory policy of admission to all races, although some of the city’s best hotels and private clubs in the city prohibited Indian entry. He named his hotel after the spectacular historical tomb in Agra, the Taj Mahal, knowing it conjured exquisite beauty in the minds of tourists.

A bust of Jamshedji Tata oversees the hotel’s historic staircase

An early Taj menu cooked by French chefs

The rooms, restaurants, halls and Turkish bath were spectacular. The hotel was the first building in Bombay to have electricity in the rooms and electric lifts imported from Germany. The Taj Hotel became the icon of fine hospitality in a country already world-famous for its hospitality. Interestingly, the chefs were French because even though the hotel’s owner was Indian, local dishes weren’t considered sophisticated enough. He also made sure to hire butlers and desk clerks who were European.

When India became independent in 1947, a Christmas Eve menu cover showed a maharaja atop an elephant, with a groom holding the green, white and saffron flag of the new democracy. It’s a strategic image that recognizes the importance of the hotel’s past royal customers who had agreed to join with the new nation rather than keep their former princely states separate.

For people who live in Mumbai, the Taj is mainly about meeting for meals, attending weddings, and shopping in the arcades. I’ve met more than one married couple who got engaged in the hotel’s Sea Lounge. My stepfather fondly remembers delicious lunches with friends at the hotel during school holidays. My mother, who’s been traveling on vacation to Mumbai with him for thirteen years, has a friendship with a charming elderly jeweler in the Taj’s shopping arcade… it’s impossible for her to leave the Taj Hotel without something sparkling in a small velvet bag.

The Taj’s glory was almost its downfall. When ten Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists from rural Pakistan targeted 12 sites in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, four young men raided the Taj intent on killing international guests, Indians, and staff. This mass attack also included the Trident-Oberoi Hotel, the Chhatrapati Shivaji train terminus, Cafe Leopard and Chabad House. The terror in Mumbai lasted 68 hours and resulted in 164 civilian and police deaths, with more than 300 people wounded. Nine of the terrorists were killed during the police response, and the one man caught alive was hung a few years ago in an Indian prison.

The siege of The Taj was the longest of all the battles during the 26/11 attacks. Twenty-two staff perished, as well as fourteen guests. Yet more than 300 guests were saved by the Taj staff, who stayed rather than evacuated.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. The motto for the hotel is “Guest is God”; I’ve heard it when I stayed at another Taj property. Also, the Taj training for staff is reputed to be quite intense, with people taking great pride in their relationship with the hotel, many of them hoping for lifetime employment. And these employees know the huge hotel’s layout. It is a a complex labyrinth with many interior elevators and storerooms added over the years. There is even a private club, Chambers, that was not marked on tourist maps. This is where many of the guests led by staff from public spaces waited until police arrived. Other guests who had been relaxing in their rooms hid in place for days until firemen could put ladders to the windows and bring them down. This was a complicated process, because not only does the hotel have a six-story historic main structure, but there is also a modern high-rise tower.

The Taj was secured by the police on November 29, utterly devastated by gunfire, with many areas burnt from grenade explosions and fires. Yet less than a month after the attack, the hotel re-opened for business.

In January 2009, I was in Mumbai on vacation with some family members. It was six weeks after 26/11. We stayed at our usual home-away-from-home, the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, just around the corner from the Taj. On the last night of this wonderful trip, we had a light dinner at the Taj’s Shamiana coffee shop, which sits near the hotel’s main entrance. Looking around, we saw the Taj’s rebuilding had been swift and was immaculate. A monument with the names of the hotel’s martyred employees was already erected in the lobby. We learned that the Tata Company, the original family business that still owns this hotel, pledged to pay college costs for all the slain employees’ children and would give their family members who’d lost breadwinners support jobs. The hotel had also paid for damages suffered by many freelance souvenir sellers in the area who lost business for months after the attack.

