Today’s podcast episode has all kinds of fascinating connections…with a Michael Douglas / Val Kilmer movie, with turn-of-the-century Victorian England, and with Africa and African mythology. Which, as author Vered Ehsani points out, has much more to it than just the Egyptian mythology we most often associate with Africa.
Vered’s describes her paranormal detective mysteries as a cross between Jane Austen and Lara Croft, which makes for some really fun reading. The books are witty and sharp, and have layers of social commentary, as well as fascinating and mysterious plots. Vered has three novels available for free if you sign up for her newsletter, which is a fantastic way to get to know her detective, Mrs. Knight.
Later in the episode, Vered mentions a photo journal about Nairobi that she’s just released. You can find out more about that here.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcript of Interview
Alexandra: Hello Mystery Readers, this is Alexandra Amor and this is It’s a Mystery Podcast. I’m here today with Vered Ehsani. Hi Vered.
Vered: Hi, how are you doing dear?
Alexandra: I’m good, how are you?
Vered: Good, I don’t actually have electricity right now, but it’s not a normal state of affairs, we just don’t have electricity whenever it rains, so we’re good.
Alexandra: Well, it’s nice that your WiFi is working anyway.
Vered: For a little while, yeah, we’ll see how long it lasts.
Alexandra: You’re the first author I’ve spoken to in Africa, so this is pretty exciting.
Alexandra: Yeah, I’m looking forward to this very much, so let me introduce you to our listeners.
Vered Ehsani has been a writer since she could hold pen to paper which is a lot longer than she cares to admit. Since mid-2000 she’s lived in Kenya with her family and various other animals. When she isn’t writing she pretends to work as an environmental consultant. Her current book series can best be described as Jane Austen meets Lara Croft in colonial Africa. Although she can’t claim to be a paranormal detective, Vered does share a lot in common with the series main character who refuses to let danger and death inconvenience her.
And this series looks like so much fun and I was so excited to talk to you about it today.
Let’s start with Beatrice Knight, your main character, so she’s a paranormal detective. It’s the late 19th century, like 1890?
Vered: Yeah, 1890..she arrives in Kenya in 1899.
Alexandra: Okay, all right, and she was working as a paranormal detective in London, correct?
Vered: Yeah, yeah.
Alexandra: Okay, so take us on a bit of her journey to find Africa.
Vered: Basically the character is a British woman during the height of colonialism and of course as you know at that time Kenya, which was called East Africa, was under British rule. Because of some sort of problem in the family, they had to leave England and go to Kenya, or East Africa at the time, and she thought that she was retiring from investigating the paranormal but it turns out that Africa is actually full of paranormal and mythological stories and I had a lot of fun investigating and researching that.
We tend to hear a lot about Egypt mythology; that’s quite a common. When people think of Africa it’s usually Egypt mythology but there’s actually a lot of beautiful stories and mythology and fantastic characters when you go south of Egypt, yeah, and it’s also in Africa. That’s where my focus has been and what I’ve been exploring.
Alexandra: And one of your reviewers did mention that there is so much myth and legend and like shape-shifting animals and haunted places and that kind of thing. Lots of legend and myth, demonic possession, haunted places. As you just said, rich with those kind of stories and legends and that kind of thing.
Vered: Absolutely. In fact, this whole thing started when I was chatting with a Kenyan friend of mine and he was telling me how he would go to the village where his family comes from, you know, for holidays, and stay with his grandmother and she would share with him all of these stories from the village, from his culture, from his tribe, and so he started sharing a few of them with me, and I was like, “Wow, this is amazing stuff” like we never hear about these legends, you know it’s always either Egypt or Rome or something like that, that Europeans and Americans list– read about. But this stuff is just amazing, it’s so rich and there’s so many layers to explore, so that’s kind of launched me on my crusade to discover and research about it. And as I began to research I was like, wow, there’s so many great ideas here to explore and to pick apart and that’s kind of what’s in the series.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly yeah, and so the first book which we should mention is free, “Ghosts of Tsavo.”
I noticed one of your reviewers mentioned that she had heard of the lions of Tsavo, which I looked up and were a whole thing, a couple of man-eating lions attacking people building a railway. Tell us a bit, do they tie in at all to the first book, “Ghosts of Tsavo?”
Vered: Absolutely, in fact, the Ghosts of Tsavo, are referred to also as Man-eaters of Tsavo. There was actually a movie done, it was quite popular at one point, about 10 or 15 years ago called the “The Ghost and the Darkness” and it was about these famous lions and they were real, they haunted, or they stalked the workers along the British Railway in East Africa where. Tsavo is actually an area in Kenya. So specifically these Lions were found in Kenya in the late 1800s and for about a year, apparently, they ate or they killed at least 30 people plus and people were so terrified of these lions because they had developed a habit of eating people. So that’s why they were called the man-eaters.
