Author Archive for Sujatamassey.com Webmaster

Gardening on Deadline

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

For too long, I’ve been lost in the LED-lit, indoor world of writing. Over the last month, I was intent on doing nothing else except finish a book.

It also happened that late November turned out to be the only time to plant a garden. Fall planting is easier on trees and shrubs that will get a good watering all fall and winter. Yes, I had a book due; but the garden also had to be installed, after having been delayed by several months due to Maryland’s unusually dry fall.

The garden and I have been at loggerheads before. My quest to unsettle a little less than an acre of city land began when I moved in with my family during the fall of 2012. The first thing we did was absolutely violent. We hired a company to drill four wells 500 feet deep inside our long, sloping lawn. The racket it made! The ash that spewed into the neighborhood air! The sky looked so gray over our street that somebody called the fire department.

Ah, the geothermal wells. They make it possible to have a modern air conditioning system where the air passes over the cold water, deep in the ground, and returns to the house. No chemicals, no excessive use of electricity.

From almost the start, our land has served us. But it has always been scraggly around the edges. Every spring I would be filled with inspiration that would trickle away about the time the mosquitoes settled in for feasting at the end of June. I wanted a garden full of native plants to support wildlife and suppress weeds. But how? The longer I fretted, the more the weeds spread.

Three years ago, I dug a small front garden myself with native plants, but it was such a hodgepodge without coherent flow that I wanted more assistance the next time I tried an improvement. This fall, I felt blessed to be aided by a native gardening education consultant/garden artist/all-around genius. Kay McConnell is well known in Maryland for the beautiful native plant gardens she designed and installed at the Friends School of Baltimore, Stony Run Meeting, and other spots.

Under Kay’s eagle eye, a weed-filled stretch running along the back of the property was cleared in late August as the site of our future rain garden. The clearing and regrading of the earths was done by strong men driving big machines. The new space they created wasn’t flat smooth dirt, but two raised banks surrounding a long basin. This would catch water that ran down our sloping lawn toward the lane. The saved water would feed the kind of plants like native iris and milkweed that like their feet wet.

As the dry fall turned into a rainy November, the prepared, empty garden space slowly became wet. Kay rooted through her native plant stock and area nurseries, looking for the best shrubs, trees, grasses and native perennials. A willow, magnolias and dogwoods were found, along with itea, bayberry, buttonbush, various ferns, swamp milkweed, oak leaf hydrangea…

The list went on. Over several days in late November, Kay unloaded shrubs and flowering plants and grasses from her car. The trees came in with European Landscapes and Design, the company that had done the original garden clean-up and preparation.

I recently heard a few different people use the phrase: “We go big, or we go home.” It’s a 2019 cliché. However, I could not deny that things were getting very big, right at my home.

I was thrilled to realize that every single tree, grass and shrub would feed local birds and insects. The garden design has woodland, meadow and swamp sections, with everything flowing together in an artistic manner, with fields of color, and high and low points. I found myself spellbound watching Kay. She is a true artist in the garden, arranging plants and rearranging them as the visual flow becomes apparent to her.

As I worked under Kay’s direction, I learned so much. She taught me how to plant a natural looking drift of small flowers. I absorbed the new thinking on weed control: don’t tug them out, which disrupts the earth and activates weed seeds. Instead, cut them close to the ground to weaken the plant.

I saw, through her eyes, how an aged stretch of asphalt pavers could become a dining terrace or site for a fire-pit gathering spot. And as my neighbors strolled along the lane that runs on the other side of the new garden, they had plenty to say. Michael, after visiting with us a few times, commented that he felt that spirits had entered the garden that were never there before.

And that’s how writing works, too. A bulky stone is chipped away to reveal the story hiding within. It takes time, but it’s always waiting for you.

And the thing about gardening deadlines is that the only one that really matters is set by nature. One can’t dig after the ground is frozen—unless, perhaps, you have a geothermal drill.

And putting a plant into earth does not guarantee it will emerge in the spring. That is the mystery I’m entering.

Bouchercon 2019: Texas Welcome

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I went to Dallas last weekend for Bouchercon, a 50-years-old-and-counting annual mystery convention. The weather was cold, yet the Texans were warm. So were the folks I chatted with among the flood of 1800 mystery lovers who arrived from all points. This year’s theme was suited to conventional thinking about Dallas: Diamonds, Denim and Death!

Every day was filled with book talk. This was done on panels, in the book room, the bar, the hallways. I met people from as far as Israel and India, and as close as Indianapolis. I met so many new friends that I hope to see again.

Retired diplomat Alfredo Barela knows me through Rei Shimura

Soho’s publisher Bronwen Hruska with author Francine Mathews

Even though Bouchercon is ostensibly about attending panels of crime novelists and publishing  professionals, there are many side parties and special activities. Soho Press, my publisher, specializes in mysteries by authors from around the world, and they threw a special reception for author Peter Lovesey, who was celebrating the eighteenth adventure of his brilliant police detective, Superintendent Peter Diamond. I tore almost one hundred raffle tickets for people wanting the Diamond book bonanza. This was another slick way to make friends.

Being charmed by author Teresa Dovalpage

Peter Lovesey’s grand giveaway being awarded by our editor Juliet Grames

With the Soho publishing gang

I feel so much at home with a publisher like Soho, who is enthusiastically committed to publishing great fiction with characters who are diverse in national backgrounds—and not sprinkled in for color, but because they are compelling people and their stories are unforgettable. At the Soho International Guest of Honor party, Peter Lovesey announced a new Soho contest for first-time authors with a paid advance and publication. He got his start with a literary contest in England, and that’s similar to how I broke into print (the Malice Domestic Unpublished Writers Grant Contest).