The goal of Lashkar-e-Taiba might have been to kill the Taj Hotel and other places that invoke the spirit of Mumbai—but that did not happen.

As the ten-year anniversary of the Taj’s triumph over terror approaches, I’ve been revisiting the Taj long distance. One way is through a suspenseful true crime book published in 2013: The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. I’m also delving into the Taj’s happier, older history in the form of a 415-page anniversary magazine, The Centenary Taj: 100 Years of Glory. This magazine, published in 2003, is the source of the charming photographs of old advertisements and Taj interiors that I’ve shared in this blogpost. Look for the whole magazine at antiquarian booksites, if you want a picture of Bombay history, art, food and culture.

My connection to the Taj Mahal Palace continues through my books. In my 1920s Bombay series, protagonist Perveen Mistry is a young woman lawyer whose grandfather was friends with Jamsetji Mistry when the two old Parsi businessmen were alive. Perveen’s family’s pre-engagement meeting with a groom’s family is at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel!

I won’t tell you how that engagement turned out, but Perveen must return to the Taj again in Book 3, when dangerous riots make travel home impossible. Who knows, maybe I’ll sleep over one night, too.

When Writing Series, Third Time’s the Charm

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Daisy’s checking up on the day’s progress

Did anybody ever tell you that it’s easier to raise three children than two?

I am fine with the two that I have, but I’m beginning to believe the saying could be true.

Especially when I think about books.

If each book a writer births is like a child, I have fourteen. I am like the old woman in the shoe, and all my children are troublesome in different ways.

But this week it’s been a lot easier. Every day that I’ve powered on my laptop to write, I’ve had an idea of the next sentence.  The words have been flowing now better than they have in years. That is because the book I’m writing is Untitled Perveen Mistry, the third book in a series.

Having been in print for more than a couple decades, I’m starting to draw some conclusions. Don’t hire me to teach any writing courses yet, but I’ll tell you that the third book is the magical point when a writer finally gets comfortable writing a series.

Okay, I’ll admit the first book is usually the most exciting part of writing a series. Book One is totally novel. A first book lays out the protagonist’s backstory and introduces me to her family, lover, friends, career, and the world where it all takes place.

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Book One for Perveen Mistry!

Because it’s a first book, there is plenty of time to flesh the characters and build the location. Editors don’t usually accept Book One without it being written in totality, so there’s not so much pressure (this was completely different for The Widows of Malabar Hill, which was written on spec for Soho Press. But the pub date stretched so I could revise it to my heart’s content).

My very first Book One was published in 1997 and had the typical lifestyle for such a creature. I wrote it over the course of four years of suffering and was thrilled beyond my imagination when The Salaryman’s Wife was accepted by HarperCollins. I will take off my hat to everyone who has finished writing a first novel, whether or not it made it to print.

After writing this first book in my Rei Shimura series, I discovered that the second one, Zen Attitude, came surprisingly slowly. Even though I had a due date to motivate me and could reuse characters from the first book, I still felt stalled. I remember trying many drastic

behavior changes to push myself to be someone stronger and capable of writing Book Two.  I changed my diet to avoid meat (it lasted two years). I ran daily around the Hopkins track. I went on research trips, not just to Japan but to a Buddhist monastery in update New York. I was thirty-three, childless and without the curse of a day job. I had no real pressures in life outside of the book… yet  I stared at my desktop day after day and wondered if I really could write more than one book.

The first three books of the Rei Shimura series

Rei Shimura’s Book Three, The Flower Master, was—ha, another story! I don’t remember much about the process, except I began the book in India when I was staying there due to delays with my daughter’s adoption. I did not have so much as a laptop with me, so to work on Book Three I had to go to my grandfather’s office where there was an old desktop with viruses galore where I could ply my trade. I had a lot on my mind—but I still was able to proceed at a reasonable pace with this book. Frankly, it was kind of mental retreat.