Eventually they were killed. They weren’t ghosts but they were referred to as ghosts because nobody could track them. People became very superstitious around them because no matter what they tried these lions always somehow escaped capture. So finally one hunter managed to get them.
I started to play with that idea and thought well what would be…what would happen if these really were ghosts? If it wasn’t just, you know, very clever lions evading capture and that began the whole kind of story around the “Ghosts of Tsavo.”
While that is the premise of the first book, it’s actually kind of an excuse to also create the worlds, to introduce some of the paranormal characters that I learned about from, you know, different mythology, different tribal stories and so it really sets the platform for the rest of the series as well as playing around with this idea of the “Ghosts of Tsavo” and what would have happened if they were real.
Alexandra: Beatrice is a paranormal detective and she has a talent for seeing ghosts and smelling them I noticed, somebody mentioned. In the first book, in the very first scene she’s with a woman she suspects of being a werewolf and she talks about the scent of wet dog fur essentially.
Is that something that runs in her family? How did she acquire these gifts?
Vered: Okay well, that’s actually something that is a mystery that is sort of unveiled throughout the series. Each story has its own big mystery but then there’s also a number of mysteries that kind of get resolved throughout the series. So I’ll give you a little hint about Mrs. Knight, she’s very formal so we refer to her as Mrs. Knight, I never call her Beatrice. I call her Mrs. Knight.
Mrs. Knight has a bit of a history in her family which she actually denies because although she’s a paranormal investigator and she does have this talent. She also has this prejudice around all things paranormal, so she kind of views paranormal creatures as slightly inferior or something to be watched and to be kind of kept under control and so this kind of prejudice plays out over the first few books. She basically gets confronted with this through her family history, and, not a big surprise, she actually has a paranormal sort of strain within her family that she was unaware of, or else, she denied it, even when she discovered it.
This is part of her character development that she has to be confronted with her prejudices and then embrace them or do something with them and so that’s part of, that’s one of the story lines that’s gone through the first four books of the series.
Alexandra: Oh, fantastic, I love that.
She’s a reluctant paranormal detective, would you say?
Vered: Very reluctant, although at the same time, she values her skills because, unlike a lot of the women of the time, or maybe a lot of them were like this but they couldn’t express it. She doesn’t want to be this woman who just stays at home and goes to tea parties the way she sees her aunt and her cousin. This skill which is highly valued in her society is her ticket out so to speak. So although she values it and she’s grateful for it, she has a certain repugnance around it, so these conflicts are there, underlying her development as an individual.
Alexandra: That’s fascinating.
I noticed in the bio letter read at the beginning you said that you share a lot of characteristics with her, with Mrs. Knight. What would you say those are?
Vered: We both love tea. Tea is a serious thing for Mrs. Knight, she doesn’t go anywhere without her pot of tea and you know she often is horrified when people say there isn’t time for tea, or this isn’t the right time for tea, there’s this happening. She’s horrified, “What do you mean? There’s always time for tea, it’s never not a time for tea.” So and I feel very much the same way, I’m a teetotaler. So that’s one thing we have in common.
The other is a curiosity about the world. Imagination and curiosity are the most important tools for an investigator, especially a paranormal investigator and that is something that I also am very curious about the world, I love to learn, I’m always taking some kind of a course or reading something. So I think that’s something that we both share.
The other is a sense of adventure. Certainly back in 1899, there’s no internet, people didn’t know anything about Africa apart from that it was dangerous, and the Dark Continent and you know savage peoples and tribes and you know all these prejudices and fears and yet she picked herself up and just went.
And similarly, I have that sense of adventure, my husband and I, we arrived in Kenya in 2000, during a time when people were leaving the country because there was no jobs, electricity was even worse than it is now, there was a lot happening in the country and yet we just decided, you know what, we’re just going to do this. So I think those are areas that we are very similar in.
Alexandra: You mentioned curiosity and imagination which are the perfect characteristics for a writer, right?
Alexandra: Yes, exactly.
And then, Mrs. Knight brings with her to Africa the ghost of her deceased husband.
Vered: Yeah, he’s a bit of a comedic character, he’s quite a funny one.
Alexandra: Does he stay with her throughout the course of the books?
Vered: Yes, off and on, he disappears at certain times, but he is one of the main characters, he provides a bit of comic relief. He’s always prodding and poking at her and yet he deeply loves her. Again there is a sort of this love and antagonistic relationship that they have because on the one hand, she can’t imagine her life without him, on the other hand she says, you know it’s bad enough to haunt your spouse when you’re alive but when you’re dead it’s completely poor manners. He continues to haunt her, so they have this bit of a tug of, you know a bit of a tug in the relationship. But he is there and he’s very loyal if not sort of antagonistic character.
