History Examined, History Made with Vaseem Khan

Article | Issue: Sep 2023

Award-winning mystery writer VASEEM KHAN took decades to realise his publishing dream; now he’s the new Chair of the renowned Crime Writers Association, and helping to inspire, welcome, and celebrate a range of exciting new voices in the genre. CRAIG SISTERSON reports.


In some ways, Vaseem Khan still can’t believe it. We’re chatting backstage at the world-renowned Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, Yorkshire, in late July. As thousands of booklovers attend fascinating panels and chat in the bookshop and beer tent in the grounds of the historic Old Swan Hotel, we’ve grabbed a quiet corner in the ballroom. Almost a century ago, mystery writer Agatha Christie reappeared in this very hotel 11 days after vanishing from her home in Berkshire, having sparked a massive manhunt involving 1000 policemen, hundreds of civilians, and the first use of aeroplanes in a search.

The reasons for Christie’s vanishing act remain a mystery, with various theories put forward.

Khan is a big fan of Christie’s fictional mysteries, and her Golden Age contemporaries. He has fond memories of growing up in East London watching David Suchet portray Poirot on television. Shared family moments with his parents, working class immigrants from India. Khan says he dreamed of being a novelist for decades, writing his first manuscript – a comic fantasy inspired by Terry Pratchett – when he was a teenager. Several unpublished novels and more than 20 years later, he broke through in 2015 with his terrific debut, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, which was translated into 15 languages.

Now Khan’s the first British-Asian Programming Chair of ‘the biggest crime writing festival of its kind in the world’. For the festival’s 20th anniversary, no less. We’re snatching time away from the hubbub of the festival before he has to dash away to introduce Special Guest Lucy Worsley OBE, a celebrated British historian and Chief Curator of Royal Palaces who’s recently written the acclaimed biography Agatha Christie: An elusive woman.

‘It’s been a fantastic honour, working with an entire team of people and curating the program,’ says Khan, the author of two outstanding, award-winning mystery series set in his ancestral homeland of India. ‘As Chair you get to create the kind of panels you want to see, so this year we have panels on cosy crime, Golden Age crime, legal thrillers, psychological noir, and you get the biggest writers coming from all over the world. And everybody knows you’re going to have thousands of readers, bloggers, reviewers and writers all congregating at the Old Swan to share this passion we have for murder and mayhem.’

Khan’s novels, which include the ‘Inspector Chopra’ series about a retired policeman solving mysteries in modern India, with an elephant as a sidekick, and a newer historical mystery series set in the turbulent 1950s starring Persis Wadia, India’s first female police detective, are full of humour and smile-inducing moments among the death and dark deeds.

In person he’s similarly witty and warm.

In recent months, Khan was also named the new Chair of the Crime Writers Association (CWA), an august organisation that has been promoting and celebrating crime writing from around the globe since the early 1950s. As a lover of history, and a keen supporter of fresh voices and diverse perspectives in the world’s most popular storytelling genre, it’s not lost on Khan that he’s the first writer of colour to chair the CWA in its 70 years of existence.

‘It’s a great honour, and more than on a personal level, I think it represents how crime fiction has led the way [recently] in opening ourselves up to new voices and new stories,’ he says. ‘More than anything else, symbols are important. I don’t like to harp on the fact, but when I was growing up I saw no-one from my background as a writer in the genre spaces such as crime, romance, fantasy. Now being where I am, I can help other writers who are following in my footsteps to believe they have a great idea worth writing.’

Khan is part of a growing community of ‘crime writers of colour’ in the UK and globally who are bringing fresh and exciting settings, perspectives, and voices to one of the most popular storytelling forms. Last year he co-edited The Perfect Crime, a groundbreaking anthology of 22 short stories from superb BIPOC writers from many countries, ranging from legendary figures like Walter Mosley to new stars like S A Cosby, Silvio Moreno-Garcia, and David Heska Wanbli Weiden, and from Down Under, Sulari Gentill and J P Pomare (Ngāpuhi).

‘It’s no secret the publishing industry is making a concerted effort to dissolve the barriers that have, historically, made it difficult for “non-traditional” voices to make their way into print,’ says Khan. ‘Crime fiction is leading the charge. I was one of the first of the new wave of writers, and many others have followed, winning awards and making it onto bestseller lists. The Perfect Crime is a sleek, gorgeous volume, packed with wonderful, varied stories set in locations around the world, showcasing crime fiction in all its murderous variety.’

As a reader, Khan loves exploring new places and perspectives.

