If you’re a crime fiction author you’ll need a fresh angle if you’re to stand out in such a crowded space. Leela Soman’s new crime series nails it with a setting amid Glasgow’s Asian communities and a central character who is the city’s first Asian Detective Inspector.
In Murder At the Mela an inter-cultural festival is marred by a fight between a British National Party (BNP) group and an Asian gang, The following day the body of Nadia, a young Asian wife, is discovered near the festival site in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park.
The investigation will be the first to be headed by the newly promoted Detective Inspector Alok Patel. As the city’s first Asian in a senior policing role, there’s a lot expected of this young man, particularly when inquiries suggest Nadia’s death may be the result of a racially-motivated attack. It’s up to Patel to break through the silences within the Asian communities amid deep-rooted tensions between Hindus and Muslims.
Personal difficulties add to his professional challenges. His Hindu parents envisage a bright future for their son; one that would be even brighter if only he were to settle down with a good Hindu girl. But Patel is in a relationship with a Muslim policewoman and is at pains to keep his love life hidden from his disapproving parents.
Murder At The Mela has all the unexpected developments, false leads and dead ends that you expect from a police procedural. I struggled to engage with the book initially but it warmed on me the more I got to accompany Patel and his aide as they criss-crossed Glasgow in pursuit of the truth. I do love novels with specific street names and locations because they give me a strong sense that the author is describing a real place, one that I could actually visit.
My interest went up another gear once we got deeper into the complex attitudes of families who have different faiths and their equally complex relationship with the city of Glasgow.
Leela Soma shows her people as rounded individuals who wrestle with their mixed Scottish-Asian identity and the tension between a desire to maintain traditional ways of life, and the wish to fit in with new attitudes. These tensions play out through people like the young medical student Hanif, teetering on the borders of radicalisation as he struggles to reconcile his deepening interest in the Muslim faith with a desire to embrace a modern Scottish way of life.
Soma shows considerable understanding and sensitivity of these different attitudes as well as an appreciation of the social problems caused by poverty among residents of Glasgow’s housing estates. All these elements are woven convincingly into a fast-paced narrative that takes us into the very heart of the city.
As part of the book tour for Murder at the Mela, I asked Leela what inspired her to write the novel.
“I noticed that there was no Scottish Asian Detective on the bookshelves of any bookstore. I entered a competition at Bloody Scotland Crime Festival’s ‘Pitch Perfect’ and I was shortlisted. I had to read my pitch in front of the festival audience. Many people in the audience came over afterwards and said they would love to read about DI Patel. That helped me decide to complete writing the novel. “
Though Leela already has a novel and short stories published, this was her debut crime novel and she felt she needed to plan it meticulously. “I knew the beginning and end,” she said, “but some characters got a life of their own and took the novel in a different direction. I did not anticipate it, but that does happen when you write a novel. I made sure the novel stayed close to the planned outline.”
Given the way the novel exposes tensions between different communities in Glasgow and anxieties about radicalisation of young people, I wondered how the book had been received locally. Leela has seen a strongly positive reaction from readers who are indigenous Scots and those who have origins in Asia, like herself, because, she believes, the tensions she’s portrayed are accurate and real.
“I love Glasgow but there are huge inequalities in our city as there are in Britain’s other major’s cities. I was shocked to see the poverty in some parts of Glasgow when I first arrived 52 years ago. Having had a privileged life in India it was an eye opener for me. ‘The First World’ of Britain, as we had imagined in what was then ‘Third World’ India was quite a revelation.
“It saddens me that in 2021 we still have food banks in Britain: one of the reasons why I had to write about these issues of class, race and religious differences. The West of Scotland also has sectarianism still, so divisions based on religion is not new. These are universal issues that have not been solved. “
Murder At The Mela by Leela Soma: Footnotes
Leela Soma was born in Madras, India and now lives in Glasgow, Scotland. She was a Principal Teacher of Modern Studies before deciding to write full time. Her poetry and short stories have been published in a number of anthologies and publications. She won the Margaret Thomson Davis Trophy for Best New Writer 2007 for her then unpublished novel Twice Born which was later published on YouWriteOn. Her writings reflect her experiences as a first generation Indo-Scot.
Her favourite fictional sleuths include Rebus (Ian Rankin); DCI Karen Pirie (Val McDermaid); Sam Wydham (Abir Mukherjee) and the Glasgow copper DCI Lorimer (Alex Gray).
Published in paperback and digital formats by Ringwood Publishing in 2020, Murder At The Mela has been selected on ‘Crime Spotlight’ at Bloody Scotland 2020 and as one of the five best crime books in Publishing Scotland’s new releases 2020. A second book featuring DI Patel is now in the works.