Loved signing near author Felicia Mason and cinematographer Semone

When I began going to Bouchercon in 1996, the majority attendance was white men. Gender dominated the atmosphere in the bar and in the pale rooms. For the most part, Bouchercon no longer has that feeling of an old boy network. The con feels like a place for many people to express what it is they bring to mystery or love about it. I hear about mystery book groups, field research in New Zealand, and secret hikes into off-limit areas. Also crafts, quilts, and cocktail recipes.

Anthony noms for Kellye Garrett, Lori-Rader Day, James W. Ziskin, Holly West

In addition to panels where we can learn the secrets behind beloved books, the convention is also a haven for awards ceremonies. The convention bestows a fan-voted prize called the Anthony, which is named after the inspiration of the convention, the late New York Times book critic Anthony Boucher, said to be the first journalist who treated mystery fiction as serious literary works. Other mystery-centric organizations like Mystery Readers International give out the Macavity awards for general mystery fiction, and the Private Eye Writers of America awards the Shamus awards for professional investigator novels and stories. The Barry and the Dillinger are also coveted awards at Bouchercon. But that’s not enough for Bouchercon. Its organizers also shower honors on booksellers, fans, and other special people who have built the power of mystery fiction. The overall theme is love and thanks for keeping our literary world booming.

S.A. Cosby, Anthony Winner

If you go to enough conventions, you may no longer wear a size six little black dress, but there are some sizable advantages. Being an old-timer means you can enjoy seeing friends and newcomers light up as they receive their first requests for books to be signed, and maybe even awards for them. This year brought a special thrill when my friend Shawn (S.A. Cosby), whose first novel comes out next year with Forge, won the Anthony for best short story. He had moved me to tears a few nights earlier reading this prize winning story, The Grass Beneath My Feet, aloud in the hotel bar.

Yes. Only with mystery lovers, is there read-aloud story time in bars.

Holding the Mcavity tight to my heart with Soho’s publisher, Bronwen Hruska

On Halloween night itself, I was humbled to win the Macavity Award for The Widows of Malabar Hill. It turned out to be a beautiful crystal keepsake that will be take pride of place alongside a fabric Macavity cat award I won many years ago for The Flower Master. The nominees in this category were so excellent, I think any one of us could have won. So I am especially grateful, following the amazing awards this book has already gathered.

I was also nominated for a Shamus award given by the Private Eye Writers of America. I was very surprised that Perveen Mistry was seen as fitting into this category—she’s a legal investigator, not a gumshoe. I hardly minded losing to Kristen Lepionka, who wrote a great modern PI novel featuring a woman, What You Want To See.

At the Shamus awards dinner, some words were casually said that led to many follow-up dialogs on Facebook and Twitter about how we can welcome people we don’t know well into our various tight-knit mystery worlds. Some of the conversations were quite heated, while others were healing. Anyway, it wasn’t until a few days after I got home that I could put away this other baggage, too.

When the new books go on the shelf, the old suitcase returns to the attic, and the wrinkled receipts go to the tax box, I no longer have visions of diamonds, denim and death.

It’s time to stop chatting and start writing again.

A statement from Sujata Massey

Of course, I will accept Max Allan Collins’ apology for his comments at the 2019 Shamus Awards. Max says he did not intend emotional harm to any particular person or persons, and I believe him. And it is important to remember from this “kerfuffle,” as Max described it, that language is powerful.

Singling out a subgroup of award-nominated writers as foreigners carries a message of otherness, especially when the PWA membership is so heavily white male. We all need to listen if someone comes up to privately share about how they interpreted our language. We should also be willing apologize to such truth tellers if we have dismissed them in the moment.

I’m extraordinarily grateful for the valiant colleague who spoke up after the Shamus dinner—and thankful to all of you, my dear friends, for standing up yesterday and today in defense of diverse mystery writers.

I am also very happy that Kristen Lepionka won a Shamus award for WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE in our shared category of best novel. And to all the other winners and nominees: you are awesome, and I want you to enjoy your success, too.

Truth Tellers of Two Eras: Maddow and Murrow

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Even though my fiction is set in the past, what makes it tick for me is whether the issues are relevant. Sadly, gender discrimination, political unrest, religious violence and oppressive government are not a problem anyone’s solved yet.

These days, I have been watching The Rachel Maddow Show quite a bit. I feel it gives me a suspenseful, truthful analysis of the day’s political news. In my opinion, Rachel Maddow has become the bravest voice in television. The veteran MSNBC journalist doesn’t hesitate to call out corruption or talk about the deaths in the immigrant detainment camps established by the Trump administration. Rachel Maddow reports all of this without bombast or name calling, although she is not afraid to show her indignation and grief, and at times, uses black humor . Watching her, I often have the bizarre feeling she has focused her attention so it really feels she’s speaking directly through the screen. It is a rare gift and makes my connection with her different than when I watch other news programs.

This Stanford public policy graduate and Oxford PH.D. in politics is also a powerful writer. Her current nonfiction book, Blowout, was written over the course of four years and paints a chilling long-term picture of the fight to control oil with an emphasis on Russia’s role as a rogue state. The book is carefully researched and was written over the last four years, so It is an astonishing coincidence that its publication around occurred shortly after a whistleblower reported on Trump’s phone call with the President of Ukraine requesting that he investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, who Trump fears could beat him in the 2020 election.

The Rachel Maddow Show (TRMS) has become the most popular news program in the country, although CNN’s News and Fox’s Sean Hannity news talk show are also close behind. During early October, as the impeachment inquiry began, TRMS viewership rose from 2.2 million average to 3.3 million per night.

No matter what side of the political spectrum one favors, it is generally agreed that Americans (and people around the world) have had had a very hard time since the 2016 election. The family divides that began at the Thanksgiving tables that year have morphed into people simply not eating together or speaking anymore. One of the things I really appreciate about Maddow is that she doesn’t mock or demonize Trump supporters. And she presents the news with a mini-recap of things came to be, which makes it accessible to someone who might not have absorbed honest information about the government until that moment.