He’s a big fan of ‘Outback Noir’, and programmed Chris Hammer in conversation with S A Cosby at this year’s Harrogate Festival.

‘Chris and Shawn are some of the leading lights of movements around the world, looking at not just geographically different locations but the type of work they’re writing. I love Jane Harper and Chris Hammer. For someone like me who’s never been to Australia it’s fascinating to be transported into those Outback settings. Then Shawn is doing something similar with the rural South in America, an area again I’ve not travelled extensively and the history of which I’ve learned only through films and books, and now I’m learning at a granular level through these amazing stories.’

Khan also really enjoyed Better the Blood by Michael Bennett (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue), a crime debut from an award-winning Māori filmmaker that uses a modern serial killer story in Auckland to explore the ongoing impact of New Zealand’s colonial past.

Re-examining history is a key theme of Khan’s most recent series, which is set in 1950s India following the demise of the British Raj and the tumult of Partition. It stars Inspector Persis Wadia, the newly independent nation’s first female police detective, and her sometimes-partner, British police criminalist Archie Blackfinch.

The first in the series, Midnight at Malabar House, won the CWA Historical Dagger, and the fourth, Death of a Lesser God, was published this August. Khan’s new novel has a fascinating set-up: a white man born in India, the son of an arch-colonialist, is set to hang for the murder of a noted Indian lawyer. He claims he’s innocent, but what justice or mercy can a white man expect, post-Raj?

Persis is handed a poisoned chalice by her superiors: she must review a case most of her colleagues and fellow Indians who suffered through the Raj want to see end with a taut rope and swinging ‘Englishman’.

She sympathises, given the generations of oppression and horrors the British wrought. Khan masterfully balances history and mystery, texturing a superb story with vivid renditions of time and place, personal and political.

‘When I lived in India for 10 years after university, it was amazing,’ says Khan. ‘I saw this country transformed from post-industrial economy to near global superpower that we think of India as today. When I later came back to living in the UK I wanted to chronicle that amazing India I saw that is so important in the world. That was where my first series initiated.’

But after seven books in his ‘Inspector Chopra’ series (five novels and two novellas), Khan says he wanted to explore the roots of modern India, which, despite thousands of years of culture, was founded in 1947 at the end of 300 years of British colonial enterprise.

‘Not every Britain who went to India was a sinner, and not every Indian was a saint,’ he says. ‘My Malabar House novels are set a few years after independence, Gandhi’s assassination and the horrors of partition, and India is a turbulent place, trying to work out what kind of democracy it’s going to be. But it’s also trying to renegotiate its relationship with its former colonial masters, because Britain was still a global superpower.’



Vaseem Khan is the author of two award-winning crime series set in India, the Baby Ganesh Agency series set in modern Mumbai, and the Malabar House historical crime novels set in 1950s Bombay.

His first book, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was selected by the Sunday Times as one of the 40 best crime novels published 2015-2020, and is translated into 17 languages.

The second in the series won the Shamus Award in the US. In 2018, he was awarded the Eastern Eye Arts, Culture and Theatre Award for Literature.  In 2021, Midnight at Malabar House won the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger, the world’s premier award for historical crime fiction

When he isn’t writing, he works at the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College London. Vaseem was born in England, but spent a decade working in India. Vaseem also co-hosts the popular crime fiction podcast, The Red Hot Chilli Writers.


Visit Vaseem Khan’s website 



Better the Blood by Michael Bennett
A terrific ‘Trojan horse’ of a serial killer tale that examines the ongoing impact of colonisation on New Zealand’s indigenous population. Shortlisted for literary and crime awards in multiple countries.

Lightseekers by Femi Kayode
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Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett
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Razorblade Tears by S A Cosby
A savage masterpiece where two Virginia fathers – one black, one white, each ex-cons – hunt the killers of their gay sons, confronting prejudice in others and themselves. Written with poetic ferocity.

The Torrent by Dinuka McKenzie
A terrific series-starter full of smalltown colour that introduces DS Kate Miles, a Sri Lanka Australian detective tasked with looking into the drowning of a local man in massive NSW.

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
An indigenous thriller with heart and soul where a tribal enforcer investigates the influx of heroin onto the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Immerses readers in ‘life on the rez’ in all its complexities.

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
Beautiful writing meets nuanced characterisation in a brilliant stand-alone inspired by the real-life shooting of an unarmed black teen by a Korean shopkeeper two weeks after Rodney King’s infamous beating by LA cops.



Author: Vaseem Khan

Category: Fiction & related items

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

ISBN: 9781399707619

RRP: $32.99

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