Author Archive for Sujatamassey.com Webmaster

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.

Plum Passion

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A book I owned and adored as a child

A book I owned and adored as a child

In Maryland, strawberries mean spring, and peaches and plums mean summer. These aren’t the only fruits that prosper due to our excellent fruit-growing climate, but they are ones that are truly ravishing and worth only eating in season.

I feel especially passionate about plums this summer. They are so varied—my farmers market had at least five varieties last weekend. The sensual experience of looking inside a plum reveals gold, pink, or purple or red flesh. The taste ranges from tart to tangy to sugary sweet. Sizes range from slightly bigger than a cherry to palm-sized. It carries a rose-scented perfume, because the plum is actually linked to the rose family… stop laughing. I am not talking about sex, okay? I am talking about a healthy, anti-oxidant rich plant.

Despite its obvious allure the plum is regarded as the slightly odd cousin to most stone fruit. Perhaps this is because some raw, ripe plums are still tart—and after cooking, plums take on a deep flavor. If the plum is dried, it becomes a prune—and there are no end of jokes about the medicinal benefits of prunes.

I have a special affinity for plums because my German mother introduced me to them. In fact, she considers them the highlight of summer baking. I still remember my mother carrying crates of prune plums into our Minnesota house every August. These were not Minnesota plums—the weather there is too cold to plant plum orchards. But these California plums with tart interiors that were only in the supermarket for a few weeks were treated like treasures. Once the plums were free of stones—a tiresome process that could take hours—they became the stars of Pflaumenkuchen: neat rows of plum slices arranged atop a yeast dough stretched across a cookie sheet. Warm Pflaumenkuchen was served with coffee to adults, because very few children were excited about a sour fruit dessert topped with plain whipped cream. You could say that plums are the Cabernet Sauvignon of fruit. Big, bold, mind-blowing.

Other plums from the crates were boiled down into a dark, thick plum jam that would be eaten year round on toast. I liked this, too. After a childhood of plum jam, most jams made from strawberries and raspberries taste too sweet.

I live a thousand miles from my mother now, so we cannot make plum desserts together. But I am set on carrying the plum torch, and I have sampled all the different kinds of local plums that show up at my farmer’s market. This past weekend, I got a $6 container of Methley plums, doll-sized, purple globes that are slightly bigger than cherries. They are sweet and much juicier than the plums used in German confections; I understand the Methley originated in Asia, where plums are much juicier than the varieties native to Europe.

I remain cheerfully determined to introduce plums to the prejudiced. This week, I found an easy recipe for deconstructed plum galette on the Food52 website. It specifically calls for Methley plums. Preparing the fruit from pitting to cooking took less than fifteen minutes, because the plums are small enough to fit inside a cherry-pitting tool.

The dough was sticky and a little tricky to work with. It baked up delicious and crisp and the perfect foil to warm, juicy fruit. as the recipe suggested, I used two rounds to create a kind of plum sandwich. They were the perfect counterpoint. With cooking, the very sweet plums I’d tasted raw had deepened to a nuanced, bittersweet flavor.

My son took one look and said, no thanks.

A Writer’s Garden

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I was home for a short week between book tour traveling, and the main thing I realized was how delicious it felt to be home for spring.

The more common wish in America is to be “home for Christmas.” But Maryland’s shining moment is spring. It is a long, fruitful, blossoming season. It starts in February with crocuses, continues with daffodils and forsythia and hellebores in March, rises to tulips, azaleas, plum and cherry trees in April, and rioting roses everywhere in May and June. Maryland is not one of those places that suddenly switches to summer—it’s a very slow, enjoyable process, whether the plants are native or adopted.

It is fun for a garden enthusiast to spot gardens in  Arizona, California, Wisconsin and Washington, but I feel an urgency to get back to my ragged garden, which is only growing more outspoken every day. My husband only has so many hours in his day, so I sent out an SOS for help. I was very lucky to find a local gardener to take care of the six or so old rose bushes in the back and also attack the weeds. So when I come home, I feel pleased, rather than defeated.

During my time home I also did a lot of daily writing. It’s inevitable that these two loves, garden and book, coincide in the spring.

I believe a lot of writers like to garden. Tending flowers and writing books are quiet, meditative processes that each involve creation and reshaping. Both are hard and take years to get results. And often, an interest in gardens can begin no matter what kind of place you grew up in, because of books.

Did you read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett? I read this famous 1910 serial-turned-novel set in Yorkshire when I was a third grader living in snowy Minnesota. My mother had not yet started her odyssey into passionate gardening, so I knew nothing about gardens except for being charmed by the wildflowers that edged our paths, and climbing the sprawling old apple tree with bird-pecked fruit to read a book. I probably read The Secret Garden in that tree.

Many years later, I live in my own old house on almost an acre, which is a big lot for a house inside the city. In a few ways, it is similar to the garden experience of the fictional Mary Lennox. One certainly has to chop, tear and pull what is overgrown, but then come surprising discoveries.