And she also offers hope. “When this is over,” Rachel says after she’s concluded talking about something that seems impossibly bad. When this is over. Please.

Maddow’s success as a truth-teller reminds me of the another important radio and TV personality: Edward R. Murrow. Their surnames are eerily similar, for a start. Both journalists  are both tall, dark and good-looking and partial to tailored dark suits. They are known for their furrowed brows. Loads of people became fixated on them, making them the most-watched newscasters of certain intense political eras.

These are big claims, but if you also were were not alive when Murrow was a star, I’ll share a little about what I’ve learned. This longtime CBS news host became famous in the 1930s, when he was in charge of CBS’s European Bureau and reported on Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Murrow stayed vigilant in Europe, bringing America reports of Hitler’s danger at a time that most lawmakers were urging non-involvement in Europe’s troubles. Murrow warned he could not be ignored, and his reports were instrumental in changing America’s emotional opinion of the faraway crisis.

Edward Murrow stayed in Europe through the war, never entering a bomb shelter once to protect himself, and doing such things as flying on bombing raids and interviewing everyday people rather than the elite. He hired a small group of intrepid reporters nicknamed “Murrow’s Boys” who went all over Europe to bring the human cost of Hitler’s aggression home to America.

Murrow had a television show on CBS called See It Now during a time that the country faced a similarly dark time. Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy hated Communists, and with the race to build deadly nuclear weapons in the 1950s, people lost sleep fearing attack from the USSR. McCarthy took advantage of this paranoia by speaking constantly of a Communist menace. He conducted hearings designed to expose secret Communists, charging many people who had no relation whatsoever with the political party.

Murrow was friends with CBS head Bill Paley, who admired the newsman so much he allowed him to report on any topic he wished. Murrow wanted to address Sen. McCarthy from the beginning of his reign of terror, but he knew if he jumped the gun, he would not have enough material to make the show succeed, nor would the public be receptive to it. If McCarthy successfully fought him, Murrow might even find himself and his colleagues at the network blacklisted. In the end, Morrow went to Michigan and interviewed a young air force officer fired because his father and sister had been accused of reading a book considered suspicious. Many viewers were horrified by what happened to this family and wrote to CBS in support of Murrow’s reporting. A second See It Now program used clips of the senator’s own speeches and testimony to paint a picture of his real motivations. The national outrage stirred up against McCarthy by that program may have been an important factor in leading the senate to formally censure him,  which brought the destructive hearings to an end. Yet because of the controversial show, a major advertiser left CBS, and See It Now was shifted to another time slot to avoid further damage to corporate coffers.

When Murrow signed off at night, he always said, “Good night, and good luck.”

Rachel Maddow doesn’t have a stock phrase like that. Instead, she greets Chris Hayes, the host of MSNBC’s following news program. MSNBC’s wish must be that readers will not recognize a clear ending to her show and will continue watching the network for many more hours.

But at ten o’clock, I am usually off to bed, sometimes extremely charged up, and other times a bit more reassured as I dream of, when this is over. 

Hiking My Own Spice Trail

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Political chaos is making me cling to quiet evenings home. As it turns out, I am not alone in thinking that our everyday, intimate life can be a source of restoration.

The idea that our kitchens should remain places of joy was explored beautifully on this Sept. 13 Splendid Table podcast. One of the show’s regular contributors, editor Tucker Shaw from America’s Test Kitchen, suggested replacing old spices with new ones as a profound way to nurture yourself.

A few days after hearing the podcast, I got an email from a home organizing site, A Bowl Full of Lemons, that proclaimed that very day was the one that everyone needed to purge their spice drawer. Yes. In that dream blog world, all the spices come in matching jars, and they take up one small drawer.

The writing was on the wall—or in my case, the kitchen blackboard. I hoard spices the way that shops and libraries store books. In fact, I believe in a library of spices, along with a library of cookbooks. But I knew that any spice organization program in my home would last much longer than the fifteen minutes suggested by A Bowl Full of Lemons.

I like to think that my own spice and dried herb trail is a microcosm of the original spice trails emanating from Asia and the Americas to Europe. In my house, one is forced to hunt down spices in both a kitchen and a butler’s pantry. The journey includes stops to view, sniff and taste many dozens of jars that have been crammed like unhappy subway riders in six kitchen drawers, with the overflow packed in three plastic containers in a large cabinet.

There are so many spices that our husband does not know where to start looking, when he wants to cook. His solution is to go to the neighborhood grocery and buy a tiny, six-dollar bottle of whatever he does not see.

I needed Marie Kondo, but she was not available. And predictably, as I began considering the values of my assorted spices, many of them tugged mightily at my heart. It is not the same as wilted celery from a fridge or frostbitten lamb from the freezer. The spices look fine, and they will not make you sick, if you add a tired teaspoon to your soup or stew.

But here’s my problem. Removing spices is striking at history of past cooking—and dreams of dishes that could be.

One of the first big jars I regarded was a giant one stuffed with dried purple-red guajillo chiles that I purchased at a bodega, probably around 2009 when I was very ambitious. The chilies traveled with me to Maryland in 2012—quite far, because we have lived in Maryland since 2012. The dried chiles are so large and gorgeous—but could they be a tad too complex for my ordinary enchilada and chili nights?

Probably a third of my spices hail from India. I adore a multi-spice pack from the southern state of Kerala brought to me by a relative a few years ago (who’s counting). The pack has locally grown black peppercorns, star anise, whole cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon bark. This is a key, highly aromatic grouping that goes a long way, either as single elements, or roasted and ground into a kind of garam masala used for Malayali cooking.

