I was for several years chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger jury for first novels, and I was struck by the growing number of talented new writers from a variety of backgrounds, not only in Britain but throughout the English-speaking world. This became the inspiration for the creation of “The Perfect Crime” anthology. Once I brought in my fellow CWA Board Member, Vaseem Khan, it became clear that we needed to look as far ahead as possible to reflect this wonderful diversity. We cast our net far and wide and invited not only trailblazers among authors of color, but also writers of Asian, African and Indigenous descent from around the world.
In this regard, we modestly believe that the collection is an important step in demonstrating how much the crime genre has changed over the past decades, both in attitude and themes. We haven’t specifically asked our contributors to address the topics of race or diversity in their new stories, although some have masterfully taken the opportunity, just to come up with a great new thread. And we believe that they have really found strengths.
We asked some of the writers involved to discuss the inspiration behind their respective stories and their views on the growing diversity in the broad spectrum of contemporary detective writing.
Vasem Khan: As co-editor and contributor to this anthology, my perspective on the diversity debate is simple. The world changes. A new generation of readers is emerging who live in globalized and interconnected societies and therefore request diverse content. Likewise, many mainstream readers, for lack of a better phrase, are increasingly willing to take risks. My personal opinion is that the industry is making a real effort. Talking to people in publishing, I’m convinced that change is an important part of their agenda.
My short story, DEATH TO DARJEELING, features characters from my Malabar House novels (beginning with Midnight at Malabar House), set in Bombay in the 1950s, just a few years after Indian independence and the end of British colonial enterprise on the subcontinent. After the Raj’s demise, many English stayed in India – it was the only home they knew. In a context of evolving Anglo-Indian relations, the two camps, colonizer and colonized, are forced to adopt a new look at each other. A painful exercise, in some cases. But, as my novels attempt to show, many rose to the challenge head-on.
Today, as we grapple with diversity and inclusivity in our modern world, there is hope and lessons to be learned.
Sanjida Kay: I am mixed race – Irish-Bangladeshi – and grew up with two Irish parents in England, Wales and Ireland for most of my life. What I experienced growing up – being classified and treated as ‘other’, yet feeling both very British and yet also foreign – is something I have explored indirectly in most of my fiction.
In my little story, The beautiful game, the main character, Selene Jackson, was born and raised in Manchester by a white mother and two white half-sisters. She herself is mixed-race, half-Nigerian, as is her football legend boyfriend, Luke Allard, who is half-French. Due to Selene’s appearance, people treat her differently than her sisters, as if she is an exotic import. they assume she’s not smart and push her towards a career as a model and WAG (wife or girlfriend of a British footballer). Yet what is as important as his ethnicity is his poverty. She and Luke both lived on welfare, received benefits, grew up with a single mother in a council flat and had to go to food banks. For Luke, his ability to achieve fame and wealth beyond most people’s wildest dreams is to become a Premier League player for Manchester United. For Selene, struggling with sexual inequality in addition to racism and poverty, her card out of prison could be to be in a relationship with a man like Luke, as dangerous as that may be…
For me, race and privilege are intertwined, but the relationship between the two is far more complex than simply assuming that the color of a person’s skin determines who they are and their ability to reach their true potential.
Ausma Zehanat Khan: For my story The yellow line, I returned to my detective series Esa Khattak to direct the story, though it’s mostly told from the perspective of a hijab-wearing woman named Haniya. I love having Muslim characters headlining my stories because we so rarely see them in crime novels or political thrillers except as terrorists or as an oppressed underclass. After reading crime novels all my life and rarely seeing a character I could relate to, it was in many ways a relief to write characters like Esa and Haniya. It allowed me to reclaim the narrative about the communities I come from, to confuse the expectations of who these characters are and the unique challenges they face.
As a woman frequently harassed for wearing the hijab, Haniya could have easily come across as an agencyless victim or a woman who needs a man to speak for her. She isn’t and she doesn’t, but the way she seizes this agency to fight a stalker is subversive and morally questionable, speaking against the type as it is so often presented in mainstream discourse. I was tired of stories about Muslims and South Asians, where they even existed, that lacked authenticity or nuance. Stories from the outside rarely tell the whole truth and often frame our communities in devastating ways that contribute to the climate I write about in The yellow line. Diverse representation in fiction puts the power back in our hands and allows us to speak for ourselves.