Alexandra: One thing I noticed right away was that you mentioned that Mrs. Knight has a fully loaded walking stick, so tell us what that is.
Vered: Mrs. Knight is not an old character, she’s..well she’s old by British standards. She’s 25 when the series opens up. And as her aunt keeps reminding her, for an unmarried woman, because she’s a widow, but no, she’s old, she’s basically past prime at that stage, so there’s no hope for her to remarry and that’s it, she’s done. And her aunt sort of despairs of how she will deal in life with this niece of hers.
However, so Mrs. Knight is 25 and yet she has this walking stick and she says it’s the perfect weapon because people don’t look at it. They think it’s just a walking stick, so they assume that she’s infirm, she’s has some limp maybe, so they never look at it. So she says that makes it the perfect weapon.
The loaded walking stick it has a saber that pops out the end, it has a couple of secret drawer cabinets or drawers that she can pull out different tools. She’s very adept at breaking into houses if she needs to, much to some of her relations horror. But she’s very well prepared, she says you must be very well prepared if you’re going to do this kind of work. So that’s her fully loaded walking stick.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s fantastic. I wasn’t sure if loaded referred to bullets or not, but it’s a saber.
Vered: No, she doesn’t use guns but she is very good at a bow and arrow and using her blade, so that’s her weapon of choice.
Alexandra: She ends up belonging to a society of paranormal people in Kenya. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Vered: Sure. The Society for Paranormals is actually the British Agency that she worked for and so when she comes to Kenya, or to East Africa at the time, she’s done with them but they still have their hooks on her. Meanwhile, when she comes here she finds there’s a parallel agency or parallel society here that’s very much, you know, a lot of the parallels I was making with sort of the British Colonials coming to Africa and feeling like, oh you know, we’re bringing civilization. Meanwhile, there’s these ancient histories that are here, tribes that have been here for thousands of years and they have their own civilization. It’s a bit of a clash of civilization that was happening on the paranormal level as well.
Some of the characters that she meets, like the first character that she meets, her aunt mistakes the man for a porter. They’re arriving at the train station in Nairobi and this big man walks up and immediately Mrs. Knight realizes, okay this guy, you know, she can see things, so she realizes this guy is a bit different, he’s not your standard porter. But her aunt is insistent that this man’s a porter, he must help them carry the trunks. Meanwhile, this man turns out to be a very powerful figure in the local paranormal community so he’s not impressed at all with the whole scene.
There’s this whole play that goes on between the three of them as they’re trying to decide who’s going to do what, where and how.
And then there’s a few creatures that she also encounters apart from the lions. The lions turn out to be shape-shifters, which is not a big surprise, but there’s some other interesting creatures that come out. Shape-shifting is actually part of a lot of the African mythology as well. It’s not just werewolves from Europe, it’s actually shape-shifting is part of some histories that are here in Africa.
For example, one of the characters that later gets introduced, later in the series is called a Popobawa, and the Popobawa is a man who can shape-shift into a giant bat, and there’s a whole history about how that was created. It was believed that he was an evil spirit that a chief summoned to punish another chief, but that evil spirit got away from that chief and became its own creature and caused havoc among everyone. So again, this is part of the coastal mythology, so I again took that and played with it a little bit and then created this amazing, wonderful character. I love this character actually.
And you know, some of these characters you’re not sure, are they bad, are they good? Where is their loyalty? But I think that’s also true to human nature, we’re not all bad, or all good, we all have these elements within us. I always try to, with most of the characters, not make any of them out to be saints or sinners but rather this natural mix in between, and so that makes it a bit fun that you’re not really sure where peoples loyalties are and what they’re going to do next.
Alexandra: I think that does make it really fun and really fun for the reader to have that little bit of uncertainty.
Do you find sometimes you get lost in the research, like do you kind of go down the rabbit hole a little bit?
Vered: Definitely, absolutely. A few months ago I got this fantastic book that was printed in Kenya and it was about Nairobi in the early 1800s, early 1900s and it’s a very different city now of course. I just got lost in these old photos, these beautiful, beautiful photos and some of the characters that lived in Nairobi at that time and then thinking, how can they play into my stories? Yeah, there’s a lot more scope. I haven’t researched everything yet, but at some point you have to kind of pull back and say I had enough, let me go on the next journey and we can come back to the research.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly right. One thing I noticed, I read the first couple of chapters of “The Ghosts of Tsavo” and Mrs. Knights, the voice of the book is so strong. She’s such a quirky character and I felt like in the first chapter, I just jumped, dived right into the story. Within a few paragraphs I felt like I had a sense of who she was.
