05/18/2024

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Track the Untold Stories

Abir Mukherjee on Writing a Conspiracy Thriller “From a Position of Anger”

Abir Mukherjee on Writing a Conspiracy Thriller “From a Position of Anger”

In the immortal words of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “And now for something completely different…” For Abir Mukherjee – the author of the award-winning, immensely popular procedural series that takes place in post-World War One Calcutta featuring Captain Sam Wyndham, a former detective from Scotland Yard with a taste for opiates, and Surendranath Banerjee, an Oxbridge-educated sergeant and first Indian member of the city’s police department’s criminal investigation department – this means a change of venue to North America, a change of century to the 21st, and a change of genre to a thriller. But, while these elements may be different, what drives Mukherjee’s fiction remains consistent: a desire to stretch his writer’s chops and a desire to “write something punchy, up to the minute, and dealing with the issues that we face today.”

Nancie Clare 

In your recent interview with Publisher’s Weekly, you described yourself as a “wee boy from Hamilton.” And the funny thing is, I was discussing your books with Denise Mina and she used exactly the same words, “Oh, he’s just a wee boy from Hamilton!” 

Abir Mukherjee  

Denise Mina is my hero. I think she is amazing. And I say this because whenever I say nice things about her, she gets embarrassed and that’s half the fun. In my opinion, she’s the best writer of crime fiction in the world. 

Nancie Clare 

I’m right there with you.

Abir Mukherjee  

Yeah. Have you read The Second Murderer, her take on Raymond Chandler? 

Nancie Clare 

Yes! I did an interview with her for Crimereads.com about it.

Abir Mukherjee  

This is sacrilegious, but I think she’s done Philip Marlowe better than Chandler!

Quite often you read books written in the style of other authors, and very quickly it degenerates into their own style. What she’s managed to pull off there is Raymond Chandler for the 21st century. The way she’s managed to capture his voice and inject her own thoughts and humor is just amazing. It is just a tour de force, that book.

Nancie Clare

Let’s talk about Hunted. You’re a successful author with a much-loved series set in Colonial India in the early part of the 20th century. How did it feel moving not just to the 21st century, but to North America?

Abir Mukherjee  

It was great, to be honest with you. It was refreshing. I’ve spoken to a number of other authors about this: I think when you’re five, six books into a series, it’s very hard to keep things fresh. I wanted to do something different. I hope—I believe—in each of my books, I pushed myself a wee bit further. I think by the third book in the series, Smoke and Ashes, I had got the basics of writing down to a level that I was comfortable with. I mean, I can’t read the first book. It makes me cringe! With the fourth one, Death in the East, I experimented with two timelines. With The Shadows of Men, the fifth one, it was two narrators. But again, everything was first person. And I was getting to that stage where I was thinking, well, yes, I’m going to write a lot more of these, but I want to challenge myself. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Nancie, the world seems to be going to hell in a handcar over the last couple of years or last decade.

Nancie Clare 

Umm, yes. I live in America, remember.

Abir Mukherjee 

Yes, you do. And well, I mean, anything you can do, we can do worse. We are confident.

Nancie Clare 

I’m not so sure about that, but please don’t try!

Abir Mukherjee 

Well, yes, it’s a fair point. 

All of my writing comes from a position of anger. I write about things that are worrying me or are upsetting me but make them allegorical. When you’re writing stuff set a hundred years ago, it must be allegory. And sometimes, well, I don’t want to write allegory. I want to write something punchy, up to the minute, and dealing with the issues that we face today. 

It just felt right to me. And as for why America: you sneeze, and we catch a cold. America’s issues, America’s decisions affect the world.

America has always been a fascinating place to me. I’ve always loved this sort of strange amalgam of different things, these idiosyncrasies, these things that are almost contradictory. I mentioned in the book that I’ve never been anywhere where people are so polite and so nice and tell you to have a nice day. And at the same time, if you look like me they’ll probably shoot you if you park in the wrong driveway. That sort of dual identity of being really, really nice, but being really, really scared of things they don’t understand is something I don’t understand. And I wanted to explore that. I wanted to explore this issue of hope because [the world] still looks to America. The American dream is one thing that I wanted to look at because it is a great ideal, but does it hold anymore?

It doesn’t really hold for blue-collar Americans. And yet that American dream is still so powerful that people line up to enter the country, whether it’s people with visas from India or people from South or Central America trying to cross the southern border. People from around the world still believe in the American dream in a way that I think Americans don’t. That really fascinated me. I wanted to look at what happens when the certainties of your past, the things that you’ve grown up with, when those certainties no longer hold. What does that do to people? And I think a lot of the anger, a lot of the issues that we are dealing with, with populism—not just in America, but in the West—is about people who are brought up with intrinsic promises that have been cast aside. What does that do to people? And I really wanted to explore those ideas while killing people, obviously, which is very important in crime fiction.

