Murder in Old Bombay

A despairing plea from a widower leads a recuperating officer in British India into dangerous adventures to reach the ultimate prize—a sense of belonging.

Our featured author, Nev March, takes us a world away to the culturally rich tapestry and darkly mysterious backdrop of 19th century India. Nev’s passion for historical research and a diverse cast of characters is well evidenced in her debut novel, Murder in Bombay.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: What was the inspiration behind Murder in Old Bombay?

A: As a child I’d heard of ‘the Rajabai Tower Mystery’—the tale of two Parsi girls who fell from Bombay University clock tower in broad daylight. Though these were ruled suicides, 90 years later I heard this as a cautionary tale to warn girls that danger is ever present.

Researching these events, I learned that the husband of one of the victims was Ardeshir Godrej, who went on to become a famous entrepreneur and inventor. At the time of his wife and sister’s deaths, he was a 22-year-old law student. He never remarried, so I thought he must have been deeply in love with his young bride.

How does a young man recover from such a blow? An intense and private man, this must have been traumatic. From his remarkable achievements in later life, I wondered whether he’d hired a detective to solve the mystery of his wife’s death. The trial and acquittals of those accused were splattered over newspapers for months, so Ardeshir would not want more publicity… that was the start of my imaginings. What sort of man would he hire as private detective? At the time, British army officers often retired to take up private employment. So, I invented a young soldier recovering from injuries, disenchanted with the army and longing for a family of his own.

Q: Tell us how you handle the balance required in integrating a real-life event into the tapestry of a fictional murder mystery (i.e., taking liberty with the facts to accommodate the progression of the plot).

A: Many events in my book are based on fact—the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny which left resentment simmering within many Indians, the patchwork of self-ruled Princely States within British controlled India, the tragic deaths of the two girls.

I took some liberties with history in the plot: Karachi and Lahore were not attacked in 1891-92 as I’ve described but my plot is based on 1891 skirmishes in the Hunza and Nagar Princely states and the 1897 tragedy at Saragarhi. Published notices of Victoria Cross awardees describe many skirmishes between Afghan and British troops, before and after the second Afghan war of 1882. Until 1896 when the Durand line was drawn as the border between India and Afghanistan, the north-west Frontier Province of India was dangerous wilderness. Therefore, while fictional, history informed my plot.

The Parsi tradition of marrying within the community is very real, although in recent decades there are many more marriages of Parsi youth to non-Parsi spouses. In India, Parsi women who marry out still suffer disadvantages—their children aren’t considered Parsi. (In other parts of the world they are accepted.) Many of my aunts and uncles did not marry at all, because of this taboo. When women married out of the community—like tragic beauty Ruttie Petit who married Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan—they often became estranged from their families. So that part is based on fact.

Q: What historical characters make appearances in your chapters?

A: Only one historical character is named: Lord Harris, Governor General of Bombay makes a brief appearance at the end of the story.

The editor Tehmtan (Tom) Byram is based on Behramji Malabari, a Parsi reformer who advocated later marriages, was against infant marriage and lobbied to allow widows to remarry. Editor Jehangir B Murzban of the Jam-e-Jamshed Newspaper was another such reformer. These thought leaders wrote that the high number of maternal deaths was caused by early marriages and asked couples to avoid having children until the wife was over 20. In the era before birth-control, that meant allowing the bride to remain in her parent’s home until a suitable age, or keeping celibate–not an easy task for a young married couple! In my book I cite this to explain why both married girls were virgins when they died.

Q: Is Prince Akbar based on a real person?

A: No, he is not. Akbar is loosely based on a number of Indian princes who squandered their wealth or were cruel to their people.  There’s the tale of Maharaja of Alwar, Jai Singh Prabhakar, who was exiled after numerous excesses. He is said to have purchased six Rolls-Royce cars to clean streets, after he was slighted at the car showroom in London. Other rulers like the Nizam of Hyderabad amassed incredible wealth. Some extorted horrific taxes even during times of famines. However, many rulers like Digvijay Singh Jadeja of Nawanagar and the Gaikwad of Baroda were benevolent, promoting education and uplifting the poor.

Q: How about Ranjpoot—is it a real place?

