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Come mid-January, the coldest and darkest time of the year when lurking fog envelops Delhi’s mean streets, the burgeoning detective novel industry in India will be celebrated at the first-ever Crime Writers’ Festival.

For the longest time detective stories were considered a very Western thing. Although crime writing has been popular in Bengali, Hindi and Tamil, to name a few local examples, the crime fiction selection in the average Indian book store mostly consisted of either British “cozies" or American “noir", and perhaps a few typical Swedish social-realist police procedurals featuring pizza-hogging, alcoholic, overweight and usually divorced inspectors.

Of course, crime fiction has ancient roots in the West and its hoary origins can be traced back to proto-crime writers like Sophocles, a Greek playwright who penned Oedipus The King in 430 BC—a twisted murder mystery with some rather sleazy elements in it—and Shakespeare with his sleuthing Hamlet (1601) which, as you may recall, is an out and out psychological thriller concerning murder and madness.

What the festival—which will take place in New Delhi on 17-18 January, with a curtain-raiser on 16 January at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival—suggests is a paradigm shift. Not only is the genre trending in India, but in the rest of Asia too. While detective fiction has been around in Japanese since the 1920s, few English translations existed, with rare exceptions such as Akimitsu Takagi’s 1940s novel The Tattoo Murder Case, which came out in English some 10 years back. But suddenly, contemporary psychological thrillers by Japanese author Keigo Higashino are popular reads through the world. In recent years, the works of Chinese best-selling writers like Mai Jia and He Jiahong too have become readily available in English.

Crime fiction can no longer be dismissed as literary weed; it is a serious pursuit. Dead serious, if I may say so. Fact is, India itself produces more and more crime writers every year. There are several professional thriller writers who set their plots in local milieus and loads of debutants are busy cutting their teeth too.

So it’s high time that the genre gets its own festival, and in order to demystify the event, I have been, detective-like, interrogating various organizing committee members. The first person I got hold of was blockbuster writer Ashwin Sanghi, whose Private India (co-written with US-based James Patterson) is speeding up the New York Times best-seller list. Whose plot is this? “The idea was that of Kishwar Desai and Namita Gokhale," he reveals, adding: “There are many young people who read crime novels and there are many new writers who believe that they could write crime novels. This festival is a way of reaching out to both these segments."

Therefore, he himself will conduct a workshop on “How To Write Detective Fiction", aimed at those who want to follow in his footsteps—up the best-seller lists, hopefully. “For the longest time, our publishers focused almost entirely on ‘serious’ literature, while commercial fiction such as crime, mystery, romance and the thriller genres remained ignored. Strange, when one considers the fact that Satyajit Ray gave us the first of the Feluda series back in 1965. We ceded ground to foreign writers. By now, India should have had its own Poirot, Marple, Frost and Morse," Sanghi says.

Next I reach Kishwar Desai, one of the genre pioneers in India. Desai feels that the genre is growing rapidly here. “Basically, as a society matures and becomes more law-abiding, or at least more aware of the law, and begins to understand how the police system works, crime fiction and thrillers are written and consumed more and more locally," she says. “Many crime novels are social commentaries on the world we live in."

I also pin down Namita Gokhale, novelist and co-organizer of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), who confesses to being the culprit behind the festival. It all started while planning the previous edition of the JLF, which included discussions on crime fiction, and the idea then developed through a chat between her and Desai. “I think crime fiction, detective novels and thrillers are all coming of age now. It may be a popular genre but it’s a serious subject. Crime fiction is often a barometer of society, an indicator of justice and equity, power and powerlessness, sexual and financial morality. It’s also a popular philosophical exploration of death and mortality. Apart from keeping the adrenalin flowing, thrillers are an expression of collective social fears in a fragile world ruled by unpredictable acts of terror."

Many of the speakers will be familiar names to readers of this column—master of the Hindi thriller, Surender Mohan Pathak; veteran crime reporter S. Hussain Zaidi; military action novelist Mukul Deva; Piyush Jha of the Mumbaistan books; the prolific duo Kalpish Ratna; Tarquin Hall, author of the “Vish Puri" Punjabi detective series; and the king of Swedish noir, Håkan Nesser.

And, of course, the final question: Will I be there? You can bet your sweet bubblegum I will not miss this show—dead or alive. For details of the festival, visit www.crimewritersfestival.com

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon A Time In Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout Of Bengaluru.

Read Zac’s previous Lounge columns here.

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