Interview with Susanna Bell

What inspired you to write Mystery in Malakand?

Pakistan.  I lived there for three years and was utterly charmed by the country.  It is at once incredibly beautiful and deeply troubled.  I was privileged to be able to travel relatively widely in Pakistan and met extraordinary people, who showed me exceptional generosity and kindness.  The place is both familiar and exotic, and the nature is stunning.  I wanted to find a way to capture the magic of it on paper; Mystery in Malakand was what came out of that..

Why did you choose to set the novel in 1920?

I have always been fascinated by the period immediately pre and post World War 1.  When I started researching it became clear that this was a real turning point for the British Empire in India – the war and the Bolshevik Revolution had changed things for good, and the British faced a new period of fear and uncertainty about the future of the Empire.  In trying to find a way to hold on to their Empire they were forced to make choices, when they didn’t really understand what the implications might be.  I wanted the novel to have as a backdrop the complicated political and intelligence games at the time, but Hester doesn’t, can’t, understand the full picture from her position. 

How do you think the situation on the Frontier has changed between 1920 and today?

I hope that the novel allows people to draw some parallels with the situation on the Frontier today, because I think many of the themes are similar.  There is still an uncertain situation in Afghanistan, and a struggled for power on the Frontier.  The call for Jihad is as strong as it ever was, and it seems to be just as difficult to know what to do about it as it was in 1920.  The foreign forces involved are compelled to rely on networks of local leaders just as the British were in the days of the Empire, and the problems of knowing who to trust are just as acute.  People like the Faqir still exist.

Why did you have an English, female, central character?

I didn’t think I would be able to write authentically had the lead character not been English.  My experience of the country was as an outsider – even if at times I felt I belonged, I would always be a foreigner.  During the time of the Empire, English women were travelling extraordinary distances, often on their own, and many had the same spirit of adventure as the man.  In a way, the Empire gave a kind of freedom to them and I wanted to show an Englishwoman getting out there and doing it on her own.

How did you do your research?

I read a lot of accounts written at the time by Englishmen serving on the Frontier – I was lucky living in Islamabad that a lot of these had been reprinted and were being sold at the famous Saeed Book Bank.   There are of course parts of Pakistan which have changed little since 1920, so it was quite easy to imagine how it might have been then.