Growing up in a middle-class family in Mumbai, I wasn’t surrounded by luxuries, but there was one thing our home was never short of – books. My love of mysteries began with the first Famous Five novel my dad brought home and immediately, I was hooked.
As an adult, thrillers and mysteries continue to be my favorite genre, but I wish there were more novels written with main characters who looked like me. When I started writing my own novel, following the advice, ‘write what you know’, I centered my locked room novel on a multigenerational South Asian family.
The main character is Jia, an Indian single mom who is invited by her married sister, Seema to take shelter in her fancy house during Hurricane Harvey. Jia has to deal with her family’s judgement on account of her divorce. Tensions within the family rise in tandem with the floodwaters ultimately escalating to murder and Jia must keep her son safe while trapped with a murderer. The story is as much a whodunit as it is an exploration of the social stigmas faced by women in Indian culture and challenges of motherhood, issues relatable to members of the South Asian community.
My hope is that just like Enid Blyton allowed a little girl in Mumbai to travel the English Countryside, this story provides an insight into the lives of people immigrating from countries with a colonial past.
Thankfully, we are seeing more diversity in crime fiction recently and here’s a list of my favorite novels by AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) authors:
Now You See Us By Balli Kaur Jaswal
Maids are a fixture in middle class families in India, and it is not uncommon for families to hire help to assist with cooking, cleaning, and childcare. As a toddler mom with a full-time job in America and forever drowning in laundry and dishes, I now have a newfound appreciation for the kind maid who came to our flat every day, helping our family and sometimes even filling us in on neighborhood gossip!
The novel Now You See Us by Balli Kaur Jaswal is written from the perspective of three Filipina domestic workers in Singapore. When one of them is accused of murdering her employer, they know the scales of justice are tipped against a domestic worker. Together, they band together, risking their lives and livelihood to figure out the real perpetrator. Balli Kaur Jaswal deftly examines the inner lives of domestic workers with layers of social commentary about their mistreatment at the hands of Singapore’s elite families. The setting comes to life in this novel, sprinkled with delightful details about the local cuisine. Mango-chili pizza? Sign me up.
Kismet By Amina Akhtar
Lifelong New Yorker leaves the city life to pursue wellness in the mountains of Arizona. This may sound like the start of a rom com, but Amina Akhtar cleverly flips the script in this wonderful dark thriller about a serial killer. The book handles a multitude of topics from cultural appropriation to the hypocrisy of the wellness industry. The protagonist Ronnie Khan is deeply sympathetic as she escapes from her abusive aunt and I as a desi could relate to several moments, such as when she rubs suntan lotion vigorously to prevent her skin from turning darker. Arizona landscape is almost a character in this story and while we encroach upon nature and wildlife in real life with wanton disregard, it has a rightful place in this story with several chapters by ravens.
Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff
Bandit Queens is a novel set in a village of Gujarat, a western state of India. The main character is Geeta, a woman who becomes an outcast with a bad reputation after being abandoned by her husband. Everyone in her village thinks she is responsible, and things get worse when she is inveigled into a scheme by several village women to murder their abusive husbands.
Using this intriguing premise as a springboard, Parini Shroff performs a literary high-wire act of creating a darkly comic tale while handling sensitive topics like physical abuse and harassment.
One of my favorite parts of the novel are the character details, which I found highly relatable. In one scene, Geeta touches the ends of her earring studs, reading this I remembered how my mother taught me to do this to secure my earrings. The dialogue is peppered with local vernacular, but is done in a way that’s not distracting. All the female characters in this story have distinct, yet relatable voices and over the course of the novel, as Geeta comes to trust the women in her loan group circle, she realizes she is not alone after all.
Murder And Mamon by Mia Manansala
Mia Manansala’s cozy mystery combines my two favorite topics – food and gossiping aunties. The story centers on a group of aunties aka Calendar Crew. Meddling aunties are not to be trifled with, and when someone comes after one of their own, the main protagonist Lila must uncover the group’s secrets to solve the mystery.
The book should come with a warning against reading it on an empty stomach because it is full of delicious, mouth-watering recipes. Reading about Lila biting into a honey topped scone filled with clotted butter, I was tempted to whip up something in my kitchen before remembering my many culinary deficiencies. I can’t wait for the next installment in this series.