I have enjoyed writing the Rei series, but as time passed, I wanted to try something new. I had spent all that time in India–and I wanted to go back. In 2006 I began writing a long historical suspense novel titled The Sleeping Dictionary. That first-book process lasted more than four years, and the book was hard to sell. By the time it came out as a Simon & Schuster paperback in 2013, I felt all the work I’d done made it a natural opener for a new series. I figured that Book Two would occur several years later, when the daughter of the protagonist in Book One could grow up to be a moody teenager caught up in the horrific violence after India’s partition. I knew my characters well and felt the plot was sound, but as I worked on this book, showing my agent revision after revision, I never got farther in than a few chapters.

Writing a second book is always a struggle, and during that time, I was busy with two children and had no energy for tricks like changing my diet or starting a new sport. Also, there was no contract for the unwritten Book 2, which translated into no time pressure to press on with it. I also understood the book’s themes of violence against women and religious intolerance were darker than anything I’d ever written. Would my longtime readers be willing to spend so much time in sadness, when I thought writing this could put me into depression?

The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey

This “book of my heart,” first in a series that might never be.

The second book in the Daughters of Bengal series was simply too daunting for me. I chucked it. Although I did not give up on the idea of revisiting it someday.

I’m working on my third series now. It’s about Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman lawyer working in the 1920s. I’ll admit that while The Widows of Malabar Hill (Book One) was very exciting to work on, Book Two was a pain to write. This time I could partially blame my struggles on a health issue. Lyme Disease was diagnosed after nine months and I bucked up with medicine, acupuncture, and Ayurvedic herbs. Heck, I got so excited about Ayurvedic herbs I worked them into Book 2 (because it’s set in the mountains of India, it’s not such a stretch). And this Book Two, The Satapur Moonstone, had a deadline. I turned it in a month late, it still needed serious revision, but I’d done it!

I’ve come to understand that only when I slay the dragon that is called Book Two can I get to the love affair with Book Three. And while it won’t be a romance that makes writing every series book feel like fun, it feels like being on honeymoon this week.

Book Two of the Perveen series slated for May 2019

The Monday Women Marched in Black

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

“Wear all black,” the woman said over the phone.

Come at eight-thirty, and don’t carry too much.

Be prepared to go from the Supreme Court of the United States to the offices of senators.

Last Sunday, I learned the Women’s March organizers were a series of actions this week in Washington D.C. I wanted in. Over the last two years, I have been increasingly agitated by the attempts by male lawmakers to erase established civil rights, especially those of women and minorities. It feels like the final straw that the President’s nominee for an open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court is Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative judge alleged to have sexually assaulted a young woman during his high school days. Despite the fact that more claims have come about the judge’s sexually aggressive behavior, the President and most Republican senators don’t want an F.B.I. investigation or to postpone voting for Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

President Trump and his supporters insist Chrstine’s report must be false, or else it would have been told to the police years ago. But I know that many women who do report rapes have their stories ignored or suffer repercussions for telling.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is a psychologist now living in California. She says that when she was fifteen, a teenaged Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, forced her into a bedroom at a party. She claims Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth so nobody could hear her cry out for help. The men fell off her, and Christine did escape being raped, but she suffered post traumatic stress disorder. Christine moved 3000 miles away to get away from her painful memories, which she had discussed with others over the years, but that became increasingly hard to ignore when Kavanaugh came onto the national stage. Some months ago, Christine wrote a letter about her experiences to her Senator, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Christine asked Feinstein to keep her identity confidential but to share Kavanaugh’s past actions with the F.B.I. However, information was made public, and now Christine has received death threats and left her home.

I am grateful to live close enough to Washington D.C. to reach it in an hour’s train ride. I wanted to make a physical declaration that I believe women don’t make up stories about rape. I followed the instructions the woman had given me to assemble in front of the US Supreme Court on a gray Monday morning. Rape survivors among the marchers spoke about who hurt them and how the trauma still affects them. Some of their voices were very low, because the emotion was strong, and it was the first they had told these painful histories. After each story, our voices swelled in answer. “We believe you.”

