Modern Woman Takes to Crime in India

Shimla is a stately mountain town with gorgeous views and Raj-era gazebos that form a colourful backdrop for tourists wanting pony rides or trinkets. The capital of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh is known as the "Queen of the Hills." and was once the summer capital of British India.

As a bonus, all those secluded ravines and valleys in the foothills of the Himalayas are great places for hiding corpses. On a recent trip there I didn't see any bodies, but if Swati Kaushal has her way the place will be littered with victims.

Kaushal has chosen Shimla as the base for a crime series featuring the "strong, modern, independent" case-cracking Niki Marwah, the city's Superintendent of Police. "India is so populated, so vibrant, to find a quiet place you have to look outside the box," the former marketing executive explains.

Already the author of two successful novels with feisty female protagonists, Piece of Cake and A Girl Like Me, Kaushal "wanted to take that further and look at someone a little older in a position of authority and leadership. It was interesting to place a woman in a position of law enforcement in India."

Additionally Kaushal seems to have a thing for disrupting holiday destinations. Her vision was to "have a murder in a serene place; put violent crime in a lovely hill resort".

This she does in Drop Dead: A Niki Marwah Mystery. Rak Mehta, CEO of a successful publishing company takes his team to a swanky hotel in the hills and ends up with his body mashed like a potato below a cable car. He's an arrogant monster smeared with lipstick who orders the bellboy to buy condoms. Though while he's playing around behind his long-suffering wife's back, at least he is practicing safe sex.

Currently based in Connecticut with her husband and two children, Kaushal grew up in Delhi. She says many elements in Drop Dead are common to the crime genre, but she wanted to explore it from an Indian -- and female -- perspective. She spent time with officers investigating murders and kidnappings in New Delhi, and talked to Kiran Bedi. Now retired, Bedi was the first and highest ranking woman police officer in India, an "inspiring role model."

It's hard to talk about crime in the subcontinent without touching on that "hallmark of Indian crime," corruption. Kaushal says there is an "overwhelming perception" of corruption around India's police, so she made a conscious decision "to stay away from all that."

"A lot of good stuff is overlooked and some officers don't have a voice because everyone around them is corrupt, so it is assumed that they are corrupt too," she explains. Kaushal thinks, however, that a new generation of young Indians is taking charge and change is coming.

When I think of other female characters in crime-solving of course Sara Peretsky's whisky-swilling detective V.I. Warshawski, a pioneer in mixing lock-picking with a fashion sensibility, comes to mind. Marwah prefers nimbu paani (Indian lemonade) to spirits, but she is however susceptible to the power of desserts, in common with Janet Evanovich's superb comic creation Stephanie Plum, the cake-fixated bounty-hunting bumbler with a gun in her cookie jar. "I love Stephanie Plum! I wish I could have created her. She (Evanovich) is one of my favorite writers. There's a good balance between comedy, action and personal stuff."

With a mother fixated on finding Marwah a husband and a Chanel-knockoff encrusted grandmother, Marwah's clan are clustered in the background for light relief.

"At its core, the story and characters are very relatable," Kaushal says. Marwah possesses a strapless dress she is yet to wear -- though I get the strong impression the grandmother wouldn't hesitate -- there is an attraction to a charismatic but untrustworthy former army officer, and an inspector pining for Marwah to smile at him.

So there's plenty to explore in the next installment, along with how Marwah chose law enforcement in the first place. But with a team of men anxious to do her bidding and some travel -- in the second book she goes to the jungles of Madhya Pradesh then ends up in the beach party state of Goa -- and a constant supply of snacks, tackling criminals looks like an entertaining option for everyone.

Drop Dead: A Niki Marwah Mystery is published by Hachette.