A: Ranjpoot is based on the princely state of Balasinor near Ahmedabad, which had Muslim rulers and a female regent till 1882. The capital-city is based on Hyderabad, the gorgeous palace of its Nizam. The princely states have unique cultures and history, but were hotbeds of intrigue and political maneuvering. Reading Cornelia Sorabji’s books brought me some incredible true stories which served as my inspiration.

Q: Over the course of writing a book, plot changes and even twists often emerge. Sometimes these are even driven by the very characters whose actions we believe we are controlling as their creator. Was this the case for you?

A: The middle section of my book was really hijacked by Captain Jim. It contains two rather dramatic adventures while Captain Jim chases down a lead in Lahore and gets stuck in the middle of a civil war. While some see these as a detour to showcase the divergent landscapes of India, they are essential to resolving the romantic sub-plot. So while I didn’t quite plan these detours, they turned out to be invaluable in the end.

Q: There’s also an element of romance in your debut novel. Tell us about it.

A: Yes, the subplot is a ‘doomed romance’ between mixed-race Captain Jim and Diana, the daughter of the aristocratic Framji Family. Captain Jim wants a family—reflected in his affection for the Framjis who treat him as a trusted friend, and his adoption of a group of waifs on his journey. The sub-plot also echoes this, as he falls for Diana’s classy charm and spunky courage–but socially, she’s out of reach. She’s English-educated, widely read, and full of surprises, some good, some not so good. Ultimately—oh wait, you have to read the book to find out more!

Q: Murder in Old Bombay depicts 19th century Indian society as misogynistic. Was this actually the case? If so, what appeal will this hold for 21st century female readers who advocate for equality?

A: Traditional societies are often misogynistic—I can cite many examples. In 2014, when Malala Yousoufzai got the Nobel Prize, the Tariq Khattak, editor of the Pakistan Observer, a Karachi newspaper said, “She is a girl — a normal, useless type of a girl. She’s nothing special, nothing in her is special at all except they are selling what the West would buy happily.” 

Sati (the practice of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre) was banned by British law in 1830s, but continued to be practiced in secret. In India, widow remarriage was rare before written into law in an 1856 Act. India has been called the ‘rape capital’ of the world for the outrageous number of crimes against women. Female infanticide has resulted in a lopsided sex ratio: In 2018, India had 943 women to every 1,000 men. Where are the millions of missing girls?

While my affection for India is plain in the descriptions of places and people in my book, a writer’s job is to hold up a truthful mirror, no matter how painful that picture might be, and propel both men and women to advocate for more equality.

Q: What is the overarching theme of this novel, and how do/will you identify themes for future works?

A: In my novels I explore essential truths. To feel a truth is so much more persuasive than hearing it. If one hears an argument, one usually counters with our own experience. However, to feel it brings emotion, so that this story is our own experience, and we are more likely to accept it. These truths are the human experience, the way we navigate the world. Bringing an essential truth to someone elevates their thinking, so that they will behave differently in their own worlds.

In Murder in Old Bombay, I portrayed the plight of women, who, regardless of wealth, are imprisoned by social attitudes. I also touched on the intrinsic unfairness of discrimination.  

In my next book two themes are intertwined. First, an immigrant’s journey from delight through disenchantment. A pair of immigrants must work together to foil a terrible disaster—yet are they willing to pay the final price for a society that sees them as insignificant? Second, my story is set in a period of conflict between haves and have-nots—during the gilded age, an era of social injustice. If entrenched interests resist change, can democracy survive? Is it worth saving?

Q: You left a successful career in business to pursue your passion for writing about history. What lessons from that prior occupation have been instrumental in influencing how you do research, how you craft suspense and how you structure/organize your writing schedule?

A: After two decades in a corporate career, I’ve learned to organize my time and materials—my files, research sources, and promotional assets. What surprised me is the amount of planning: I write from a well-researched, detailed outline. Market research helps me find information, as well as solicit input from critique partners. I needed to find my tribe, building partnerships with early readers, writers and advocates of my writing. My marketing skills were needed to create pitches, query letters, and then to promote my book.

To keep honing my skills, I allocate time between 1) Sprints to focus on writing 2) Teaching/coaching 3) reading craft books/courses. Learning to build suspense with emotion and pacing is something I keep working at. Teaching creative writing helps keep the energy flowing. I enjoy the conversation, the flow of ideas to catch glimpses of opportunity, dramatic scenes, intriguing contradictions!