The rally started out with a few hundred people, but as we marched to the Hart Senate Office Building, the numbers swelled. Long lines of cars had to stop to let us cross the intersection, and by the time we reached Hart, it seemed like close to one thousand were marching. There were so many marchers, we had to divide up to make it into the building through two different sides. Because we had no bullhorns, messages passed through the crowd by repetition. When people in the line began holding up a hand, it meant it was time to fall silent and listen for directions.

In the Hart and Dirksen Senate Office Buildings, the police were already waiting and had stiff plastic wrist bands, the modern version of handcuffs. While it is legal for people to enter a building to visit a senator, the police told us that it is against the law to protest inside government buildings.

In the atrium, some people prayed and many others got to know each other. I met many students from Yale Law School, the alma mater of Kavanaugh, and women and men from all over America. The organizers divided us into smaller groups that lined the halls outside the offices of Republican Senators Susan Collins and Jeff Flake, as well as some others who might be swayed to vote against Kavanaugh.

I was unable to get inside any of the senators’ offices, but the people who did spoke to the senator’s staff about how the experience of rape impacted them. I did not know that during the same time, other rallies were being held around the country, that many women were wearing black as a sign of protest, and at 1 PM that Monday, many women would walk out of work for an hour to show they believed Christine.

At the Senate Buildings, 128 people were arrested in Dirksen and the Rotunda. The rest of us made it out.

As I walked through Capitol Hill, I caught sight of a protest sign about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh on a food truck, making me realize that people are creatively speaking their voices.

It was still raining when I reached Union Station, and my thoughts went back to my own social history. Christine and I came of age at the same time, and there are several uncomfortable experiences with men I’ve pushed very far back into my memory. Three decades ago, I believed that if I got away from someone without being hurt, I should consider myself lucky. Why should there be a consequence for the perpetrator?

In my Perveen Mistry series, I write about a woman solicitor battling for social justice for females constrained by the legal system in British colonial India. A century later, it is shocking that so much is still the same.

Winging it at Bouchercon

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Bouchercon in Florida! Here’s a glimpse of how I spent the convention. Like the birdie, I was a bit on the outside, commuting through the tropical St. Petersburg landscape from my hotel three-quarters of a mile away.

British writers are rumored to like Florida, and there were dozens of those geckos flitting through the bars. I’d been looking forward to meeting my literary twin, Abir Mukherjee, who writes mysteries set in 1920s Calcutta. Abir and Gigi Pandian and I put together our books in a basket for the auction that was bought by Delia!

Cara Black is near the left on a panel with Mark Billingham, William Kent Krueger, Sara Paretsky and Tasha Alexander. Cara talked about how she takes French policewomen out to dinner and runs potential crime plots by them. I got together with Cara, Stan, and Caro one humid evening in the Vinoy garden to prove Murder Goes Everywhere Warm.

Sometimes great friendships are made at conventions. California-based writer Diana Chambers and I met at Left Coast Crime in Honolulu a few years ago and always make it a point to get together.

I got a kick out of being placed on a panel with another writer with the same surname. That’s Gale Massey of Florida, on my left, who has a well-reviewed debut novel. I am convinced she and my husband, who is also a Southern Massey, must share some DNA.

The best conventions are the ones where you get outside. In the distance, you can see the pink turret attached to Bouchercon’s historic hotel, the Vinoy. The area around the hotel was perfect for strolling to restaurants, galleries, parks, and ogling yachts in the harbor.

I am a house junkie, so I loved my strolls from hotel on 4th Ave North to the Vinoy on the downtown waterfront. There were enough preserved historic buildings to make me smile. This proud house seems to be a mashup of Mediterranean and Neo-classical.

Pretty early 20th century clapboard cottages are painted in sherbet colors.

