Archive for Travel

An Adventure on Pali Hill

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The first welcome I had in Pali Hill was from a rooster.

I’d just entered my bedroom in the Airbnb rental. It was about three-thirty in the morning. As I put down my suitcase, exhausted after eighteen hours of flying and lots of airport waiting, a series of mournful squawks began. The glass window was latched shut; it was January, with evening temps in the sixties. But the valiant rooster’s cries carried, despite the earplugs I’d brought on suggestion from the host and previous Airbnb guests in the review.

You may wonder why I decided to stay in a flat where I knew a rooster made an impact. The answer is two-fold. First, I thought the rooster would just wake me up a little early in the morning. And the second is that I really wanted to stay in a residential neighborhood of Mumbai with a local host, rather than a hotel. I am willing to try new things, because I’d rather stay in the real world.

But is Pali Hill, a posh historic neighborhood within the area known as Bandra West, the real world? Plenty of people would say no—it is too elite and full of many people of different countries and faiths. It is far more mixed, and liberal, than a typical Indian community.

I was a temporary visitor, so I am not a Pali Hill expert, let alone one on Bandra itself. The larger village known as Bandra (Vandre means port in Marathi) began as a fishing village. Its identity was stamped in terms of architecture and a grand Catholic Church, during the Portuguese colonization. The British took over, and the new buildings that went up—charming bungalows and flats—were home to wealthy Parsis, Anglo-Indians, and others with the taste for quiet living in the hills north of Bombay. In the 1930s, film people began settling here. Today there are splashy new shopping areas with crowded streets, but most  in bungalows and apartment buildings that were grand in the 1920s and are faded-grand today. The simpler places are still locally owned and many are rented to the French and other international residents.

Some grand houses that aren’t occupied are held close by the owning family and rented for use as film sets. Many homes are guarded by high walls with signs proclaiming stern statements such as: “This is the home of the Perreira Family. Absolutely no trespassing upon penalty of law” or “This home belongs to J Winslow and family. It is not for sale and do not enquire about it.”

Keeping one’s hold of property in Mumbai is not always easy. A charming sky-blue cottage across from my favorite coffee place is titled to an elderly couple. They traveled for a few months and left the property in the hands of a servant who promised to take good care. When the couple returned, the locks had been changed and the servant had taken over the house, refusing them entry… saying the house was now his. Because of the city’s rules affirming the rights of people to stay on properties where they’ve had a history of living, the servants may trump the owners in this contentious case that has Pali Hill neighbors talking.

Back to the names on the cottages. Many of the names are Portuguese ones like Almeida, Pereira, and Braganza. It turns out that the Catholic community in Bandra is quite different ethnically from the Christians of Goa, Kerala and other areas. Bandra and the villages around it like Santa Cruz were home to a very old Marathi speaking community who lived in the area as farmers, fishing people and salt gatherers. They were converted to Catholicism during Portuguese rule in the 15th and 16th centuries. This is when they began taking Portuguese surnames, celebrating Christian holidays, and enjoying roasts and sausages.

Today, Bandra is a prime location to  run a restaurant or cafe with high prices, offering sustenance to foreigners in search of almond-milk cappuccinos, as well as affluent young Indians wishing to have fun away from the prying gaze of their family and neighbors. A number of Airbnb listings for Bandra West state that “unmarried couples are welcome,” which would not necessarily be true throughout the city.

In The Widows of Malabar Hill, Perveen travels secretly to meet an attractive young man. The Bandra Bandstand area is where she experiences a burning kiss on the rocks close to the Arabian Sea. This business was inspired by the kind of hanky-panky that has been going on there for at least a century.

One of my favorite rituals while staying in Bandra was fitness walking in Joggers Park, a scenic park with greenery in the center of an oval track. Along one side, you can see the sea. The park is popular all day long with friends who come to walk together, or to do yoga and training exercises.

There was a series of oval tracks—one dirt, another stone, another brick, and so on. The youngest or fastest people usually moved on the outside track, while the old friends wishing to catch up could meander and stop on the old-fashioned walkways and take time to gossip sitting on benches.

Just like a beautiful Indian garden, the track has floral flourishes and a dramatic center point: garden with a bridge over a pond with ducks. And on its banks, to my amazement, was a cage holding a rooster and some chickens. This fellow was quieter than the one near me; perhaps because he had so much to look at around him.

From India with love

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I’m filing this on my last day of a wonderful three weeks in Mumbai.

I was taking a walk through a shady, old-fashioned passageway in a typical 19th century shop building in the Colaba neighborhood. It was a delightful meander just steps from the historic Royal Bombay Yacht Club, where I spent my las few days.