Kerala is also the home of my most unused and mysterious item: cocum. Cocum are small sour black orbs that were a subtle flavoring in a fabulous shrimp curry made by Maria Zacharia for my daughter and me in her Alleppey home in 2008. Maria gifted me the cookbook she wrote,  and because cocum was on the ingredient list for many of her fish recipes, I hunted it down in a local market.  Despite the passage of time, the cocum is moist, and it is supposed to be soaked before cooking. It is staying with me another decade, I believe.

In my various drawers and the cabinet, I discovered three containers of the black cumin seeds more commonly known as nigella or kalonji. These were easy to toss, because I had already bought a new bag and discovered the taste of a new kalonji seed is biting and much more interesting than the aged seeds.

Taste-testing and careful viewing were good way to lead a reluctant drawer-cleaner to truth. Cardamom pods might look green and plump, but inside, if the seeds are white, they are far from fresh.  I found that the cardamom I’d stored inside the butler’s pantry cabinet had fresh black seeds inside the pods, making it a snap to eliminate the three other small jars of old cardamom pods.

Spice mixtures are a special problem unto themselves. Anyone who cooks from a good Indian cookbook—and I am thinking most specially of Madhur Jaffrey—is instructed to roast and grind spices and mix them in particular ways for easy use in future dishes. The same kind of spice blend making is encouraged in Mexican cooking and Middle Eastern cuisine. It took me more than a half-hour a couple of years ago to make Madhur’s hot and sour chaat mixture, but I know that the purpose of making these spice mixtures is because the freshly ground spices are more fragrant than what comes from the store. Though I do not hesitate to buy spice mixes that are new to me, like a bruschetta blend I saw in a department store in Milan, or the Ras El Hanout spice blend I found in a Middle Eastern grocery store in Brooklyn.

It is fortunate my sodium level is normal, because my kitchen is packed with salt. We start with coarse kosher salt and finely milled sea salt, but the real adventures begins with the various flavors of Hawaiian sea salt that I brought home from Honolulu. My feelings run deep for silky gray smoked sea salt, Himalayan pink salt in both block and granulated forms, and kala namak, a volcanic salt from India. I was thrilled to find flaky Maldon salt from England at Trader Joe’s, so it’s been in my wheelhouse for a few weeks. I’m also working through various salt specialty mixes with flavorings of garlic, chili, ginger and paprika. Confession: I only threw away one small container. However, I have pledged not to buy another grain of specialty salt for the next three years.

Midway through the purge, my husband paid a call to the kitchen and requested that I go easy on our tiny collection of American spices (I secretly call them processed vegetable extracts). I am talking about dried, mechanically-minced or granulated or powdered garlic and onion. There is a role for them in some American Thanksgiving dishes and the foods of Louisiana. To each their own. At least their maker, McCormick, is a Baltimore company!

Salt is cheap, and other spices are very expensive. If I had to go to the mat to save a particular spice, it would be the two containers of Iranian saffron. Saffron is a very powerful spice: so aromatic that even a pinch goes a long way. At $160 an ounce, I am certainly going to keep using the precious saffron threads I have, especially with the political drama going on. Who knows when we can get fresh saffron from Iran?

After five hours of slow work, the drawers are cleared, and I have spare room in all of them. I also know exactly where to find what I need.

The epilogue to the grand clean-out is that I now have several dozen of empty glass jars and tiny meal tins. Some are going to recycling, and others will be washed and saved as containers for the small amounts of fresh spices that I intend to buy in the future. Because that was the point of changing out spices: to get the chance to absorb fresh, thrilling new tastes.

How Can a Woman Win?

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


I’m posting on the eve of the day that Democratic House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called for an impeachment inquiry. The Democrats’ concern—which is shared by me and many Americans—is whether the Republican president, Donald Trump, coerced a foreign government to investigate his own political rival. I have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this guy since before he was elected, and there’s nothing I can do to affect the outcome of this political process. I don’t even know that the House will vote for impeachment and that the Republican-controlled Senate will agree that Trump violated the Constitution. But I keep thinking, why can’t a reasonable woman serve as our next president?

It’s about time.

Americans have never had a woman president, or even vice-president, although sixty other countries have had a female premier.

When I did some research on female leadership, I was not surprised that the first female national leader was from South Asia. However, I made a big mistake about her identity. In my mind, I always had it that the world’s first female premier was Indira Gandhi, who won election for prime minister in India in 1966.

Sirimavo and Indira were close in age and became friends

Actually, the honor goes to Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1960. And hearing her name, I began wanting to know more about her.

Sirima Ratwatte was born in 1916 in Ceylon’s highlands, near the town of Kandy. The day Sirima was born, a herd of elephants reportedly invaded an enclosure on her family’s estate. This was said to be an auspicious sign. Her wealthy Sinhalese parents also had an astrologer come to analyze time of birth and location data. Based on all of his calculations, the astrologer found Sirima’s destiny was to be a queen. (Probably a sign of the times. A modern-day astrologer predicted my daughter would probably be a doctor!)

The idea of Baby Sirima becoming a queen seemed impossible, with King George V in power over Ceylon and the rest of the empire. However, Sirima had noble Sinhalese blood on both sides of her family, and her father, Barnes Ratwatte Dissawe, was a senator in the British-controlled colony.

Sirima was the eldest of the family’s six children. She attended a variety of small schools including a Roman Catholic convent school in Colombo, but her parents did not send their future queen for higher education. Therefore, after finishing high school, she devoted herself to volunteer work throughout the island, encouraging agricultural development and women’s health and education in rural areas. All the while, Sirima lived with her parents on their beautiful estate, while they fretted over finding the right husband for their socially committed daughter.

