Atlanta, GA: Salil Desai is an India-based filmmaker, journalist and author of crime fiction. His novels Killing Ashish Karve and The Murder of Sonia Raikkonen were recently released on Amazon.com. He is also the author of Murder on a Side Street as well as a collection of short stories, Lost Libido and Other Gulp Fiction.
A self-professed explorer of the dark aspects of the human psyche, Desai weaves this flair into intricate, suspense-filled murder plots. In an email interview with NRI Pulse, Desai talks about his journey as a crime fiction writer, and about Killing Ashish Karve, the second book in his Inspector Saralkar series.
How did filmmaker Salil Desai become a crime fiction writer?
There were many factors that led to my choice of becoming a crime fiction writer. Apart from the fact that I loved the genre as a reader, I realized that if I wanted to seriously attempt being a novelist, penning a murder mystery was the only way I could hope to put those many words on paper. Penning a novel takes at least a year and it is not possible to stay the course, unless you choose the right story and format, especially when it’s your first book. Moreover, I have an aptitude for exploring the dark aspects of human psyche as well a flair for dark humor. So, crime fiction presented me with the perfect opportunity to put these strengths to good use. Killing Ashish Karve (earlier published as The Body in the Back Seat), my first book, was a wonderful learning process and at the end of it, I knew crime fiction was my cup of tea because it suited my story-telling style, ability, skills and voice.
How is crime fiction writing different from writing other genres of fiction?
Crime fiction has a distinct format, with well established sub-genres, but the fascinating thing is that there is endless scope for innovation in plot, theme, setting, characters and denouement. Many other fiction genres tend to have only certain set formulas. I am not saying there are no set formulas in crime fiction, but crime fiction can literally accommodate all other kinds of stories and genres – love / romance, fantasy, literary, science, young adult, erotic, espionage, social, paranormal, historical, children’s fiction. You can pick up any theme or central conflict but its manifestation has to be in the form of a dead body or a serious crime. More importantly, crime fiction must have a definite ending with some form of justice- legal, summary or poetic. Then of course you must try and be adept at the craft and genre elements – red herrings, misdirection, hooks, generating motives, possibilities, opportunities and peopling the narrative with characters that have deceptive shades of gray. I have developed for myself a framework of 20 ‘mantras’ of crime fiction writing, which I try to follow.
Most writers go through years of literary rejections before getting published. What has your journey been like?
Plenty of rejections! The line ‘We are unable to accept your manuscript because it does not fit into our publishing list’ is etched into my consciousness. How ironical that in all these years, publishers have not been able to come up with a more creative or honest response. But I have realized that all a rejection really means is that the particular editor who happened to read it, did not like it or was too lazy to make an effort.
I started writing way back in the early nineties, when publishing in India had not become mass market. I had written two sci-fi novellas, which gave me the first taste of rejection (probably well deserved). Then in the mid-nineties, I wrote a collection of crime stories, which were not bad at all, but these too were turned down. Then I got pretty busy with my professional career, marriage and livelihood responsibilities for the next few years. It wasn’t till 2004 or so that I began writing fiction again, by which time Chetan Bhagat had happened to Indian publishing and commercial fiction began coming into its own. My stories started getting published in anthologies and my ‘writerly’ ambitions soared. I began writing my first novel in 2008, completed it in 2009 and after lots of rejections finally got published in 2011. The period from 2010 – 2015 has been my most productive time, since I have written 4 books and the 5th one is on the way. What’s helped me is that in 2012, my collection of short stories, Lost Libido and Other Gulp Fiction was published by Fingerprint, and that’s how I finally found a good publisher.
Synopsis of Killing Ashish Karve
Senior Inspector Saralkar is back at his desk after spending a rather annoying week at a Secrets of Living course, especially for police officers and he is itching for some action now. Luckily, an exciting new case turns up right away!
The body of Ashish Karve, a local businessman has been found in the back seat of his car. To PSI Motkar, Saralkar’s diminutive assistant, it seems to be a straightforward case of suicide. But Saralkar’s sharp mind is agog with the dark possibility of murder. As the case unfolds Saralkar finds enough motives for people, be it Ashishs business partner, his wife, his brother, his friend, his brother-in-law or even strangers to want to do away with him! Is the senior inspector becoming too fanciful in his imagination or is he on the right track in assuming that Ashish was killed?
Two things that work for Killing Ashish Karve are its intricate but tight plot and suspense build-up. Did you have a distinct plot outline before you set out to write? Did the draft undergo several revisions?