With any trip, there are ups and downs. Over this trip, I haven’t had a moment of stomach trouble. However, I had a laptop fall very ill (and then recover, thanks to the geniuses at Maple Shop, as India’s Apple licensee is called). I switched the places and neighborhoods I was staying in three times and never really had a quiet night. Well, I guess it’s Mumbai, right?

Lovely old flat building in Bandra

I managed 20-plus interviews over this trip; I saw a new film, a popular play about a legendary actress, and a dress rehearsal of another play with a Bollywood connection (more on this one in another post). I attended an Odissi dance debut of a teenage artist. I shopped at a modern art show and filled my eyes with masterpieces of at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum of decorative arts and the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. I attended to a university lecture and was able to chat with students. I visited a historic Parsi colony and several courts of law—one of them the former coroner’s court, which I expected had been swept away since this legal process is no longer a necessity in Bombay. What a thrill to find the high-ceilinged room where cause of death was determined by a jury still exists, albeit filled with cubicles.

The Bhau Daji Lad museum offers a doll-sized view of history

The one thing I could have done but missed out on was being on set for a Bollywood film shoot. Do I regret not going because it was starting close to midnight?

As I sit in the airport, I admit I should have blinked away my fatigue and gone.

Therefore, I don’t have star photos for you, but in upcoming posts I aim to share what I loved so much about this trip to Mumbai.

And that even in 2020, it’s such a joy to be able to tread through the passageways of the city back to the Indo-Victorian world of my fiction.

Historic Wilson College is an inspiration for the next Perveen book

Whilst in India, I received the great surprise of a nomination for the 2020 Bruce Alexander award for historical fiction, and the 2020 Sue Grafton Memorial Award for a mystery featuring a female protagonist. The Lefty historical winner will be chosen by conventioneers voting at the Left Coast Crime convention in San Diego this March, and the Grafton award has been chosen by a judging committee and will be announced at the Edgars Dinner in New York in April. I am very excited and grateful that The Satapur Moonstone was enjoyed by both fans at LCC and a committee of professional writers serving as judges for the Edgars. I encourage you to check out the whole Lefty List and the Edgars List for books you might enjoy.

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.

A Writer’s Escape to the East Caribbean: St. Kitts

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Confession. Last week, I did a scant amount of writing, and a lot of hillside climbing, on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Christopher, better known as St. Kitts.

I had flown here with all good intentions. Freed of daily chores, including dog walking and driving and cooking, I suspected my mind would expand. To stay in a colonial style cottage in the rain-forest, to gaze through a screen of trees at sparkling blue water, would only enhance my motivation. It all made sense!

The problem with going to a place like St. Kitts is that the scenery is so spectacular it’s difficult for a visitor to notice anything else. I became mindful without being tied to any formal practices. I simply could not focus on much, except for my immediate environment: the sparkling sea and endless parade of clouds. Although it wasn’t all sunshine; sometimes it rained gently, or the water poured down like an Indian monsoon.

I’d dragged my husband along with me to Bellemont Farm, a working organic farm/luxury resort. The farm is investor and government-owned, meant to bring jobs and profits to the island. The eco-resort has 44 guest cottages and villas, and about as many more that are partially built. The development was  designed by Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley in St. Kitts’ historic cottage style and built stone by stone by carpenters and stonemasons from the island.

Without a doubt, the raw landscape is Bellemont’s greatest asset. There are almost 500 acres of undeveloped hilly land that once belonged to sugar barons, but was unsuitable for sugarcane. These hills are close to the island’s dormant volcano, Mount Liamuiga; and volcanic soil is said to bring a special sweetness to the vegetables and fruit grown in its terroir.

It is hard not to slip into French here, even if you don’t speak it, because the French and English were continuously vying to dominate the island since the 1600s.  The island was originally inhabited by Carib Indians who were the victims of a. horrific genocide by the French and British settlers working together. Without anyone to undertake the hard labor of sugar farming, the colonists ordered slaves brought from Africa. After the British government outlawed slavery, British sugar plantation owners used indentured laborers from Asia.

St. Kitts and neighboring island Nevis became an independent nation-state in 1983, and they still retain membership in the Commonwealth nations. St. Kitts’ last sugar plantation closed in 2005, quite late compared to other countries with sugar. The island has both a veterinary and medical school that attract North American students. There is a main tourist drag called Frigate Bay on the south end of the island close to the airport.

On a half day tour of the island, we saw plenty of simple houses in villages that we passed through on the main island road. This is not a prosperous island, and the government is encouraging people to invest in good building projects here, in exchange for a St. Kitts passport. I thought it was great that the original villages, some going back to the 1600s, have survived and are honored with signs one sees driving along the winding beach road.