Solomon and Sirima Bandaranaike at their wedding

After several disappointing candidates, a matchmaker approached them suggesting a promising lawyer who was a junior administrator in the State Council of Ceylon. Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (say that fast three times), had graduated from Oxford and came from a low country Sinhalese family who’d become rich during generations of administrative service to Ceylon’s colonial rulers. The Ratwattes considered this background beneath them; but an astrologer insisted the young people’s horoscopes matched in a particularly powerful pattern. The marriage was a go.

Solomon, 41, and Sirima, 24, had one of Ceylon’s grandest Raj-era weddings in 1940. As Solomon (better known as SWRD) rose in government, Sirima gave birth to three children and continued social work relating to agriculture, women’s health and education, eventually becoming president of the Mahila Samiti women’s organization.

Sirima with her children

As India gained independence, it became apparent Ceylon could achieve self-rule. SWRD Bandaranaike joined the nationalist movement and ran for house of representatives. Later he became minister of health. Behind the scenes, Sirima encouraged him to join Ceylon’s nationalist movement and run for the house of representatives. He did that and won; Sirima, with her finger on the national pulse, persuaded him to resign from the dominant party and establish a new one that would attract rural people who had been ignored. She campaigned for SWRD with the new Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and he eventually was elected to parliament and became prime minister of Ceylon in 1956.

SWRD and Sirima Bandaranaike

SWRD leaned toward socialism as a way to assist the poor, and he wanted non-English speaking people to feel strong in the country that was no longer under British rule. One of the most polarizing suggestions from SWRD’s party was to make Sinhalese the national language, because there was also a significant Tamil minority with a different language and religion. He also wanted to take businesses controlled by wealthy individuals who were often Christian into government hands. SWRD became embattled on many fronts and was assassinated in 1959 by a Buddhist monk who was angry over the government’s seeming dismissal of traditional medicine.

After her husband’s death, Sirima’s life was upended. With almost 20 years of marriage behind her and mature children, what would her role in life be? She had campaigned for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party before—and now its members implored her to hit the campaign trail to speak about her husband’s death and unfinished business. They voted her in as leader of their party, which held a minority number of seats in government. The SLFP theorized that the pleas of a grieving widow could move more people to vote for the party.

A rally for Sirima

As Sirima campaigned, she appeared always in a widow’s white sari. Instead of lecturing about abstract ideas, she spoke frankly about the death of her husband and cried openly, which often moved her audience to cry as well. Simira’s opponents called her the Weeping Widow and arranged to have a random widow from their own party run for prime minister in order to beat her.

The gambit didn’t work.

Largely because of the rural Sinhalese voters’ support, the SLFP had a huge victory in the 1960 election, and Sirima was sworn in as prime minister, as well as minister of defense and external affairs. This was a lot to ponder  for a woman who had no education in economic, military and international affairs. Her late husband had come to government with the benefit of a law degree and an Oxford education. She had high school, and her years of volunteer experience.

The Prime Minister

Meeting with Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosyin

Ceylon’s population was ready for her, though. They no longer referred to her as Sirima; she was now named Sirimavo, a term of greater respect.

Prime Minister Sirimavo’s first steps were to follow her late husband’s agenda toward strengthening the power of Buddhist Sinhalese and nationalizing many areas that had been privately held in the past. Banking, foreign trade, petroleum and insurance were taken over by her government in the hopes of spurring business development among non-elite citizens. She made the bold move of cutting off state aid to Catholic schools and replaced the national language, English, with Sinhalese.

Most of Sirimavo’s actions were welcomed by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, but discontent was rising among Christians and Tamil Hindus. The situation in Ceylon reminds me of what happens with any leader who appears to cater to a particular religious or ethnic group in a country that is diverse.

Sirimavo was re-elected to a second term in the 1970s, during which time Ceylon transformed into the Republic of Sri Lanka. Yet concerns about Sirimavo abusing power led to being banned from political life from 1980 to 1986. After the ban was lifted, Sirimavo ran for the office of president in 1988, losing narrowly. By this time, two of her children were in politics. Her son Anura defected to his father’s original party, the United National Party, and her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was elected Sri Lanka’s president. Chandrika duly appointed her mother to a third term as prime minister, which had become a largely honorary position. Sirimavo served from late 1994 until 2000, when she resigned at the age of 84 due to failing health—or perhaps the party’s wish for a younger, more hardline politician to campaign in upcoming primary elections.

With age comes experience and confidence

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was a civilian in a wheelchair when she went to vote in the polls in October 2000, the same day as her 60thwedding anniversary. Within hours of casting her ballot, her heart gave out, and she passed away. Shops and schools were closed for national days of mourning, and oil lamps were lit in homes, and white flags fluttered in remembrance.

As I think about Sirimavo’s ascent, I realize that she succeeded with much less preparation and government experience than the women senators running for U.S. president today. I think the volunteer work she’d done with the poor over many years made it possible for her to talk simply and powerfully to her constituents. She enchanted people who had never voted before and led them to the ballot box. Her people followed her from victory to scandal and back without flinching.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s strength was her ability to win hearts and minds of those who lived far from the city and thought nobody knew about them. As I look toward the presidential primaries beginning in February 2020, I hope an American woman leader can do the same.

Love in the Library, Part I

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The Magic Hour by Dirk Joseph in the Pratt window

Back in Grade One—about the time I stopped having to use my finger to read word by word—I fell in love with stories. I could not get enough of reading, and thank goodness there were libraries to sate my appetite.

Libraries were the place I, as an elementary school student, could make my own choices about what I wanted to take home. It wasn’t like going to a department store, where my mom ultimately decided if she would pay for the sweater I wanted. I didn’t have to get permission; and it didn’t cost any more for me to take out nine books or one. It was all free.