Gorgeous old palms and other tropical trees provide welcome shade in the sunny afternoons.

My hotel, The Hollander, is a lively, renovated hotel that retains its early 20th-century character. It has a nice coffee shop and restaurant, a pool for partiers and small but well-equipped rooms. The price was very reasonable, so I recommend it!

Often during the convention, I felt like this gecko racing along the edge of the sidewalk. So much to do, and not enough time to bask in the Florida sun. Next time I’m in St. Petersburg, I will actually get into the pool.

Summer on the Table

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Summer is supposed to be done. I know this because I see big yellow school-buses on the freeway, and the Staples office supply store is full of families loading up on binders, notebooks, and pencils. But may I make a public service announcement that it’s still summer out there? I only have to go to the farmer’s market in Baltimore to know this. August and September are the peak months for tomatoes, peppers, peaches and plums. Just about everything is at its best, with the exception of delicate lettuces.

Baltimore and nearby suburbs are awash in farmers’ markets, large and small. I usually shop at the big one that runs year-round in the neighborhood of Waverly on Saturdays, but I also adore the Kenilworth Farmers’ Market in Towson on Tuesday afternoons, which is smaller but has a more “artisan” feeling.

I find it exciting that Maryland farmers are now growing specialty tomatoes like the ones famous from San Marzano, Italy. Though I’m sure Italians would not be happy to see the name of that terroir applying to bullet-shaped, meaty tomatoes grown outside of Italy. But wow! The transformation of these Roma tomato varieties into sauce and chutney is magically easy.

Excellent cherry tomatoes went into this salad that is jazzed up with avocado, scallions and basil.

I rarely travel in the summer, because I dig very deeply into writing and revising. Fall is the time writers must travel for book festivals. I would ideally like to write-garden-cook all summer, but the heat drives me inside so I’m mostly writing and cooking.

My eyes are bigger than my stomach—how many things can you do with a gorgeous bunch of scallions before it wilts?

The smaller the zucchini, the more I want to eat them. But there are only so many ways to shred, slice, sauté and bake “courgettes,” another name for them that is not used here.

I tried to tempt my husband toward kale by asking him to grill it. Result: interesting, but still pretty sharp. With summer’s ease, these are experiments worth taking. If it doesn’t thrill the palate, try something else.

This is a delicious variant on potato salad; grilled potatoes and fennel, pickled fennel fronts and a yogurt mint dressing. And look below to see a snack of grilled corn tossed with fresh herbs and topped with cornflakes! All of these recipes are weekend experiments taken from an excellent recipe collection of Kerala-inspired grilled dishes published in an early summer edition of Food and Wine.

An improvised apricot-blueberry-buttermilk cake that I concocted looked rather like a Matisse. Fabulous warm from the oven.

Cooking summer produce is a way for me to vacation into different countries without leaving my house. Still, all the fancying and fixing can’t replace the perfect purity of what we can only eat in the summer, sometimes with a fork and often, just with the hands.

Summer in the City

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


In Spring of 2017, I hired a man to dig out the grass in front of my Baltimore, Maryland house. He thought I was crazy to pay him for that, but I had the idea of replacing the grass with a lot of perennials that are native to Maryland and Virginia. I wanted to plant food for the local bees and bugs (the good bugs, of course) and have the feeling of a full, lively cottage garden. Native gardening guru friends told me this kind of garden doesn’t need much water, because the plants are used to the climate, and such laid-back flora grows happily without special attention.

I also heard a saying that was meant to encourage me: the first year plants sleep—the second year they creep—the third year they leap!

I was pleasantly surprised to see plants getting a nice, full shape the first year. But this year, WOW. I don’t really think we can pretend anyone is creeping. The mountain mint is a monster stalking the entire space!

Lots of rain made these plants really grow, and it’s amusing to see my short dogs wandering through their personal jungle while bees buzz gently overhead.