Nancie Clare:

Right? Because of course it is a thriller. I have a craft question: The Wyndham-Banerjee books are procedurals, and Hunted is very much a thriller. Was it a difficult transition?

Abir Mukherjee: 

Absolutely. I think the reason there’s been two-and-a-half, three years between my last book and this one is down to getting a handle on what makes a thriller. I had two or three attempts to get that element right, because thrillers are a different game completely from writing a procedural or a historical crime novel like the Wyndham-Banerjee series. And I’m an accountant by training, so thrills don’t come naturally to me. It was a battle. You know what really helped? I read The Accomplice by Steve Cavanagh. And it was amazing. Every chapter or two it felt like you were being hit in the face with a frying pan. It was that dialing it up to eleven. That’s what I took away from it. Like, my first reaction might be: that’s pushing it too far, that’s going too far, that’s not acceptable. Whereas I learned from Steve that readers give writers license if they take readers along for the ride. If we buy into the characters in the story, we will go along with the tension. In Hunted, at the beginning, there is a chapter where a bomb goes off in this mall, and one of the characters, FBI Special Agent Shreya Mistry, is investigating. In the first draft she investigated, and she walked back out. After having read Steve’s books, I thought, why doesn’t the mall fall on her head? And that’s what I did. I collapsed the mall on top of her. That was pushing it up to eleven. And having done that throughout the book, it made such a difference. It was about giving myself the confidence to be a bit braver and just dial things up. And when I got that mindset, everything seemed to work better. Much of that goes down to Steve, and I’ve told him as much several times, he’s probably sick of me telling everybody that I learned how to write a thriller after reading his books. But there you are.

Nancie Clare 

In this thriller you have a story that jumps from the UK to British Columbia and then to the west coast of the United States, south to Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles, and then back across the United States by cars, buses, and airplanes told from the point of view of three characters and the whole story takes place in a week and a day. I guess this is another craft question: Did you have to plot this on a board with sticky notes or cards? 

Abir Mukherjee 

The short answer to that is yes, I had huge sheets of A-3 paper [approximately 11.75” X 16.5”] and I plotted it out on those. I have to say though, it changed a lot. It was always going to be that chase across America because as I say, one of the things I wanted to do in this book was look at America and take the temperature of America, especially those parts that are in the middle—the people that essentially decide elections now. That’s where I wanted to write about. 

It was a big, big job to plan. But to be honest with you, it was the other part of that question, the three different narrators [that was really challenging]. There are seven characters, and the story is told from the points of view of three of them. It was that process which proved much trickier to get right.

I mean, a plot is a plot. You can plot it out, it’s there. That’s your structure. You can stick to it to make that into a novel. To make this into a story, it’s all about the characters. The first time I wrote it, I had six points of view, which was ridiculous looking back and it didn’t work. So, I changed it to three characters, and that took time; each of those characters took a rewrite in itself. 

The story is told from the point of view of British Bangladeshi Sajid Khan, a Muslim, who’s looking for his daughter in the US; FBI Special Agent Sherya Mistry, a woman of South Asian descent who’s Hindu; and Greg Flynn, a white American military veteran in his twenties. And each are very different characters. And getting the voices, getting inside their heads was an exercise in itself.

The easiest one for me was Sajid, because his is probably closest to my experience. The next one I think was Greg. Greg, I could understand and make him real. The toughest one was Sherya, the Indian American FBI agent. That was probably the hardest character to get right and make authentic. I just hope I’ve done a good enough job. I mean that’s for you and for the readers to say, but that to me was the real challenge in this novel. Writing a thriller and also getting those three characters right. 

Nancie Clare 

Well, I can say that you did get them right as far as I’m concerned.

Abir Mukherjee  

[Laughs] You’ve got to say that, Nancie, don’t you?

Nancie Clare 

[Laughs} Yeah, I do! 

In Hunted, the idea of conspiracy and its partner, manipulation, are key elements. Are conspiracies orchestrated? Are they organic? Or is some diabolical person or organization adopting a conspiracy and using it in a nefarious way? Can you talk about how a conspiracy acts in the manipulation of the characters in Hunted

Abir Mukherjee  

I think conspiracy and domestic manipulation are big threats in Hunted. I think a lot of the time these things start off with idiots in chat rooms. But very quickly those conspiracies can be weaponized. And once the conspiracy gets rolling is where I think a lot of these external actors can and do get involved. Western countries— democracies—are particularly susceptible because we have open societies and we have left too many people behind. There are enemies of democracy, enemies of a certain way of life who will try to take advantage of our openness.

When it comes to the nature of conspiracy itself, I don’t tend to believe in them. I tend to believe in the idiocy of people more than I do in the old grand overarching plan. I also don’t believe in the smartness of people. I think people get things wrong and conflated and it’s magnified by different idiots along the chain, but then other people can manipulate that. We see that in domestic politics. I mean the whole Q-Anon thing started off on 4-Chan, and just snowballed to take in a lot of people around America. And that to me is the worrying thing. It’s less how things start; it’s how they’re manipulated and who manipulates them. That to me is the bigger risk in terms of this book. Yes, there is a conspiracy, but one thing I am not sure about is if there are any bad guys in this book.

