News Flash: Barbara Kay is Harini’s lucky winner. Barbara, congratulations, and please check your email.
Edith writing from north of Boston on the last day of March.
I’m so pleased to host Harini Nagendra today. She made big waves (and award noms) with her debut mystery, last year’s historical The Bangalore Detectives Club. Read what Sarah Weinman wrote in the New York Times: “This is a treat for historical mystery lovers looking for a new series to savor (or devour).”
The buzz is already up for book two, Murder Under a Red Moon, which released this week!
Here’s the blurb: When new bride Kaveri Murthy reluctantly agrees to investigate a minor crime to please her domineering mother-in-law—during the blood moon eclipse, no less—she doesn’t expect, once again, to stumble upon a murder.
With anti-British sentiment on the rise, a charismatic religious leader growing in influence, and the fight for women’s suffrage gaining steam, Bangalore is turning out to be a far more dangerous and treacherous place than Kaveri ever imagined—and everyone’s motives are suspect. Together with the Bangalore Detectives Club—a mixed bag of street urchins, nosy neighbours, an ex-prostitute, and a policeman’s wife— Kaveri once again sleuths in her sari and hunts for clues in her beloved 1920s Ford.
But when her life is suddenly put in danger, Kaveri realizes that she might be getting uncomfortably close to the truth. So she must now draw on her wits and find the killer . . . before they find her.
How intriguing is that? I was also delighted to hear that my son John and Harini – wearing her day-job hat – work on related ecological issues. Harini will send a copy of of Under a Red Moon to one lucky US commenter!
Writing about Gardens and Ecology in Crime Fiction
Agatha Christie worked as a pharmacist’s assistant in World War I. Drawing on her experience, she wrote a number of mysteries where poison was the murder weapon of choice, including a number of toxic chemicals extracted from innocuous-looking garden plants. Edith Pargeter, writing under the name of Ellis Peters, had her famous amateur sleuth Brother Cadfael, the 12th century Welsh monk, manage a herbarium used to prepare potions – some that could be misused to harm, while others were used to heal. Pargeter also worked as an apothecary’s assistant, but perhaps – like Christie – she was also a keen gardener. Her love for plants is evident in the detailed descriptions of the lush plant garden that Brother Cadfael and his fellow monks so carefully tend, just like many of Christie’s descriptions of homes with heritage gardens are believed to be inspired by her .
I’m not a pharmacist, nor would I consider myself an especially skilled gardener – though I do love my plants, and have a garden with a number of trees and herbal plants that we use to prepare home remedies for minor ailments. I am an ecologist though, and as such, plants and animals make their way into my non-fiction a great deal. I was surprised when I found my favourite trees – like the rain tree, a spectacular import to Bangalore from central America – and birds, like the black shouldered kite or the gloriously plumaged kingfisher – making their way into my historical crime fiction.
Rain tree in a Bangalore cemetery
Nature can be very atmospheric, and useful for establishing mood. When my amateur sleuth, Kaveri, goes for a walk near a local lake with her husband – if they see sunlight glinting off the lake, it means success is in sight. But if they hear the keening of a kite hunting for prey, or see an owl swoop down and carry away an unwary mouse – then we know disaster is close at hand. A half-sawed branch can be a powerful weapon in the hands of a dastardly villain, and the seeds of a castor or datura plant can have terminal side effects.
But I think the main reason I add nature into my books is because I am writing about 1920s Bangalore – a time filled with nostalgia for a better past. This was the era when Bangalore still deserved its title as India’s Garden City. It still had its spectacular tree-lined avenues, idyllic waterscapes and rich animal life, with monkeys, squirrels, snakes and leopards competing for attention.
This may look like an idyllic Bangalore waterscape, but it’s teeming with threats – predatory kites, poisonous snakes and more.
Today, hundreds of thousands of trees have been cut down to make way for the growing city, and many of the lakes have been filled in. But it is still important to remember how the city once was, and could be again, to inspire new imaginations of the way people and nature can live together. Thankfully, Bangalore now has a number of citizen movements to protect trees and restore lakes, which brings some hope. If I ever write an urban fantasy set in the future, mine’s going to be an optimistic future, not a dystopian one.
Readers: do you have memories of time spent with nature in a beloved place? How has the place changed over time? What’s your favourite tree, plant or bird? I’ll send one US commenter a copy of the book.
Harini Nagendra is a professor of ecology at Azim Premji University. Her non-fiction books include Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future, and the award winning Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities, with Seema Mundoli. The Bangalore Detectives Club is her first crime fiction novel. The sequel, Murder Under a Red Moon, will be published in March 2023. Harini lives in Bangalore with her family, in a home filled with maps. She loves trees, mysteries, and traditional recipes.