Gigi Pandian is well known for her locked room short stories, including her 2017 Agatha Award winner “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn.” But with THE GLASS THIEF, the sixth and latest installment in her Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery series, Pandian tackles the genre in novel length for the first time.
In THE GLASS THIEF, a French family who once looted treasure from Cambodia is tormented by a series of unsolved murders, each striking two nights before Christmas in the family’s Paris mansion. The family attributes the murders to a ghost that has supposedly haunted their bloodline for generations, but historian Jaya Jones suspects a killer of the mortal variety and sets out on a quest to find a missing artifact that might hold the key to the mystery.
The Big Thrill recently sat down with Pandian for a talk about locked room mysteries, blending history with fiction, and the roots of her multicultural heroine.
John Dickson Carr was the king of the locked room mystery. He inspired—and continues to inspire—crime writers all over the world. How has he influenced your work?
What John Dickson Carr did brilliantly was meld ingenious impossible crime puzzles with another mysterious element: a suggestion of the supernatural. His books were resolved with a rational explanation, but in the process of the story the reader would also get the thrill of a good ghost story along with the mystery. Fair-play puzzle plots were a central element of the Golden Age of detective fiction, and the most baffling type of puzzle is a locked room “impossible crime” mystery.
From Carr and other Golden Age writers, I’ve taken the idea of writing puzzle plot mysteries with that added layer that makes the reader wonder if there’s truly a curse or a legend that’s come true. I’ve written many locked room mystery short stories, but THE GLASS THIEF is my first novel to feature one. It’s one of the biggest thrills of my writing career that John Dickson Carr’s granddaughter, Shelly Dickson Carr (a fantastic writer in her own right), said, “Gigi Pandian is the queen of the locked-room mystery.”
That’s a fantastic compliment. Your detective, Jaya Jones—I have to ask, is her name an homage to Indiana?
Yes, I was a huge fan of Indiana Jones when I was a kid. So much so that I created a comic strip with a character called Minnesota Smith—a female Indiana Jones.
I had the inside scoop on Indy’s profession because I grew up hanging out with archaeologists in the anthropology department where my parents taught. By the time I was in a PhD program myself, I knew academia wasn’t right for me and it would be much more fun to write about the fictional adventures of an academic. That’s when I came up with historian Jaya Jones. I thought of her as an Indiana Jones for the 21st century—an academic who goes on adventures outside the university, who’s both a woman and half-Indian like I am. I’ve got a Western first name and my dad’s Indian last name, so I flipped it for Jaya. Jones fit perfectly.
Yes, nice and catchy. You mention your parents and in your bio say you were “dragged around the world” when younger. What place did you like best…and least?
I say I was “dragged,” because as a kid I didn’t appreciate those experiences nearly as much as I should have. I loved something about all the places I traveled, from the northern tip of the Scottish Isles to the southern tip of India, but I was cranky about the strange foods and tumultuous weather.
Strange foods and tumultuous weather might encapsulate Scotland! Jaya says of herself, “Besides playing the tabla to let off steam, I also go on long runs in Golden Gate Park with bhangra music on my headphones.” You can trust us with a secret: is Jaya based on you or on somebody else? Or is she an amalgam?
Jaya is based on parts of me, because I wanted to have characters with a similar multicultural background as me and many of the people in my life. Cross-cultural connections are a big part of my life, so I knew it would be for Jaya as well. Beyond that, it’s actually been a bit of the opposite—several traits and hobbies I gave Jaya are things I discovered the joys of later. I wasn’t a runner when I first created Jaya, but now I love it. I took a tabla class for fun during grad school, but unlike Jaya, I was absolutely terrible at it.
Also unlike Jaya, I’ve never felt that my mystery and thriller reading habits are a guilty pleasure. In this novel, I’ve given Jaya a bit of a character arc to stop worrying about what her fellow academics think of her and given her permission to enjoy terrific novels and embrace what she’s good at outside of the classroom setting.
THE GLASS THIEF takes place in different eras and different places. What was the trickiest part of the story to research? Anything you were worried that you hadn’t got right?
Oh, research! I adore it, but it’s a rabbit hole. If I didn’t have deadlines, I don’t know that I’d ever stop researching and begin writing. Because yes, it’s tricky to get it right. I do my best to accurately portray history, settings, and people. I know it’s not perfect.
For my historical research, I always include an Author’s Note at the back of each novel that explains how much of what sounds like fiction is in fact true history. Since all of my novels are based on true forgotten history, although the treasures Jaya finds are fictional, they could really exist.
For settings and people, I visit the countries I write about, and also find early readers who live there. For my first two Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mysteries, Artifact and Pirate Vishnu, I wrote about countries where I’ve spent a great deal of time: Scotland and India. When I want to go further afield, such as Cambodia for THE GLASS THIEF, I visit the countries I’m interested in writing about, do extra research, and make sure to ask people what I’m getting wrong. Sometimes I take creative license, but I like to at least know it’s me writing fiction rather than making a mistake!
THE GLASS THIEF is set in the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live), Paris, and several locations in Cambodia. When I visited Cambodia I had a vague idea about the treasure and how it could be related to Jaya’s interest in colonial history, but I didn’t come up with the twist until I was actually there—after I broke my ankle exploring a temple currently being excavated.
I’ve come across some unusual sidekicks—like Vaseem Khan’s adorable baby elephant detective’s helper—but Dorian from your Accidental Alchemist series has to be the strangest. Where did the inspiration for him come from?
Dorian is a gargoyle who was once stone but was accidentally brought to life through alchemy. I’ve always loved gargoyles, because to me they represent all things mysterious, and one of my favorites is the Thinker on Notre Dame in Paris. I imagined Dorian was carved as a prototype for the gallery of gargoyles at Notre Dame, but he wasn’t big enough so the artist gave him to a friend—a stage magician who had an ancient alchemy book he used as a prop and didn’t realize was real.
He’s an absolute hoot and a great counterpoint to Jaya. Let’s hope they both have many more adventures. Any parting thoughts on Jaya’s latest?
The Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mysteries are cozy mysteries that venture into thriller territory, mashing up cozy and adventure genres. I want readers to know they’re going to get a thrilling, globe-trotting adventure in each novel, but also that Jaya’s friends aren’t going to betray her and readers will get the happy ending they expect in a cozy.
USA Today bestselling and multi-award winning author Gigi Pandian is the child of cultural anthropologists from New Mexico and the southern tip of India. She spent her childhood traveling around the world on their research trips, and now lives outside San Francisco with her husband and a gargoyle who watches over the garden. Gigi writes the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mysteries, the Accidental Alchemist mysteries, and locked-room mystery short stories. Her debut novel, Artifact, was awarded a Malice Domestic Grant and named a Best of 2012 Debut by Suspense Magazine, and her mysteries have also been awarded the Agatha, Rose, Lefty, and Derringer awards.
To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.
Photo credit: Michael Woolsey