Here’s one. Under a rectangular expanse of weeds that rise to happy heights every summer, there is an actual cement floor about twenty feet long by ten feet wide. It’s likely that it once was the foundation for a garage. And there are neatly paved paths throughout the garden, mostly covered by a thin layer of earth and lovely moss.

I love the moss and plants that belong to Maryland. The native plant garden I put in three years ago in the front of the house is growing so vigorously that birds have decided to secret themselves in a thicket of four-foot-high black-eyed Susans (which won’t flower until August). Daisy, the little Yorkie-Cairn terrier who lives with us, realizes the birds like to go there, so the rudbeckia forest has become her number one spot for exploration every time she goes out. As Daisy charges in, there is an explosion of feathery action. So far, nobody’s been caught!

During the brief time I was home, I worked on Perveen 3 in fresh air with the sun on my face. This is entirely possible because we have an outdoor sort of room on two sides of our houses: screened porches attached to bedrooms, in the event it is too hot to sleep inside.

I have seen photos of old sleeping porches fitted out with enough cots so the whole family could sleep in air that finally turned cool. I imagine all the story telling that went on, finally quieting down so the go-to-bed soundtrack would be left to the crickets. In those days, there might have been a nighttime call from a train, not drag-racing cars. And the wake-up alarm would have been birds.

Writing on our second floor porch is a sacrosanct ritual starting every May that lasts through September. I’ve set my porch with a vintage wicker chaise for reading and sleeping, a table for eating and writing, and a cheap old desk that faces tall trees where I stare at squirrels when I’m bored. The dogs stay with me, looking down two stories to the lane behind the house. They enjoy the power that comes with being high up and feel invincible from the wrath of those they bark at.

When I first moved into my Baltimore home, a few people suggested glassing in the sleeping porches in order to have more bathrooms. The suggestion was never taken seriously. I would never want to lose the joy of being outside-in that the porch provides. I hope whoever takes over the house after I’m gone feels the same.

The Satapur Moonstone is Out and About

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I’m thrilled to share the news that The Satapur Moonstone is finally in bookstores. My newest mystery novel was released last week as a hardcover in the US from Soho Press and as a Penguin India paperback for the Indian Subcontinent.

The Satapur Moonstone

This is the second Perveen Mistry novel in the new series I am writing. In this adventure, Perveen takes a long, convoluted journey through mountainous jungle  to investigate the living conditions of a young maharaja… and uncover the truth about the suspicious deaths in his family.

I am journeying through the United States to talk about the book, and while the airplane rides and freeway drives seem quite long, when I remind myself of Perveen’s exhaustive travels in 1921 India, my life seems pretty easy.

Perveen, who is a young solicitor working in her father’s law practice in Bombay, starts her journey to the Western Ghats with a train ride to the hill station of Khandala. From there, she is surprised to find herself the lone passenger in the back of a horse-drawn postal cart, tumbled among musty sacks of the Imperial Mail. A few days later she’s gingerly riding on horseback, and after that, she’s forced to recline in a short-roofed palanquin, a wooden box set on wooden poles that is carried by men for more than twenty miles through the hilly terrain to the palace. Believe it or not, when I visited the hill station of Matheran to research The Satapur Moonstone, I saw palanquins lying by the edge of the path, waiting for 21st century customers.

Rich foreigners being carried on the shoulders of poor locals is one metaphor for colonial rule. Perveen is against colonial rule, but in this novel, she finds herself taking a job for the government. She is well aware the British who’ve given her this temporary position as a legal investigator want her to make a decision that’s beneficial for them. While almost half of the subcontinent was territory governed by maharajas and nawabs, these rulers were considered princes of the Empire required to be loyal to the ruling British monarch.

Just as Perveen stopped to rest in a dak bungalow, or traveler’s rest house, I have recharging points: bookstores. Many of the independent mystery bookstores I’ve visited have dogs in house, just as the dak bungalows did. While the dogs in colonial India guarded people who felt vulnerable away from the city, bookstore dogs have a different role: making customers fall in love with them and go crazy buying books.

Back to Perveen’s trip! Our intrepid heroine arrives after a day’s travel to the palace. She is sore from a palanquin accident and sopping wet from rain only to learn there’s more than just a prince to worry about. She discovers that two maharanis living there are locked in a private war over the with each other, and the maharaja’s smart younger sister is being completely overlooked. What about their lives? Can her legal investigation change things for them and the future of Satapur?

When I write books like this, I strongly desire to write socially-just endings—yet I am mindful that my solution must be a realistic outcome for conventions of the time. A solicitor bound by rules of British common law, Parsi law, and other religious codes, knows this well. Perveen also isn’t the type to shove her decision on any client.

Perveen soon understands why the royals are stressed (a word I can’t use in the book, because it wasn’t invented yet). In the British Empire, Indian royalty were rarely allowed to choose where their sons were educated and what jobs they took after their studies; the British liked to handle that, in order to make sure the royals didn’t become too smart or independent. The British resident attached to a princely state also helped select brides for the princes, and they held the power to grant or deny a prince the freedom to leave India.