For the smallest sovereign state in the Americas, sustainable luxury is a delicate issue. Bellemont’s shingled guest cottages are not a literal depiction of the homes that sugar workers lived in, but they do succeed in making someone like me feel pampered in a homier way than a chain hotel could. And the benefit to the community is clear. Many employees had worked in sugar before the mills closed and were proud to be creating a visionary project for St. Kitts. Our taxi tour guide, Zien, worked as a surveyor at Bellemont while it was being laid out. Zien explained that if there was a big tree on the property, it could not be cut down for the sake of a cottage. The cottage could be built near the tree or on another slope. Such ecological wisdom has kept this rainforest area  very attractive to animals and gives a feeling of age and longevity to the resort.

Another sign of island pride is that every cottage is named for a Caribbean writer. Cottage 204’s designated author was Slade Hopkinson, a poet from Guyana. The cottages and villas are scattered throughout the hilly terrain to give their temporary tenants breathtaking views and maximum privacy from human eyes.

Many of the cedar-shingled cottages have their own private plunge pools. For some reason, ours did not—but like all of the cottages, it had three gorgeous verandas wrapping around. Because the resort is in the mountains, we experienced no mosquitos and happily spent many hours on the verandas—though the cottages themselves have subtle mosquito screening backing the shuttered windows and doors, just in case a whining bug might show up, perhaps in a different month.

The cottage’s rear veranda is open to the sky to allow a maximum sea view. I found this place extremely magical at sunrise, but too bright during the day to spend much time there.

But no worries! When the sun rose, I hung out on a roofed veranda fitted with a long daybed that was perfect for writing. And the last veranda was on the cottage’s south side and was clearly for Tony and me only. This was a full-scale outdoor bathroom—with tub and sinks in the open, and toilet and shower that did have latching doors for privacy. We felt utterly private because that side of the cottage was shaded with many lush trees and bushes.

Well, we weren’t entirely alone. While in the outdoor bath, Tony was spied on by a curious monkey. Another time, he saw a baby monkey came off the banana tree to investigate the veranda, only to be loudly reprimanded by its mother.

Inside, our high-ceilinged cottage was a muted fantasy of tasteful blue and white cotton fabrics and traditional island wooden furniture. We shut off the cottage’s air conditioning and were thrilled by the refreshing cool air coming through the shuttered doors and windows. It was a shock to leave Bellemont’s lofty perch for the long drive to the city’s capital, Basseterre, and realize that the island could actually be humid and hot.

Some of the vast acreage is used as a sustainable organic farm, with hundreds of different fruits and vegetable. The Kitchen restaurant offered all-organic seasonal produce, meat and fish and meat cooked in a fusion of European, Caribbean and Asian styles. At breakfast, I had smoothies made from sour oranges, kale, cucumber and cantaloupe. Locally-caught mahi-mahi, lobster, tuna and snapper were on the menu, as well as free-range pork, beef, chicken, duck and rabbit.

One misty evening close to our departure, we rode a golf cart through the twisty up and down trails to the heart of Bellemont Farm’s vegetable garden. About twelve of us gathered with the hotel’s executive managers for a special farm dinner. It was an astounding array of pickled vegetables and fruits, grilled meats and fish, freshly baked breads and fruit pies.

Conversation and wine flowed, and three hours passed without us realizing it. As my husband and I traveled up the hill for the fifth and final night of my stay, I thought about how far we had come from our everyday urban world… and how wonderful it was that respite could be social, as well as solitary.

Island Dreaming

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Winter has a way of making me want to fly the heck away from Baltimore’s cold wind, leafless trees, and intermittent ice and snow storms. Sometimes, it actually happens. In the middle of winter of 2018, I spent time to Arizona and India while on book tour. The winter before, it was Hawaii for Left Coast Crime. This year, I’m unfortunately grounded until a late March trip (details later!). Until then, I’ve vicariously escaped by gawking at books about island life. I’ve also read so many Caribbean stories I now understand a lot of patois.

Poring through some photos I took last year, I stopped at the sight of this coral house. This old house covered in pretty fish scale shingles lurks almost unseen on a busy street in St. Petersburg, Florida. I passed it daily as I walked from my small hotel to the Vinoy, the grand hotel where the last Bouchercon World Mystery Convention was held.

As I traveled past Victorian houses in St. Pete, they never escaped me, no matter how hard their owners might have tried to plant trees and bushes for privacy. I actually admired the house for being clever enough to have palm and magnolia sentries shielding it from traffic and ugly new buildings and, yes, tourists such as myself.

I suspect this cottage was built in the late 19th century, possibly as a holiday home. In some ways it reminds me of my own 1890s unstained brown cedar shingle house, which also has a white wrap around porch. However my porch has matchstick style bannisters rather the delightfully elaborate lacy design, and its brown color is so dull when compared with orange sherbet.