Q: Aspiring authors often lament that they just can’t find the time to write. Based on your own experience, what’s your response to that?

A: I’ve learned that life and art cannot be separated, they co-mingle, informing each other. When I’m distressed I usually cannot write. But my emotion finds its way into a scene, building great dialog.

Composer Ludwig Van Beethoven was deaf, broke and isolated for his final years, fighting a bitter legal dispute over his nephew. All this he poured into writing the most beautiful music ever created.

When I’m writing the first draft, I write obsessively. Scenes haunt me even during sleep. While editing and revising phases I go through periods of intense doubt, chopping and tweaking until a chapter ‘works’. Then I have a fallow phase where I work on short stories, editing older work, or submit to magazines. However, when family medical issues pull me away, I tend to drop everything and just focus on family. Being a writer means one has to toggle between life and art. Each feeds the other.

Q: Writing is a solitary craft. Do you allow anyone to read your work while it’s still in progress or do you make them wait until you have typed THE END?

A: For Murder in Old Bombay I wrote continuously for four months, barely taking the time to eat. When the draft was complete, I presented a chapter each week to my critique group. For my most recent book, I shared three chapters at a time with my agent each week, so we got the first draft done in three months—this after I had researched and agonized over the outline for 15 months!

It was the first time I allowed someone to see my work while it was still evolving. Jill, my agent was the perfect partner, offering support and propelling me with excellent questions, pointing out gaps so I could flesh out the evolving plot. I usually end up modifying the outline as I work so getting input helped. This new process allowed me to have a more balanced life than when I was writing Murder in Old Bombay, much better for my sanity!

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: I’m claustrophobic—can’t stand tight spaces! I didn’t realize this until I got special permission to go up into Bombay University’s Rajabai Tower where the original events in my book happened in 1891. The tower has been closed to the public ever since. On a sweltering hot day, as I climbed up 200 steps, my elbows touching stone on either side, the ceiling only a foot above my head, the only thing that kept me going was that there was no-one behind me. I could turn around if I panicked. So I didn’t. It was terrifying, but I managed to get all the way up to the gallery door, following the lady guard who I had been assigned.

Then tragedy struck. I asked the female guard to open the door. Blushing, she said, “They didn’t give me the key!” I guess University officials decided to “save me from myself!” So, after that torturous climb, I didn’t see the gallery the two girls fell from, but learned that I am claustrophobic!

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’m working on a sequel set in 1893 Chicago, where twenty-seven million Americans will visit the Columbian Exposition that summer. Captain Jim sets off to investigate a murder at the World’s Fair. When he doesn’t return, Diana travels into unknown terrain in search of him. Chicago hosts the first Parliament of World Religions that summer, while at the same time, the World Convention of Anarchists has assembled. What could possibly go wrong? When this pair of young immigrants discovers a possible plot to blow up the World’s Fair, the stakes rise–everything they care about is at risk, even each other.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Writing is such joy! I’d dreamed about having a career as an author for decades—to have it finally happen, to be living it, has been such joy. I’m deeply grateful to all that helped me: My friends who read my work over the years, my husband who said, “we can manage on one salary,” my fabulous critique group, and MWA who launched my career with the Best First Crime novel award, thank you!

I’ve been amazed at the welcome Murder in Old Bombay has received, and getting readers glowing emails and reviews! It tells me that when you speak from the heart, it reaches the recesses within other souls, and finds a home there. I’m so grateful.

Hot Ice, Cold Blood

For Victor Sykes, business is good. His illegal diamond importing business is thriving, and circumstances require that he bring more people to his team. His niece and nephew, Rubi Lee and Zeke, are as dangerous as they are desperate, and they follow orders to make sure everything goes right. But when the shipment of diamonds–sewn into the inner lining of a sweatshirt–is mistakenly confiscated, the entire operation is put at risk. Such is the set-up for author Holly Spofford’s second novel, Hot Ice, Cold Blood, a pulse-pounding thriller that will appeal to anyone who loves a good mystery.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: Let’s start with what sounds like a very intriguing career path. You’re a former middle school teacher and coach of 25 years. Tell us about your decision to leave the world of teaching to enter the world of writing.

