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Interview: Murder at the Mela by Leela Soma

AFRESH | We interview writer Leela Soma, whose latest novel Murder at the Mela marks her move into crime fiction. Get to know more about DI Alok Patel, and how a 100 word pitch brought Leela to this new genre in her work.

Can you tell us a bit more about Murder at the Mela?

Murder at the Mela introduces Scotland’s first Asian Detective Inspector Alok Patel to readers. Alok Patel’s first assignment is the investigation of the brutal murder of Nadia, an Asian woman. Her body was discovered in the aftermath of the Mela festival in Kelvingrove Park. During the Mela, a small fight erupted between a BNP group and an Asian gang, but was quickly quelled by police.

When Nadia is accused of having an affair with a local man, even more questions about her death arise. Was her murder a crime of passion, or was it racially motivated? Could it be an honour killing? The deep-rooted tensions within Glasgow’s Asian communities bubble to the surface as DI Patel struggles with his parents, who disapprove of his relationship with his Muslim partner, Usma.

The novel is a page turner, a police procedural but also gives the reader aspects of the Asian community living in Glasgow.

“Glasgow writes itself in my novels. I love it, it’s in my DNA.”

What drew you to crime fiction as a form?

It was an accidental foray into this new genre. I saw a call for ‘Pitch Perfect’ for the Bloody Scotland Crime Festival. I realised that there is no Scottish Asian fiction in this popular genre. I sent away the hundred word ‘pitch’ and was shortlisted. When I presented the pitch and the synopsis to the audience, I was impressed with the interest shown by many and decided to try my hand at writing  crime fiction with a Scottish Asian dimension.

Through DI Patel, we explore prejudice and suspicion via his rank, relationships and racism towards the Asian community – do you think crime fiction is a particularly interesting catalyst to explore these dynamics and issues more broadly?

Crime fiction can and must reflect society. This genre, in my case,  has more scope to deal with themes of racism, relationships and prejudice as my novel is character driven. Crime fiction also reaches more readers. I am aware that ‘crime sells’ more books than literary works. Often the publishers are reluctant to take on what is not a ‘commercial’ enough book if it is written by a BAME author, though that is slowly changing. Some of the feedback I’ve received to Murder at the Mela is about how little local people knew about Asian culture and how much they’ve enjoyed reading about it.

Glasgow is a living, breathing character across so many works – what is it about the city that lends itself to being more than a backdrop in stories?

Glasgow has been my home for over fifty years. I know it well. One book club from London said they would visit Glasgow after reading Murder at the Mela. Visit Scotland should take note. Seriously though, Glasgow has its own charm. An eclectic mix of the highbrow cultural West End along with areas of multiple deprivation and a real multi-cultural city. The old ‘Square Mile of Murder’ as Jack House, the journalist named the inner city in 1961, still reverberates. It has the best people in Scotland with a great sense of humour and sense of social justice that you would rarely find elsewhere. Glasgow writes itself in my novels. I love it, it’s in my DNA.

” Crime fiction can and must reflect society. This genre, in my case,  has more scope to deal with themes of racism, relationships and prejudice as my novel is character driven.”

What, and who, inspires your work?

I read Agatha Christie in my school days in India. Later, crime fiction took a back seat for a while as I read and still enjoy reading a lot of world literature. The crime writers I read and enjoy are Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Louise Welsh, Alex Gray, and the great William McIlvanney. His Laidlaw was an inspiration, a beautifully written classic crime novel. I like his son Liam McIlvanney’s novels too. Abir Mukherjee’s Sam Wyndham series set in the Raj era is a crime writer I admire.

What do you hope people take away from Murder at the Mela?

I hope they really enjoyed reading the book. The novel would have given an insight into the lives of Asians in Scotland, the readers’ neighbours perhaps. Is their interest piqued? Most of the readers have asked for the sequel or even a series. Understanding people of all races, creeds and colour are the same the world over, their beliefs, wants, needs and hopes are similar is what I would like readers to take away from this novel.

What does the future hold for DI Alok Patel?

Patel is a very ambitious man. His work is his passion. He will continue investigating murders and crimes in the city. An eye on the promotion ladder will be present. As for his love life it seems as complicated as always. Will he settle down with Usma or would Coco, the cat, be his only companion. Wait and see.

Murder at the Mela by Leela Soma is published by Ringwood Publishing.