Another thing that surprised me about my impromptu native cottage garden is how long it is taking everything to flower. With these natives, varying shades of green are what I’m stuck with for a long time. I will have to wait till August to see yellow petals on these Black-eyed Susans below, and they are already approaching 6 feet tall.

One of my goals this summer was to “be in the garden” most mornings while it’s still cool. An overdue book turned my mornings into writing sessions on the screened porch until today—July 17.

The middle of July is usually when most people stop gardening. But it’s my start date. I had a bunch of weeds to pull.

But they easily gave way. Today I did a spot-check on a Virginia Sweetspire bush advertised as “good for poor soil” that I’d planted this May. I watered it a couple of days in the beginning and then I started writing overtime and let it go without extra watering.

I think the Sweetspire, below, got mad about that.

Can I make things better for the poor shrub this late in the season? And is there any point in planting anything more in the bare dry spots…or is that insane with the 90 degree heat that lies ahead?

If you ask me, is easier to plant a garden than to write a novel; but it’s more tempting to disappear in a rewrite than to pull ivy.

Death in the Newsroom

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Capital Gazette

Last week’s mass shooting of the five employees at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis made headlines around the world, but especially here in Maryland. These premeditated, cold-blooded murders are a tragedy for the families and friends of Gerald Fischman, Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, and John McNamara. But the murders are alsoan attack on the culture of journalism.  Reporters walk alone into neighborhoods full of guns to investigate the suffering of people there; editors authorize the publication of stories that sometimes point out wrongdoing in  the community. This work is done as a service to the community; but there are those who disagree with it. Usually, they send a letter to the editor about it. But not always.

Such was the situation with suspected shooter Jarrod W. Ramos, who was convicted of harassing a woman he knew in high school. He then tried to sue the Capital Gazette because of a published story about the harassment. Ramos’s case was dismissed as too groundless to be tried in a court of law, but the man wouldn’t give up.  During the last presidential campaign, Ramos threatened the newspaper on Twitter for an opinion piece that referred to Trump as “unqualified.” He also used Twitter to violently threaten  the reporter who wrote about him, as well as Rob Hiaasen, who was the deputy editor.

The Capital Gazette is a very old newspaper that became part of the Baltimore Sun Media Group in recent years. The CG’s deputy editor,  Rob Hiaasen, was the first employee killed by Ramos. Before he became an editor in Annapolis, Rob was a general assignment features reporter at the Baltimore Sun when I was a features reporter for the afternoon paper, The Evening Sun.

I remember Rob as full of laughs: a funny, gregarious, and skilled writer. This New York Times opinion piece by Laura Lippman, who was Rob’s close friend, describes him much better than I can. I recall smiling at Rob’s stories and his status as the newsroom’s bon vivant.

I left the Sun in 1991, but I had the gift of an out-of-the-blue email from Rob about ten years ago.  He had read through all the mystery short stories in Baltimore Noir, an Akashic anthology published in 2006, and he wanted to congratulate me on mine. I was surprised and flattered, especially since I regarded that particular story, “Goodwood Gardens,” as being all about women. But Rob didn’t believe in stories being for ladies or gents. He read what he wanted, and he was known to praise and encourage writers whether they were in his newsroom or not.

During my years at the newspaper, I recall receiving a few nasty unsigned letters, typically filled with racist complaints about the newspaper’s coverage. Also, a local man picketed the newspaper for years holding a sign that said “Sun Lies.” I don’t know whether there was a story that bothered him, or he just didn’t like the paper.  In my five years as a reporter, I understood there would always be readers who felt wronged by the paper, but I really thought the biggest danger for me was going into deserted neighborhoods alone.

I am shocked that threats against these journalists that appeared on Twitter were not addressed by the police. I believe these threats multiply and gain traction because President Trump tweets frequently against the press, often by name, and has called the entire news media “the enemy of the American people.” With a climate like this, I don’t like imagining what will come next.