I spent about a year-and-a-half writing this book, so it cracks me up to learn some people have already read the whole book in less than a day. I am always curious to hear what readers liked and didn’t like about this book, and where they would like to see Perveen go next. When I spotted some women going into a bar in Houston carrying my book, I descended on them to find out.

Shared journeys are the best. And although my book tour of the US is undertaken alone, any feelings of loneliness disappear when I enter a different bookstore every evening, readying myself for unexpected questions and conversation.

The Right Kind of Malice

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

When I began writing fiction, I didn’t know conventions for writers even existed. (I think the Murder is Everywhere gang might excommunicate me for the confession). Before I was published, I joined   the wonderful international program Sisters in Crime. Experienced women writers in that group told me that I would learn a lot to help myself at mystery conventions. For example, I could hear famous mystery novelists talk about how they wrestled with plots; make friends of readers who knew everything and everyone, and maybe even catch up with a literary agent.

Signature collector Risa hits up novelist Vivien Chien

The first mystery convention I visited was Malice Domestic, a fabulous convention that advertises it is “not everyone’s cup of tea.” Malice does not usually have pleasant connotations, but if you meet a Malice reader, chances are she will hug you before the conversation is over.

Photographer Iden Ford, Welsh author Cathy Ace, and author Donna Andrews

Mystery authors drawn here are primarily (but not exclusively women and the style of mystery storytelling is “traditional” (no gratuitous sex or violence). Yes, the favored mysteries are chock full of suspense and bad things happen—usually a murder that must be solved—but the reader will not feel like vomiting at language and painful images in a Malice book. Also, the mysteries of choice tend to be series books, rather than stand-alones.

My friend Patsy Asher in the hospitality lounge. Writers have filled a table with promo items!

And Malice Domestic is itself a long-running series, if you talk about location. Unlike many conventions, this one does not move around: it has been in the Washington DC suburbs for all of its 31 years, save a couple of years in downtown Washington, when something mysterious happened in an elevator that made the convention shoot back to the suburbs. Currently it’s housed over a three-day weekend at a Marriott Hotel in North Bethesda.

Because of the recurring DC area location, many of the fans are from DC, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. It takes me about an hour to get to the con by car or train. What could be easier?

Kathy Harig with her assistant Dorothy from Mystery Loves Company Books in Oxford, MD, are the primary sellers of new mysteries.

However—writers come here from Canada, England, and all over the country—and they also tend to be repeat offenders. Male mystery folk are welcomed like brothers come home from college, but to my unscientific eye they make up less than ten percent. Bloggers are a new crowd that came in over the last fifteen years or so… these hardworking, usually unpaid book reviewers are great company.

Hanging with Blogger Dru Ann Love of Dru’s Musings

I began my association with this crew when I won a Malice Domestic Unpublished Writers Grant. In 1996, I submitted a partial manuscript of my first mystery novel into a contest that was overseen by longtime serious mystery readers on the Malice board including Bill F. Deeck, a marvelous mystery man who sadly passed away too young—and as a result, the award is now named in his honor. There are other awards, too: the Agathas, named in homage to the mother of the traditional series mystery, Agatha Christie. Malice attendees nominate their favorite novels, stories and true crime books that relate to writing mystery and the traditional mystery genre from the previous year. These are extremely coveted awards because they come in the shape of a teapot. Yes, an actual working teapot that is custom made to the convention’s specifications, with a lovely new design revealed each season.

Beth Schmelzer, retired children’s librarian, has been influential in bringing children’s mystery authors to Malice

I returned to Malice Domestic last weekend. Over the 23 years that have passed, I think I only missed six conventions because I’d moved to Minnesota. I always wind up having long, happy conversations with the friends I’ve met over the years—and I make new ones each time. In a way, Malice is like the high school you should have gone to, where everyone is welcoming, and everyone wants to read (as opposed to playing sports).

At my banquet table, you’ll see mystery writers Maya Corrigan and James Ziskin from left.

This year, I was on quite a high because The Widows of Malabar Hill was one of five nominees in the Best Historical Mystery category. This first novel in my Perveen Mistry series brought me very good luck at the Left Coast Crime convention and the Edgar Awards, so I figured my luck had run out. And just look at these fabulous fellow writers who were nominated.

My fellow best historical nominee LA Chandler, left, and writer Lea Wait on right

I nearly passed out when I heard that I won… I managed to float through the ballroom up to the stage but proceeded on the exit stairway rather than the entry stairway, so I had to go down again to get my beautiful teapot before making my acceptance speech.

The teapot is just right for tea with my agent Vicky Bijur

Several days later, I am still reeling from the shock of this recognition for Perveen Mistry. I am so happy that a book set in India, telling a tale of strong women facing adverse circumstances and ending on an upbeat note, made it into the hearts of so many readers.

I am about to launch the second Perveen Mistry, The Satapur Moonstone. I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, but the joyful celebration at the Malice convention will buoy me through whatever comes next.