Baltimore’s Pratt Street Central Library today

Entrance to the business and science section

This aged etching on second floor celebrates poet Lizette Woodworth Reese

Baltimore’s Poe-inspired football team, the Ravens, inspired the color for the renovated Poe Room

I read so fast in those days I rarely was served with an overdue fine. My library in childhood was the Roseville Library in the Ramsey County, Minnesota, public library system. I still half-remember the kind librarian who thought I was lost because I was a ten-year-old walking very slowly the shelves teen section. I was glad she let me stay, because I really wanted to get my hands on every Rosamond Du Jardin romance on the shelf.

Almost all of us have public library branches in our towns, but this concept wasn’t an automatic right granted by city governments in the way that streets and schools and fire stations were.

Setting up a library was an expensive process, and in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gentlemen of means put in money to build libraries and stock them—and the borrowers were people of means who paid a subscription fee.

One of the most successful businessmen in 19th century Baltimore, Enoch Pratt, believed the city needed a “free, circulating library open to all, regardless of property or color.” His massive donation established a grand library that opened in 1886 with 32,000 volumes and an endowment of more than a million dollars.

The first batch of librarians at the Pratt

I got my library card here after I finished college and began writing for the Evening Sun newspaper, which was only four blocks away. I spent countless hours here on research in the Maryland Room, or browsing old books for sale at the annual benefit, and often losing myself in the fiction section.


Did I ever imagine I’d have my own book in the Pratt?

No way. I thought I would always be a reader, not a reader-writer.

For the last twenty-two years, I’ve had the honor of being in the Pratt Library’s fiction section, in the M’s. I was there today and discovered the Pratt library has a book by me I didn’t know existed. No, it’s not pirated. The unusual edition of The Satapur Moonstone with striking blue hardcover is the LARGE PRINT EDITION.

Over the last forty years or so, the library’s grandeur slowly wore down. By that I mean the brass on all the doors dulled, the painted frieze going around the grand hall faded, and antique wooden furniture on the second and third floor became scuffed and dull. Due to increasingly limited funds from the state and city, such restoration was not in the cards for a library system struggling to stay open six days a week with enough money to pay workers and computer stations for users. Not to mention, the increasing costs of paper books, ebooks, and audiobooks.

A massive campaign to fund the library’s physician revitalization began under the visionary hand of the Pratt’s former CEO Carla Hayden (our current Librarian of Congress!). Heidi Daniel assumed the CEO role and is here to preside over the grand-reopening. I haven’t met Heidi yet, but I sense through her actions a commitment to making the Pratt Library a place where everyone feels welcome. We have another first—the Pratt is now one of the country’s first “fine free” libraries.

It is gratifying to see that in this restoration, the Pratt Central Library has not become a mausoleum or museum, but has revisioned some of the gracious spaces as special areas for people working on projects together. I saw doorways leading to large, open areas  for teen-only activities and for fine arts creation.

A major focus of today’s library is assisting people in bettering their lives, primarily through finding work. There are daily workshops around the Pratt’s 22 branches to help Baltimoreans with job hunting, resume writing and issues of justice.

Recently, Baltimore Style Magazine asked me some questions about my work. They wanted a suggestion of where to take my photo, and the Pratt Central Library sprang to mind right away. The picture that appeared in the magazine has me virtually dancing through stacks. If you follow the link to Baltimore Style, look for the digital magazine and start flipping: I’m on page 54.

Here is how this fashionable escapade unfolded on the mezzanine level of a large city library. The Pratt’s PR, Meghan McCorkell, did a very professional job with these two photos she snapped.

What an unnatural pose!

Modeling is as exhausting as writing!

I was back at the Pratt again today to renew my library card. The windows were full of gorgeous paper art commissioned for the opening. I hope these works are up for a long time, they are so gorgeous.

Sarah Jung’s Open Door shows a beautiful, bustling Pratt

Papercut art by Annie Howe celebrates the Pratt’s stance in the city

Up to the mezzanine and more novels

Street door detail in brass

Once my card was in hand, I tooled around the building looking at an old world made new. I also needed a book for my writing, so I asked a  social sciences librarian to bring up a particular book on police history that I’ve borrowed a few times. it’s not on the regular shelves, but in an underground (I think) archive.

There are some libraries that offer browsers access to the archive stacks—the Pratt is not one of them. I harbor fantasies of being allowed to wallow in these secret stacks, to see what other volumes on India I might fall in love with.

Do you have a library love story?

Mid-Atlantic Native

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

All pictures in this post are of Mt. Cuba Center, Hockessin, DE

I came to the Mid-Atlantic at age 18,  so I cannot claim to be a Mid-Atlantic native. I didn’t marry a local man, either—I married someone from the Deep South. Yet I’d like to think Tony and I have thoroughly embraced this area for raising our family, building friendships, working hard, and planting our dream garden.

Light-snow winters followed by sunny warmth from April to September make vibrant spring, summer and fall gardens. It’s easy for strong plants that survived here for millennia to spread and thrive in home gardens without the watering can or sprinkler. Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania abound with a diverse range of flora. If planted in supportive layers, these trees, shrubs, flowers and vines shelter each other and feed helpful insects and animals.

A few beneficial plants, like swamp milkweed, are the only food that newly hatched monarch caterpillars can eat before they turn into gorgeous winged beauties. (Milkweed grows in different varieties in other parts of the country, too).

A few years ago, I had the grass removed from the small double gardens in front of my Baltimore house. I planted the soil with an assortment of Mid-Atlantic natives. My novice’s theory was that if most of the native plants I picked were of varieties taller than two feet, it would mimic the feeling of the English cottage gardens I love, but would be totally native.

OK, what happened?

It worked too well.

I now have tall, sprawling forests of mountain mint, rudbeckia, coneflowers, bleeding heart and liatris on either side of my front walk. I’d heard the rhyme about a garden sleeping, creeping and leaping as the first three years pass. In year four, this garden is booming with some seven-foot flowers that need to be re-homed!

My garden is healthy, but it’s not glamorous. When I look at garden magazines, I sometimes envy the aesthetic glory that comes with choosing plants for beauty, rather than whether they help insects and animals.