A: My decision to leave the world of teaching was difficult and emotional because I loved my colleagues, my students and I loved teaching. For the last ten years of my career, I taught in a small all boys school with the greatest colleagues. We were a happy family.  I was very tight with my students; many of whom I taught for two years in a row because I taught sixth and seventh grade boys. The day I told my sixth graders I was not going to return the following year was April 1st. They knew I loved to joke around, so understandably they all were convinced I was pulling an April Fool’s day prank. It was heartbreaking to tell them I was not kidding, especially when some of them started to cry. That got me. I’ll admit, I cried too!

Q: What do you know now about writing/publishing that you didn’t know when you started?

A: I now know that writing is easy; writing well is difficult. I’ve learned writing requires patience, personal trust and humility. I’ve learned writing is personal, scary, and very rewarding. I’ve learned to walk away when I am struggling because if I try to force the words, the work will be contrived. It’s a profession in which we (authors) expose ourselves to the world for all to see. That is a vulnerable feeling.  With regards to publishing, I self-published and I found the process to be painless. What I did not know about publishing (because I’m new) was how much there was to learn about designing covers, formatting, marketing, etc. I am lucky because I have gotten a “free” education.

Q: You published a murder mystery in 2017, yet your current book is a thriller. Which genre do you prefer to write?

A: Since the age of ten, I’ve wanted to write a book. I was not sure in what genre at that young age. As I grew older, I loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers. This was a tough question since I love both genres. My final answer: Thrillers with murders peppered throughout the book.

Q: Plotter or pantser?

A: I’m a Planster. I have an old school black and white composition book in which I create character sketches, jot down ideas, and write skeletal frames of chapters. I love the feel of pen in hand. However, there are times when I do zero planning because an idea grabs me from out of the blue, and I must run with it. As a result, I end up writing several pages of a chapter in which that ‘IT’ factor is there.

Q: What was the inspiration for Hot Ice, Cold Blood?

A: After Christmas in 2016, my husband and I visited DC. We spent three nights there enjoying all the magnificent museums, memorials, and restaurants. We loved everything, especially the gorgeous War Memorials.  I loved the layout of the city, too. After that trip, I knew I had to write a book with DC as the setting. I felt the city’s vibe in my bones when we walked the streets.

Q: You kept a diary for many years. Do you feel that writing in those diaries was a pre-cursor to your career as a writer of fiction?

A: I do. I found the bag of my diaries in our attic. I laughed out loud at some of my more riveting entries as a twelve-year old: “Dear Diary, today I ate ice cream.” “Dear Diary, I really like G.O. but he likes L. D.” I enjoyed chronicling events in my life. Eventually, I realized how mundane they were, so I intermingled the real events with things I WISH were going on in my life- and BAM! A career in writing fiction was born.

Q: What governed your decision to self-publish your work?

A: As a new author, I figured self-publishing was the safest route to take. I knew my work would be published this way. I enjoy the autonomy of self-publishing, especially since I can set my own deadlines and schedule. With that, I can work at my own pace. Cost helped to govern my decision, too. Going forward, I will continue to explore publishing houses and see what they can offer. I would like to have three books completed before I begin to seriously explore them.

Q: Best advice to aspiring authors planning to follow the DIY route?

A: Find a GREAT editor who edits solely in your genre. My editor is awesome.

Do your research on the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. a publishing house

Make sure to educate yourself on the different self-publishing platforms -many are available.

Q: Have you ever found your characters taking the reins and saying, “Oh, I think we should go a different way?” Do you tug them back or listen to them?

A: Yes, I have, and I am a good listener. If they want to go, I let them. Listening to them does not always guarantee they make the final cut though. Several times, specifically at the start, I had been 100 percent convinced that a character was necessary. And as the story unfolded, I realized they were not as relevant as I first thought. Rather than tossing that character away, I “save” them for potential use in another book.

Q: Where do your characters come from—straight from the ether or inspired by people you actually know?

A: The creation of my characters comes from both real people and the ether. I often “mix” a few real people together to create the ultimate character(s). I enjoy observing people and inventing stories about their lives. Creating characters is one of my favorite aspects of writing. I love describing their looks, their backstories and I love watching my characters evolve. I walk in their shoes and hope to have my readers cheer on the good ones and detest the bad ones. In my second book, I created some very dark people which made me wonder about myself!