The Caribbean design books explain that a fancy porch like the one pictured above could grace a home in the Bahamas just as much as Florida. And apparently there are special colors, like pinks, that are unique to particular islands because that was what was stocked in the island hardware store.

Bright houses laugh with happiness.

For a homeowner to dress a house in bright paint is akin to wearing a bright gown to the Oscars, as Gemma Chan did. A black dress that fits close to the body is conventional good test. On the other hand, an oversized, fluffy pink confection says, “Let’s play.”

When people paint their houses to bring smiles, it’s an act of generosity. And even if the coral house is locked, the entry for dreams stands wide open.

Milano, Milano!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Golden State

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Naomi Hirahara and me in a Japanese garden in Little Tokyo

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

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

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

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

A vintage academic building at Occidental College

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

Historic student housing at Occidental College

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

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

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

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

The Mayfair Hotel in downtown Los Angeles

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

Mayfair’s stylish lobby

The Mayfair’s podcast room

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

Winging it at Bouchercon

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

India Underfoot

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

It’s too easy to twist your ankle while walking through India. Streets and sidewalks have irregular surfaces, and there are many distractions, ranging from speeding cars and motorcyclists creating their own laws to horses and goats.

So I only feel like my footing is truly firm indoors, and I am always glad about the safety of a smooth tile floor.

In Fort Cochin, I stayed in the historic Brunton Boatyard, a hotel built on the grounds of a Victorian shipyard. The narrow red clay tiles on the first floor appear to be strictly business. These tiles have an industrial look and are still holding up after centuries of heavy rolling carts—and now, suitcases.

Nineteenth century Indian royals, on the other hand, used tiles in a grand manner that they’d seen themselves on European tours. Palace tile that I’ve seen is typically giant blocks of pure black and white marble. Not especially original—but very silky underfoot. When I checked into a guest room in Shiv Nivas, a hotel housed in the old guest wing of Udaipur’s City Palace Hotel, the floors felt cleaner than anything I’d ever stepped on, and probably a lot of it had to do with the contrast in air temperature and marble’s natural chill. Before the days of air conditioning, floors were an important cooling element.

In Calcutta, zamindars (landowners) had magnificent homes in North Calcutta built throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When I visited a friend who lived in such an aging treasure, I marveled at the veining in the fine marble tiles in the bedrooms.

The most joyful tiles that I’ve seen to date are the encaustic (hand-made cement) tiles from the late 19th and early 20th century in Western India. The first encaustic tiles used in India were Minton Company tiles exported from England.  The British government wanted Indians to buy their tile (as well as most other products) from England. Wanting to suit freedom-minded Indians who still wanted modern tile floors, a Parsi businessman, Pherozeshah Sidhwa, started Bharat Flooring Tile Company in Maharashtra in the early 1920s. These tiles had tremendous patterns crafted to exacting standards, and the backs of the tiles had a map of undivided India stamped on them.

Bharat Tiles are firmly cemented in some of the favorite places I’ve stayed in India, like the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, above.

Wilson College in South Bombay, pictured above, is full of original detail. The school was founded by a missionary, and I don’t know if the tiles are Indian or English.

I’ll make an educated guess that these encaustic tiles in Mahatma Gandhi’s Bombay residence are Bharat Tiles. After all, Gandhiji was the founder of the Swadeshi movement encouraging Indians to buy Indian-made products.

When I recently traveled to Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat, I stayed at the House of MG, a boutique hotel carved out of a grand old residence of the textile merchant, Mangaldas Girdhardas. Mr. Girdhardas expanded his original 1924 residence to have two large wings for his sons and their families. The original wing has black and white marble tile floors; the sons’ sides have brilliant, geometric-patterned encaustic tiles.

When I toured Ahmedabad, I visited more historic havelis, such as the one above, and saw plenty of vibrant cement tile. By now I’d noticed that the prominent colors for all these tiles were golds, reds, and blacks. Yet that color scheme did not determine decorating. Indians decorate in many color schemes atop the harvest-colored floors.

It’s heartening that Bharat Flooring Tile Company managed to create such an industry disruption in 1920s Bombay that the British themselves paid to have many public buildings fitted out with Bharat tiles. And the company lives on today under the same name. They have reissued old patterns and seen them go into old buildings undergoing restoration and new restaurants.

From the British colonial days through independence, Indian tile floors are too tough to show evidence of all who’ve stepped on them. Yet I feel that history surround me every time I go through a door into a hotel or school with a patterned tile floor.

Of Dogs and Other Furry Friends in India

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

what is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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