As a writer, I’m curious, did it take you a while to find that voice, or did she show up right away? What was that like for you?Vered: Okay, so let me tell you where my inspiration for the voice came from. Pride and Prejudice is a classic, and I’ve read that book a number of times. I was actually reading that book when I was writing and I purposefully was channeling my inner Jane Austen when I was writing because Mrs. Knight comes from that era. I mean she comes from the same period of time as Jane Austen, and the first book “Ghosts of Tsavo” – if you know “Pride and Prejudice” really well, you’ll actually find that it’s a bit of a spoof of Pride and Prejudice.
Mrs. Knight’s aunt is very much like the mother of the girls, sort of the on again off again relationships that they have with some of the men that they meet, some of them being paranormal, some of them not. That plays out in the first few books. I very much was taking “Pride and Prejudice” and having fun with it as well and incorporating some elements into it that people are familiar with and that also includes the language.
If you look at the way I’ve written it, it’s completely the opposite of what some people say you should do as a writer. So people say, don’t use a lot of adjectives and adverbs and be very sparse in your language. Well, the language I use is over the top, it’s just flowery and full of adjectives and adverbs and descriptions and very much “Pride and Prejudice” style. That was done on purpose because when I was thinking of Mrs. Knight, her voice, to me “Pride and Prejudice,” the way that book and other books of Jane Austen are written, that style resonates with who Mrs. Knight is.
She’s very formal and very proper and yet at the same time there’s this humor that comes out, that some of it’s a bit sly and very dry and you have to almost watch for it because it just comes out. And just like with “Pride and Prejudice” the humor isn’t like hit you over the head, it’s more like, wait a minute, was she making a sarcastic comment there, you know. So it’s that kind of an approach.
Alexandra: Right. I can see how that, her being sort of buttoned up and proper and of that era would really conflict with as we talked about earlier this talent that she has for paranormal detecting and so that, that push and pull in those two parts of her character must provide for a lot of interesting situations and yeah, conflict within herself.
It’s great to have a conflicted main character.
Vered: Completely, and this also has a lot of opportunity for some humor because on the one hand she recognizes this conflict, and sometimes she says oh, to hell with it, I’m just going to go anyways. There are moments when she just flat, realizes, okay it’s either, give up my properness or die in the process. So okay, I’m planning on living so let me just get on with doing what I need to do.
So there is a lot of kind of play on those various levels of tension between the colonial versus the tribal people of East Africa, between what’s proper and expected of a lady and what an investigator needs to do to survive, between different expectations of different characters and then also prejudices that a number of the characters have at different levels and while Mrs. Knight, interestingly enough doesn’t have a prejudice about the African people around her the way some of the British Colonials did, she has other prejudices that come out that are just as strong.
Alexandra: Oh, fantastic.
Does she live alone or does she live with her aunt?
Vered: She lives with her aunt and her aunt’s family. Because she’s a widow, she doesn’t have any real means to support herself and women in that era would either have to be living with their family or their husband or someone looking after them, or be independently wealthy, like marry a rich man and kill him off and then be independently wealthy widow. So she wasn’t any of those things, she was a widow but she was not wealthy, so she went back to live with her aunt and uncle and her niece and her cousins.
Alexandra: Okay, got it. Well this has been an amazing, and thank you so much for being such a trooper with all your electrical problems and guests arriving and everything else. I really appreciate it.
Vered: It’s been a pleasure, thank you so much.
Alexandra: And so why don’t you tell everyone where they can find your books.
Vered: Yeah, sure. I mean, I sell them on all the major platforms, but if you want to find links to where they are, it’s veredehsani.co.za, that’s my website. But my books can be found on Amazon and Kobo and Smashwords and Barnes & Knobles and iBooks.
If you go to my website I do offer three books, the first book and two novellas for free so you can get those there. I’m actually launching the fifth book and in celebration of the fifth book, I’m really excited about this actually, I’ve created this photo journal of Nairobi in 1900, so it kind of gives the readers a bit of a tour of Nairobi. What it was like, what it really looked like to kind of, you know, add to what they picked up from the book and included in the photo journal are descriptions about the photos including some of the characters who I include in my novel.
Some of my characters are historical characters and then there’s also some odd quirky quotes from Mrs. Knight herself because, you know, she’s go a lot of great quotes that I love very much. So that’s it for the journal I’m going to be making available to any subscriber very shortly, but right now it’s available to anyone who subscribes. I’m launching the photo journal on the fifth of May, so that in preparation for my big book launch on the tenth of May, but after that I’ll be making the photo journal available as well to subscribers.
Alexandra: Oh perfect, okay, so I’ll put some links and mention of that in the show notes as well, awesome. Well, thank you so much Vered, I really appreciate it.
Vered: Absolutely, thank you for having me on the show, thank you so much.
Alexandra: You’re welcome. Bye.
Vered: Yes, bye.