Q: What do you find to be the most satisfying/rewarding aspects of penning works of fiction?

A: The most rewarding aspect was when the box containing copies of my first book arrived. I was so emotional I asked my husband to open it! When I held A Letter for Hoot in my hand and admired the gorgeous cover, I was overcome. Another highly rewarding aspect is hearing all the positive comments about my books from my readers. They motivate me to continue to write.  

One of the most satisfying aspects is how natural it feels to write. I never doubted I would publish a book. Sure, I struggle at times. However, I am very tenacious, and I know I will break through whatever barriers are thrown my way. In addition, another gratifying element is the improvement I see in my work. For example, I’ve learned to improve the pace of a novel by eliminating the superfluous. While I may LOVE a certain description or paragraph, if it’s not relevant and drags the pace along, it gets axed.   

Q: And the most frustrating/challenging?

A: The most frustrating thing is self-imposed: trying to make it all ‘perfect’. Nothing is perfect. I am working hard to avoid deleting and/or rewriting the same sentence a thousand times. My intellectual side says, “That’s why you write several drafts!” Yet the stubborn side of me doesn’t listen all the time. I drive myself (and my husband) nuts when I delete and delete. It is counterproductive and irritating.

Q: Tell us about an average writing day/week in the life of Holly Spofford.

A: I thrive on a schedule. Call me boring, but I need one. I love to exercise, therefore every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning I swim at least a mile. The pool is a fantastic place to engage in creative thinking. Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I spend writing thoughts/ideas/scenarios in my black and white composition book. In the afternoons, I walk with my stepdaughter and grandsons. I work almost every evening from about 5:00 until dinner which is usually around 8:30–we eat late! My husband and I come up with creative ideas during cocktail hour! After dinner, I often check sales, website traffic and other authors’ websites. I also indulge in some Words with Friends. My husband and I are avid golfers and play when we can-weather permitting. During our rounds we talk a great deal about my books. In essence then, I “work” on the golf course, too.

Q: What is the oldest, oddest or most nostalgic thing in your bedroom closet?

A: I’ll go with the oddest. An 18” long, hand-made machete from Costa Rica.

Q: If we took a peek at the books currently on your nightstand, what would be on it?

A: The Guest List,

Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar,

A Prayer for Owen Meany

The Family Upstairs

Q: You’re an avid golfer. What three authors (pretending they play) would comprise your perfect foursome and why?

A: Louise Penny: She is one of my favorite authors. I admire her writing style, she creates fantastic characters, and she always keeps me guessing. Her work inspires me to hone my writing skills and push myself to develop intricate plot lines, memorable characters and produce great books.

John Irving: I’ve read many of his books and loved them all. His character development is excellent, especially of Owen Meany in A Prayer for Owen Meany. His sense of humor comes across vividly in that book. The World According to Garp was one of my and my mom’s favorite books. Hollywood did a magnificent job (in my opinion) of turning that book into a movie. I don’t know how many times my mom and I laughed about Bonkers the dog.  Like Louise Penny, he makes the reader want to turn the page to find out what happens.

David Sedaris: He’s hilarious. My brother lent me Naked about twenty years ago and I still laugh at excerpts. I quickly read several more of his books, and I admire him because writing humor/comedy is extraordinarily difficult. Another reason he would be in my foursome is his wonderful story of achieving such success. I’d like to hear about that firsthand.

Q: As an indie writer, what have you found to be the best way to market your books?

A: My husband and I are my best marketing agents. He ordered face masks designed with my book covers on them! Voila! Instant advertising-and it works. I carry bookmarks and books with me wherever I go. My family and friends have helped spread the word of my books. Social media, creating videos, word of mouth and book signings have been helpful in marketing.  I have joined several writing groups too. A goal of mine for the next year is to start a newsletter about my books.  

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I am currently working on the third book in my Daisy and Nick series.  I hope to publish it sometime in 2021.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Readers can go to https://hollyspofford.com​ for more information about me and my books.  I can be found on Independent Authors Network, on Instagram as hssauthor, and on Facebook as Holly Spofford Author. My books are available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Thank you for the support, dear readers. Stay tuned for more and be well.