But I believe in natives with all my heart, and I believe that natives can be used decoratively in many different ways. I need to see it to believe it—so I went to visit the Mid-Atlantic Native paradise called Mt. Cuba Center.

Mt. Cuba Center is an old mansion surrounded by more than a thousand acres of undeveloped countryside in Hockessin, Delaware. The place began in 1935 as a 126-acre wedding gift from the du Pont family to the newlyweds, Lammot du Pont Copeland and Pamela Cunningham Copeland. At the time, Pamela appeared the perfect country lady; nobody knew she would emerge as one of the most forward-thinking horticulturists in America.

The Copelands’ handsome brick colonial revival house started out with proper, pretty plantings of perennials of all types bordering the brick paths. But as years passed, Pamela became more interested in the native plants of the area. In the late 1950s, she hired landscape architect Seth Kelsey to revise the gardens to be natural—highlighting plants of lower Appalachia in a beautiful way, and tucking man-made ponds at the end of forest paths, and so on. I find it refreshing that the Copelands became serious gardeners more than twenty years after getting married—a similarity Tony and I share with them.

Lammot DuPont Copeland passed away in 1983, Pamela Copeland wisely established the Mt. Cuba Foundation before her death in 2001. Since that time, the foundation has added adjacent packages of land and expanded naturalistic design education. Some of the most useful features are trial plantings of popular native plants to help the public figure out how to incorporate the most successful cultivated natives in their own homes. The public can walk along on small guided tours by volunteers who clearly practice what they preach.

Mt. Cuba has greatly expanded its boundaries. Last year, the Red Clay Reservation and Mt. Cuba merged, so there is now a grand sweep of protected land to serve as a haven for endangered plants and wildlife. In all, it’s almost 1100 acres. I can only imagine how thrilled Pamela Copeland would be to see this.

Lucky for me, Mt. Cuba is less than two hours drive from my house. It seems that in the Mid-Atlantic, you can get almost anywhere—from beach to mountains to city—in about an hour or two.

On a lovely day in late July, I drove out to Mt. Cuba with Tony, our picnic basket, two straw hats, and bug spray. Temps were in the 90s, but because of the shady tall trees, it felt more like the 80s. And we didn’t need our insect repellent—maybe because there were so many beneficial insects devouring mosquitoes?

I had been here once before, in late spring, so the ephemerals were not showing their small sweet faces, but bolder colors were on stage. Along the great stands of milkweed, the monarch butterflies drank pollen and debated where they would lay their eggs.

How red the native azalea was! How delicate, the pale green ferns. Dragonflies zoomed over the ponds, and tiny frogs swam with elegance.

As I sat on antique lawn furniture eating a cucumber sandwich and drinking a cup of tea, I contemplated the gardens’ rolling, green hills, utterly devoid of street lamps, roads, and cars.

I realized that Mt. Cuba is more than a native plant sanctuary. It’s a living embodiment of “This Land is Your Land”—the heritage we can’t risk losing.

Mystery’s Magic Number

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


A crowded party is almost always considered successful. When the guests pile in and you can’t even reach the buffet, it means you are at a happening place. This is why there are maxims like, don’t spread a party too thinly through a house and garden. Get everyone in the living room, or around the pool, so the energy explodes.

In books, it’s a different matter. Too many characters can subtly derail the story, no matter how necessary and fascinating they seem. The chief problem is readers forget who they are.

One of the biggest challenges for me as a writer is whittling down the characters coming to the party. It isn’t until a book is close to done that I realize I allowed in too many characters.

I’m writing mysteries set in  Bombay. Even in 1921, the city was crowded. I can rationalize all the way from the docks to the hills that my story must have plenty of characters because that’s the way that cities are. Regardless of time period, most mystery series have “regulars” reappearing in various books who might be fellow crime-solving associates, family members and friends, and the suspects. The trick is giving everyone just enough time—and vacations away, if they really don’t serve a purpose in a particular story.

Daily activity in early 1900s Bombay

Right now, I’m working on a mystery set mostly in a Bombay college. I’ve been writing for almost a year. During this time, I’ve created five important undergraduates, five professors, two adminstrators, a college guard, two servants, and the college lawyer. That’s 16 people—about half of the total number of players in the novel, which certainly includes protagonist Perveen Mistry, and Perveen’s family and friends, police and legal figures.

This week I started a reducing plan, but only three have been cut so far. The process made me wonder whether there is a magic number of characters in a mystery.

I am too frantic to take time away from my book to read several others, so I took the easy route and spent 90 minutes streaming a high-quality mystery program. I am entranced by Endeavour, which features a young Inspector Endeavour Morse in 1960s Oxford. An excellent show in Season One, “Trove,” had nineteen characters of note, with eight supplementary characters (aka extras) speaking just a line or two.

I felt like I followed it all brilliantly. A few days later, could I recount the names of the show’s characters excepting Morse and his boss Fred Thursday?

Absolutely not. That is the big difference between visual and literary storytelling. Watching Endeavour, I only had to recognize a character by sight—and what others said about that person—to know who they were.

There were some things, though, that Endeavour’s writers did that led me to think about some self-improvement. There were rarely more than two characters of the same type—i.e., two people who were friends, two people who were coworkers, a family unit such as mother and child. I could eliminate a few characters that are very similar. Do I really need four boys under the age of twenty?

Another question I’ll ask myself is why each character needs to be in a novel. The most important characters are emotionally rich, not just information-givers. These are recurring players in Perveen’s life, or are people with enough suffering they might feel tempted to commit despicable acts, or shield such acts from knowledge.