Nancie Clare 

Yeah, I think there are bad guys in your book.

Abir Mukherjee 

If you look at, of course they’re doing bad things, but in their heads they are the noble people. And I think this is often the case with conspiracies, right? The people that are subject to the conspiracy feel they’re doing the right thing. And that’s really interesting to me. It’s the people who call themselves patriots that I’m most scared of. The ones who wrap themselves in the flag or claim to have some sort of monopoly on patriotism, not just in America, but across the world. Here in Britain we’re seeing it. We are having politicians saying, “I want my country back.” 

I wonder when somebody says “wanting their country back” that it’s a coded message that people who look like me have robbed them of their birthright, which is nothing of the sort. It’s not the people arriving on dinghies who are robbing these people of their birthright. It’s the people that run countries. It’s the global elite. It’s the people who can move a factory from Ohio to Beijing to save one cent on a widget and destroy a community in the process. It’s the ones that control everything that have taken the country, not the poor. And that to me is fascinating. We’ve punched down, we always punch down because it’s easier to understand and it’s easier to manipulate.

And that’s one of the biggest things that make me angry. Why is it that we always attack the wrong target? The people that are coming here for a better life, whether they’re coming with degrees or they’re coming with the skills of their own hands, they’re not the threat. They’re not the ones that have destroyed your communities. They’re not the ones that addicted your population to opiates. And yet these are the people that are the easy target. 

It’s easy to point at the alien and say, “you are responsible for why my life has gone to shit.” And yet it’s not. It’s the people who dress better than us and fly above our heads that are the ones causing the problems. Sorry, I’ve gone off on a rant!

Nancie Clare 

That actually leads to my next question. In Shadows of Men, which is the most recent book in your series, your story is about mightier powers manipulating the little guy. I see similar themes of manipulation and getting disadvantaged people to do the dirty work in Hunted.

Abir Mukherjee  

Don’t you see that today? Subconsciously, I keep coming back to this because it is the thing that is probably my greatest fear right now. It’s the manipulation of the powerless by the powerful just so that the powerful can maintain their own position and it’s getting worse.

Nancie Clare 

You and I are talking the week before Easter. I love Easter eggs in books and all dedicated fans of crime fiction love to find them. I think I found one: Luca Vesta? 

Abir Mukherjee 

I have two. Luca Vesta and Mike Craven, who is Mike Raven in the book. 

Nancie Clare 

Didn’t catch that one. Thank you.

Nancie Clare 

I understand that you’re writing another Wyndham-Banerjee book. Do you think that your series and other series by such writers as Vaseem Khan, Sujata Massey, Nev March and Harini Nagendra, among others, have opened a window into the British Raj in India? The idea of colonialism?

Abir Mukherjee  

I hope it has. I mean, look, the issue about colonialism, and let’s take the British time in India until we came along, the story was really only told from the point of view of the colonizer, even when that was the most benign perspective in say, The Far Pavilions. What I’m trying to do is redress that balance. What I won’t do is write from only one side. I don’t think balance means writing purely from an Indian point of view. I mean, I can understand Indian sensibilities, but I’m not a hundred percent Indian in the same way that my Britishness is different from most other people’s Britishness. I sit in the middle, and I can give you a different perspective. I think anyone who is a minority of whatever type will live their life to a degree in stereo. They will see one point of view because that’s the society they live in, but they will have another insight into things from the particular group that they’re part of. 

I started writing out of anger. I wrote my first Wyndham-Banerjee novel because we have this vision in Britain that the empire was a force for good, and we think it was benign when in so many ways it wasn’t. And all we’re trying to do is provide a bit of perspective. I’m never going to say that one side was all good and one side was all bad.

I think with my rants, I do apologize.

Nancie Clare 

Please don’t apologize! Your “rants,”—your word, not mine—are brilliant. But is there any other thing you want to say about Hunted? Your hopes for the book, in addition, of course, to being an entertaining and crackerjack read? 

Abir Mukherjee  

Two things: I started writing this before the attack on the U.S. Capitol. All of this is plausible. And some of the reviews have already said that it is chillingly plausible: The other thing that I would love people to take away from this, especially white American readers, is that maybe a slightly different view or an insight into non-white people, non-white Asians. Especially to somebody like Sajid who is a poor Muslim man—a representative of 99.9% of Muslim men in Britain or America—and just a struggling everyman. It’s his color and his religion that make him different. But how is he any different from a blue-collar worker in America who’s just looking after his family and trying to make ends meet? And that’s at heart of the book; very little separates us. We all want the same thing, but we demonize people because we don’t know them.