Under Lock & Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian (Minotaur, Mar.) is a “thoroughly enjoyable series launch,” PW’s starred review said, centered on Vegas stage magician Tempest Raj, who returns to her family’s idiosyncratic renovation business after an onstage accident torpedoes her career. When her former stage double’s body is found behind a wall that’s supposed to have been sealed for a century, Tempest begins to suspect the accident was anything but. Pandian spoke with PW about her love of locked-room mysteries, her amateur passion for architecture, and her work as a cofounder of Crime Writers of Color.

How did this series come about?

When I first started working on this book, I’d just finished a year of cancer treatments. I had made a promise to myself and my writers’ group that when I was done with my treatment I was going to create a retreat in Edinburgh. For my 40th birthday I rented a big flat, invited my writers’ group, and started working on this book. It took five years to finish it, but that’s when I started telling Tempest’s story.

The secret-staircase business that the Raj family runs is right out of my childhood fascination. I wasn’t a kid who played with dolls; I built houses out of blocks and dominos. I also wanted to pay homage to the golden age of detective fiction, those mysteries from a century ago that I loved when I was a kid. My dad is an immigrant from South India, and Southern California, where I grew up, was diverse, but the fiction I was reading didn’t reflect that. I wanted to write characters like those in my life.

You also support other writers in doing the same—can you talk a bit about those efforts?

In 2018, Walter Mosley, Kellye Garrett, and I formed Crime Writers of Color. It started as a listserv created to be a safe space for mystery writers from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. We now have more than 300 members—some published authors, some who are still working on that first book. There’s a private listserv and a public website, and a podcast from Robert Justice, all run by volunteers. Publishing houses were once skeptical about there being a broad audience for mystery fiction with diverse characters, but we’re seeing that these books aren’t a niche—they’re commercially successful. Mystery readers read voraciously.

Your book incorporates several elements popular with mystery fans, starting with the Raj family curse. Where did that come from?

Lots of my favorite mysteries have locked rooms in them, with ingenious puzzles and a backdrop that looks supernatural. I think of myself as writing Scooby-Doo for adults, creating something that’s just spooky enough for a cozy mystery audience. In the book, the curse is that the eldest child dies by magic. Tempest’s family is rational; they don’t really believe in magic, but it still seems like something must be at play beyond rational explanation. Tempest can’t let herself believe the curse, so she needs to figure out what’s going on.

What does having a magician as your protagonist add to the story?

I love seeing a stage magician in mystery fiction because the misdirection a magician uses has so much in common with what we’re trying to do as mystery writers. You give the readers all the clues, enough to entice them, but then misdirect so at the end, the reader slaps their forehead and has the wow moment.

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