Of murder mystery and genre disparity

Noir writing may not be his regular trade, but Pasha Malla's flirtation with the genre snagged him a prestigious award this year anyway. The Arthur Ellis Award, presented by the Crime Writers of Canada, honours the best in Canadian mystery writing.

Noir writing may not be his regular trade, but Pasha Malla’s flirtation with the genre snagged him a prestigious award this year anyway.

The Arthur Ellis Award, presented by the Crime Writers of Canada, honours the best in Canadian mystery writing. And this June it was given to rookie crime writer Malla for his short story Filmsong.

“I had always read noir and crime, my favourite being hard-boiled murder mysteries from the ‘40s, but had never really written it before” he said.

A couple years ago, Malla was approached by Akashic Books to write a story for a collection called Toronto Noir featuring fiction from both first-time and seasoned crime writers.

Asked to base his story in a particular neighbourhood in Toronto, he chose Little India to reflect his East Indian culture and because he knew there would be lots of rich material to draw from.

Spiking the old Ernest Hemingway piece the Killers with elements from the documentary Runaway Grooms and the book Maximum City, which chronicles the dark underbelly of Bombay City, Malla’s conceived of Filmsong, a Bollywood gangster themed story.

“It was really fun but really hard to write,” he said.

“It’s always the best stuff you read that seems easy but is in the end difficult to write. There were times (in writing the book) I was really frustrated.”

It’s an admonition from a seemingly effortless writer himself.

Malla’s most recent book of short stories, The Withdrawal Method, received numerous accolades and pushed him into the limelight of young, Canadian writers.

But he’s wary of being heaped in with other Canadian writers just because he’s Canadian.

“I’ve never once picked up a book because it happened to be Canadian. I read a book because it interests me.”

The idea of trying to define any type or genre of fiction is similarly perplexing to him.

“I don’t buy these genre specifications – not everything has to be categorized,” he said explaining that stories are often a fusion of several different genres.

His stories in The Withdrawal Method are an excellent example, often bringing together elements of fantasy, drama, absurdism and humour in the same place. His work has often been compared to other writers, like Haruki Murakami and Lorrie Moore.

And setting out to write Filmsong wasn’t really any different than other short stories he’s written, he said.

“I didn’t have to kill four people, if that’s what you mean,” Malla said with a laugh.

But elements of noir and mystery have certainly crept into Park People, his forthcoming book, he said.

“It’s sort of an urban Lord of the Flies,” he said, explaining the book is about three adolescents coming of age in a city not too dissimilar from Montreal.

Malla is no stranger to city life, having spent short stints in Philadelphia, New Delhi, St.John’s, Toronto, Montreal and New York, all experiences which have filtered into Park People, he said.

But that hasn’t stopped him from meticulously studying up on what makes cities tick, reading books like High Rise and Metropol to get a better handle on urban living.

It’s strange then that he should be writing about large cities while doing a writer-in-residence at the Pierre Berton House in Dawson, one of the most rural places in Canada.

And for someone who “doesn’t like to nationalize literature,” he admits it’s a decidedly ironic house to be living in considering Berton’s penchant for writing Canadiana.

“It’s funny being in Pierre Berton’s house; it’s intensely nationalistic, but nothing I’m interested in.”

Living in Dawson for the summer is an experience he still hasn’t fully digested, and won’t until he’s gone, he said.

Malla is in Whitehorse next Tuesday to speak at a mystery lounge organized by the Yukon Crime Writers of Canada where he’ll discuss noir fiction.

The event is at 7 p.m. at Well-Read Books. For those who can’t catch the reading, they can access it online at www.skype.com. Participants need to register with Jessica Simon at yukonwriter@lycos.com before Monday, September 28, 7 p.m. to be added to the group conference

Contact Vivian Belik at


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