Duo uncovers The Spanish Diplomat’s Secret

Author Nev March is the first Indian-born writer to win the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America-First Crime Novel Award for her debut novel, Murder in Old Bombay. I am a fan of mystery books and we both hail from Mumbai, so coming to know Nev since the pandemic has been a delight. Not only is she a meticulous plotter of mysteries, but also has a charming personality. Her latest offering, The Spanish Diplomat’s Secret: A Mystery,  is the third of a series that follows the adventures of the wonderful Anglo-Indian James O’Trey/Agnihotri and his distinguished and gutsy Parsi wife, Lady Diana Framji. The couple, who were deliciously romantic in The Murder in Old Bombay, appear tense in the third book but are bound by their shared passion for solving mysteries. 

Murder on choppy waters

When Jim and Diana board a luxury liner to England in 1894, they are like any couple settling in their staterooms, organizing fancy clothes they would wear at banquets and fiestas, and making acquaintances with the other passengers as they sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Jim and Diana are taken aback when the Spanish diplomat, who penned a letter to Jim, is garotted in his cabin. This throws a sinker in their voyage and raises a squall on board among the staff and passengers. Even the waves are uncooperative.

The Spanish gent is given a burial at sea with his cloistered wife bidding him a stoic adieu. The captain of the ship, on discovering James’ vocation, recruits him to solve the murder at sea. The army officer-turned-private investigator has a week to find the motive of the murder, unmask the killer on board, and prevent another murder. But there are almost no clues and Jim is violently seasick; in between interrogations, he finds himself prostrating on his cabin bed, unable to keep anything down. Diana nurses him and tries her hand at investigating. She has a logical mind and an easy manner that helps her get to know some of the passengers. 

A maze that stupefies

Nev throws in many twists and turns in the plot, so it slows down in the middle with too many red herrings. Once in a while, I like a book or two in which there are only two main suspects. In The Spanish Diplomat’s Secret, almost anybody on board could be the killer, Agatha Christie style. I had to check myself from skipping to the last chapter and had to coax myself to follow Nev’s narrative as she leads the reader into blind alleys and dead ends. Towards the end, the author reveals a key piece of historical evidence that comes as a shocking revelation but does not help the reader put two and two together. 

I have to applaud Nev for her intricate research and for keeping the tension high till the very end.
In an interview with me, she spills the beans about how The Spanish Diplomat’s Secret came to be.

India Currents:  How did you come up with this story?

Nev March: During my research, when I came across the 1873 Virginius Incident, (precursor to the Spanish-American War of 1898,) I was hooked. This was a time when the US was not a military power. The small side-paddle steamer Virginius was captured by a Spanish corvette and taken to Cuba. The commander of the Garrison executed 53 men, but faced no trial for it! This made me wonder, what did the families of those seamen suffer? Good stories sometimes start with a complicated villain.

IC: Fascinating details about the ship. Any real-life incident that inspired you?

NM: As I researched the twin ships RMS Umbria and Etruria, I learned about tragedies at sea which were common in the 1800s. Before airplanes, a Transatlantic journey took 6 to 8 days by sea. So this gave me the idea for a “ticking clock”,  where the mystery must be solved before the ship docks. However, it came together when I was on a ship excursion in Maine and got acutely seasick. So, what if the sleuth is laid low? This helps me change the dynamic between my duo, and as a result, Diana shines!

IC: Great description of characters. Do you sketch them out in the beginning and then paint them as you go?

NV: The characters appear to me as I write, gradually revealing their biases and secrets. I like to include people of different nationalities and ethnicities to show the vast diversity in society, versus the usual monochromatic view. Some of these characters come from memories of people I know, but even someone standing in a grocery line can inspire an unusual and interesting character.

IC: Loved the bit about the wheelchair. It would make a great scene in a movie! 

NV: I worried a lot about this denouement. Captain Jim would never endanger an elderly person, let alone one in a wheelchair. However, if Diana is quite convinced, she will create a situation where the antagonist must reveal themself. 

IC: Jim and Dianna are having slight tensions. Why did you include that element? Is it laying the ground for what’s to come in the next book?

NV: Much like us, my characters have real-life problems that distract them and derail their efforts: trains run late, rains wash out clues, sickness strikes at the worst time. Life interferes. Just so, in addition to being sleuths, Captain Jim and Diana also face the challenges of being a couple. Readers are accustomed to stories ending when a couple gets together. I wanted to share the ups and downs of living together, the rollercoaster of married life. Therefore, each of my novels contains a mystery to be solved, along with the continuing narrative of this lovely couple. 

IC:  You are great at creating suspense, adding a smattering of clues here and there, but then covering your tracks well. I could not guess till the end! 

NV: Let me paraphrase Agatha Christie, who said, “At the end, I decide who is the least likely person to commit the crime, then revise to make that person the villain.” Now, while I usually outline my endings, sometimes the characters reveal more interesting possibilities. As each of them comes under suspicion it makes for a complex, rollicking ride. Should anyone protest, I suggest they read a couple of books by Agatha Christie, the queen of complex solutions!

IC:  So what’s next?

NV: I’m just starting to draft book four, where our sleuthing duo returns to Bombay. Now why would they risk the damage of another scandal (their inter-religious union) to their beloved Framji family? Only the fact that Adi is in terrible trouble would draw them back to the complicated morass of colonial India!

Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two...