Perveen is a lawyer, and I enjoy writing scenes where she is collecting secrets from various characters who’ve been disregarded by the British colonial authorities. Yet I realize Perveen can still learn about minor characters when other people narrate what they said. And fewer interviews mean fewer scenes, and the heavy cloud of cigar smoke begins to lift.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None has a tight cast

I might throw a party when I finish writing this book. It will not be a standing-room-only bash: the kind of party that I would have loved twenty-five years ago. The gathering I’m thinking about it looks more like one of the early dinner parties in And Then There Were None. 

Not too large, and not too small.

And without terminal losses.

A Road Map of Bombay

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Lately, my work in progress has been dragging its feet. Maybe it’s because I’m writing from my home in Baltimore, while I long to revitalize myself with a walk through Fort, the historic Bombay neighborhood I write about in the Perveen Mistry novels. Even though I’ve been there in person, I feel like I need to be led along the streets again.

If I could step into an old map, it would fix everything, wouldn’t it?

Maps inside a book are like sugar in dessert. You don’t need it, but it’s so much nicer when it’s there.

Philip Schwartzberg’s map created for Widows

My relationship with maps did not start out well. I used to be terrified of when my parents were driving, and we got lost. The driving parent would call out for someone (the spouse or eldest child in the car—yours truly) to study a large, cumbersome road map and discern the correct way back. It seemed I could never read the map fast enough nor could I orient myself in a direction other than the printed paper. Because of the way my brain processes direction, I was not a natural fit with maps—though I need them, because I have a terrible instinct for misdirection.

I began feeling less overwhelmed by maps when I lived in Japan. This was the era when I was a foreigner in Japan doing groundwork for a first novel. I wanted to write a mystery that felt real; and for me, that meant naming actual streets and train stations. The little line maps on the back of every shop or restaurant’s business card were my salvation in cities like Tokyo and Yokohama where many streets didn’t have names, just numbered buildings.

After publication of my first book, The Salaryman’s Wife, I learned how attentive readers are to details of place. If I located a known building on the wrong corner, I would hear about it. But just as quickly as people catch errors, they also delight in hearing the names for almost-forgotten places.

In India, many city and street names have changed due to political progress—and here I am, sounding like an old person, talking about “Bombay” instead of Mumbai and “Bruce Street” instead of Homi Modi Street. I search out the oldest-looking places and commit them to my camera, and my heart.

On the way to Crawford Market

Apollo Bunder, with the Taj Hotel

After independence in 1947, Indians refused to continue speaking of streets named for men who were the enforcers of its colonial past. Many city and street names on maps officially changed from English government officials to Indian heroes, although verbally, the English names are often still used in spoken directions by locals. Ironically, there is at least one area renamed after a British person: Horniman Circle. Benjamin Horniman was a progressive British journalist who was thrown out of the country in the early 1900s for writing supportively of Mahatma Gandhi. The handsome driving circle in South Mumbai framed by offices and shops had previously been named in honor of the 13th Lord Elphinstone, one of Bombay’s governors. If I hadn’t learned who Mr. Horniman was, I might have mistakenly misnamed the circle in my novel. Interestingly, there still is an Elphinstone College in Bombay (named after the second Lord Elphinstone) as well as Wilson College, named for the Scottish Presbyterian missionary educator who founded it.

Horniman Circle (once Elphinstone Circle)

For quite a few years, I have been gathering such arcane details from old guidebooks and maps. Some of my key sources are huge, vintage reference books like the Imperial Gazetteers of British India, and old city guidebooks, especially if they have maps. The best place in the United States I know to find such wonders is the Ames Library within the University of Minnesota.

Rare antique travel guides to Bombay at Ames Library

The newly translated vintage guide

Karl S. Baedeker was the famous publisher of 19th and early 20th century travel guides that originated in Germany, a country with people still passionate about travel. The Baedeker guides were meant to help Westerners see marvelous places beyond their imaginations, all the while in comfort and security. Baedeker guides were often translated into English. However, Baedeker’s only guide to India was published in 1914, and due to hostilities between Germany and Britain, never found an English language publisher. Not until 1985 was the guide translated into English by Michael Wild.  I was grateful to be able to buy the modern translation and picked up from it some interesting details about the city from an early 20th century German viewpoint.

Because old maps are very helpful, I was tempted when I discovered a 1967 Bombay folding map being auctioned on eBay by a seller in England with a starting price of 49 pounds. Once airmail delivery was included, the map would run me about $77 US dollars.

I’ve bought moisturizers that cost more, but I hesitated. My worry was this mysterious map on eBay would be focused exclusively on tourism venues. I knew it also would have plenty of Indian street names, so I would continue to need to cross-reference street names.

The seller had posted some photos of the map booklet that looked promising, so I pressed the button to bid. It was the last day of the auction, and it turned out I was the only person on earth interested in a Tej Brothers 1967 Bombay Street Map.

Two weeks later, a neat little package in a sturdy, waterproof envelope arrived from England. The map booklet had traveled safely between two pieces of cardboard inside the package. It was just the right size to put inside a handbag, yet it was utterly fresh, as if it had never been opened up and read. To say this map is in perfect condition is an understatement. Some of the booklet pages unfold into very large, easy to read maps which are rich in color and landmarks.

The booklet also has listings of popular name of restaurants and hotels, movie houses and shops. I can’t wait to show it to my stepfather, who was a young man-about-town during the map’s prime.

In the week that I’ve been studying it, the map’s provenance has intrigued me. Because there is absolutely no smell of mold or deterioration from moisture, I believe the map probably left India many years ago and was kept in a cool, dry location. I wonder: was the map’s first owner someone who meant to use it while exploring Bombay, but instead relied on the directions of a human companion? Or did the planned trip to Bombay get cancelled? Could it be the map never had a real owner, but just resided for decades in a travel agent’s file cabinet?

I’ve come to realize that a map can offer much more than geographic placement or inspiration for story; it can be a mystery unto itself.