Yes, the plot outline of Killing Ashish Karve was absolutely clear in my mind. Then I worked on breaking it down chapter-wise. This kept me on leash and stopped me from losing my way in the intricate narrative. I knew the characters inside out and my research on crime investigation and police methods helped me a lot. My style of writing is such that I keep making revisions as I write on a day to day basis. So by the time I finish, I generally don’t have to do a lot of re-writing. Even so, the original draft was in excess of 80,000 words and I had to slice it down to 65,000 words, which was quite an effort.
Were you in a dilemma about the resolution of the case, or did the case solve itself as you went along?
In Killing Ashish Karve I faced no dilemma about the resolution of the case. The problem was how do I present the resolution? I didn’t want to do a Hercule Poirot kind of denouement, in which the investigator calls everyone together and holds forth on the ‘who and why and how’. So I found a way, which I think makes the whole story more raw and poignant. In fact in most of my books I try to decide the resolution before I start writing. But as I write more books, my experience has been that you get new ideas along the way and sometimes the ending you had thought of, suddenly starts looking problematic or tame, so you begin improvising or even change your mind altogether.
One thing that struck me about the book is its insights into the characters’ psyche. Would you say you are a keen observer of human nature?
I would like to think so. Being a keen observer of human nature and behavior is a prerequisite for any author, whichever genre he is writing in. But in crime fiction, especially of the kind I write where I tend to focus on social realities and dark impulses of the human mind, an author cannot write well unless he has an insight into human psyche and some understanding of the huge, gray territory in the human brain, which can swing his behavior in either direction. It’s frightening, because as an author, I have almost become more cynical, while crime fiction is all about redemption and justice.
What kind of research went into the making of Killing Ashish Karve? Are Senior Inspector Saralkar and PSI Motkar based on real life cops? How about the Karve family ?
No, Senior Inspector Saralkar and PSI Motkar are not based on real life cops. Their physical appearance is based on real life people, but their personalities, traits, attributes, behavior are reflective of people of two different types of temperaments and attitudes who exist side by side in Pune. Bits of me as a person, my friends and other individuals I know, have also got into both characters, especially Saralkar’s. All the research I had done on my documentary film for Maharashtra CID in 2006, formed the backbone of the police procedural format I have chosen and of course, I gather a lot of material simply by reading in detail about real life crimes that happen daily, everywhere in the country and even the world. As regards the Karve family and other characters, well there are so many people you meet and get to know in life that it is inevitable that their personalities sneak into your imagination waiting for the right story, in which they can come to life as characters. Even so, no fictional character is made up of just one person. Rather its different individuals merged into one – you take the appearance of one, background of another, affectations of a third, behavioral nuances of a fourth, prejudices and mindsets of a fifth and so on.
Who are your favorite crime fiction writers and how have they influenced your writing?
My all time favorites remain Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I also admire James Hadley Chase, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Ian Rankin, John Grisham, Erle Stanley Gardner and the Swedish couple Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. To a certain extent I have been influenced by Colin Dexter and Raymond Chandler although I can’t say exactly how. I also think Manohar Malgaonkar’s thriller, Shalimar (also made into a film), was the Indian book that first made me wonder why I couldn’t write English thrillers too. Coming to non-fiction, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood mesmerized me as did Husain Zaidi’s Black Friday and Avirook Sen’s Aarushi. And finally you won’t believe it, but P.G. Wodehouse, Somerset Maugham and P.L. Deshpande (Pu La) have left a lasting impression on my writing style. Also, can one ever forget how long dead writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Alexander Dumas, Daniel Defoe, Walter Scott, H.G. Wells fired the imagination of our generation as kids?
When is the next book in the series releasing and what is it about?
The second book of my Inspector Saralkar Mystery series The Murder of Sonia Raikkonen was released in June 2015 by Sriram Raghavan, of Badlapur fame. It is doing really well. The plot is about a young Finnish tourist who is found dead in a public garden in Pune. Initially it looks like a case of brutal rape and murder, but Saralkar and Motkar’s investigations unmask a murderer and his motive which is far more bizarre. I am right now in the midst of completing the third Inspector Saralkar Mystery and it should be out by mid 2016.
There is a suddenly a burgeoning market for suspense thrillers in the US market. Many books are also getting made into big budget Hollywood movies. What is the scene like in India?
Yes, compared to a few years ago, there is a big up-tick in suspense thrillers published in India too. However, it remains to be seen how many thriller writers have staying power and create a repeat reader base. As regards thriller books being made into Hindi films, well I don’t think that’s really become a trend yet and I doubt it will. In that sense, I find a lot of Hollywood thrillers also pretty soulless and unexceptional these days.