Imran Mahmud: In my short story “The Button Man”, I wanted to take a look at the life of a sociopathic serial killer. There’s so much fascination with sociopaths today, especially the (thankfully) disappearing ones who become serial killers. It is as if by understanding a person whose psyche is at the extreme end of the spectrum of humanity, we can begin to understand the worst and the best of our own nature. But what about the person under the microscope? What would it matter to him to be thrown to the confines of society’s spectrometer? Is it to further desocialize an undersocialized person? Is it a rejection of a person by using another metric? Is this the last acceptable form of discrimination?
There is a sadness about Daniel, this relentless, selfish, dangerous and callous killer. The sadness isn’t his – he doesn’t seem to notice it for himself. The sadness is that he is so interested and fascinated by the details of other people’s lives. He is fascinated by us. And we are disgusted by him. While writing it, I felt that if we could build a bridge to reach it, then we might as well reach it. And if we did that, who knows what horrors we might avoid. Daniel is of course the most extreme of the examples. He is so far from our grasp. We are so different. But I often think about unbalanced relationships. The rich and the poor. The privileged and the marginalized. Who belongs and how they interact with those they deny they belong to. And finally I wonder if when we oppose each other, we do more than the other? If in fact we ourselves.
David Heska Wanbli Weiden: As an Indigenous writer, representation is important to me because we don’t see enough depictions of modern Indigenous life in the media. Luckily, that is changing, as there are a few great TV series that have aired recently – the fantastic Reservation dogs being just one example. I was also pleased to see more Indigenous detective stories published, including some terrific new books by Ramona Emerson and Marcie Rendon. So when Maxim Jakubowski and Vaseem Khan asked me to submit a story to The perfect crimeI accepted immediately.
I knew I wanted to set the story on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota (the location of my first novel, Winter accounts), but I felt I needed a new character, as I had recently written several other short stories featuring my protagonist, Virgil Wounded Horse. So, I imagined Pudge Iron Shell, a former high school football star who now sells bootleg liquor on the reservation. I knew the concept of reservation smuggling would be unfamiliar to many non-native readers. This form of smuggling—sometimes called rum running—was common during Prohibition, but continues in some areas today. Rather than brewing batches of hooch moonshine in the woods, smuggling in this context involves buying liquor across state lines and selling it for a profit on the rez, as many reservations prohibit sales of alcohol. In the story, Pudge is an ethical smuggler, as he will not sell to children or take advantage of customers, but his business is threatened by a gang from the nearby Pine Ridge reservation.
I had a lot of fun writing “Hooch”, and I liked Pudge so much that I included it in my next novel, Wisdom CornerFollowing Winter accounts. Additionally, it was rewarding to write about some aspects of Lakota life that are not well known, such as the friendly – and sometimes not so friendly – rivalry between the Sicangu and Oglala nations in South Dakota. Ultimately, it was important to me to write a story that would keep readers turning the pages, but also reflect the complexity, complications, and joys of life on reservations.
Amer Anwar: I was an avid reader since I learned to read but, in all the books I read growing up, I never saw characters like me or my friends. I didn’t really think about it at the time – I just enjoyed the great stories I was reading – but, as a reader, you put yourself in the shoes of the characters in the story, and almost all the characters I was reading about were white. I guess at some point I started wondering why there weren’t characters like me in any of these books.
Then in my early twenties I read Devil in blue dress by Walter Mosley and that changed everything for me. For the first time, I saw a character of color as the main protagonist in a crime thriller, the kind of book I loved to read. He was not a cop but someone who could move around and operate within a particular section of society because he was part of it. This got me thinking; if you could do that with a character in 1940s Los Angeles, surely it would be possible to do something similar in contemporary West London. This part of West London is a rich and vibrant place, with great real-life characters and plenty of inspiration and material for stories.
I waited years for someone to do it. When no one did, I finally decided to try to do it myself, to write the kind of story I wanted to read.