Sizzling summer read set on Martha’s Vineyard

First-time novelist Amin Ahmad will speak at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven this Wednesday, July 17. — Photo courtesy of Amin Ahmad

Amin Ahmad can thank an offhand remark made by a Vineyard neighbor for the hatching of his plot for “The Caretaker,” a new thriller set on Martha’s Vineyard and recently published by St. Martin’s Press. Mr. Ahmad, a first-time novelist and summer visitor, was sitting on the deck of his wife’s family’s home in Oak Bluffs when the man next door, a year-round resident, mentioned that he was a caretaker and looked after high-end homes all over the Island.

“He said that in the depths of winter, when the homes were unoccupied and the Island was nearly deserted, he would spend time each evening in a different house, watching television,” Mr. Ahmad explained. “He described how elaborate the homes were — with water views and designer kitchens, closets full of clothes — yet they were used only for the summer months.”

According to Mr. Ahmad, now writing thrillers under the pseudonym A. X. Ahmad, the seed of a plot began to grow. Later that summer, when he realized that many of the Island’s seasonal workers were from other countries — Jamaica, Brazil and Eastern Europe — he filed the fact away in the same mental folder as the caretaker tidbit. Finally, he stumbled upon a book about the conflict on the Siachen Glacier, 20,000 feet above sea level, between near-frozen Indian and Pakistani troops, and he had the final piece of the puzzle used to form the plot for “The Caretaker.”

Mr. Ahmad, a Washington D.C., resident, was born in Calcutta, India, and educated at a boarding school in the Himalayas. He came to the U.S. to attend Vassar College, where he earned a degree in economics. Realizing that economics wasn’t his passion, he switched gears and became an architect, graduating with a master’s degree from M.I.T. and beginning a 13-year career designing large buildings in far-flung places: back to India, in Singapore, and in Boston.

Always an avid reader, Mr. Ahmad began his own writing in the early morning hours before leaving for work. He produced two literary novels but never attempted to have them published.

“Friends told me the writing was beautiful but that nothing much happened,” he said candidly.

After taking writing classes on the side, including one in suspense writing, he was emboldened to try his hand at his first thriller, combining the plot elements he had gathered on his last trip to the Vineyard. He created a protagonist, Ranjit Singh, a former commander of an elite army squad in India, whose career had ended in dishonor. Driven from his homeland, Singh becomes a caretaker on the Vineyard, looking after the opulent vacation homes of the wealthy and powerful. During the harsh winter, he furtively moves his family into a client’s home, an African-American senator whose wife, Anna, had briefly become his clandestine lover.

The Singhs’ short respite is disturbed by a break-in, and the family is forced to flee in terror from mysterious armed men. Pursued and hunted, the unlikely hero enters the Senator’s murky political world with Anna as his only ally. As he struggles to keep his family together, Singh’s military disgrace resurfaces, and he is compelled to confront his painful past.

Exotic settings, unique characters, ethnic conflicts, international intrigue — Mr. Ahmad weaves them together to form a page-turner that’s garnering praise from Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. St. Martin’s Press has contracted for a second Ranjit Singh novel, this one set in New York City, and Mr. Ahmad is hard at work on a third in the series, with ideas for two more already on the back burner.

Now a full-time novelist and writing instructor, Mr. Ahmad, 45, is finally putting his passion for thrillers to work in his own career. “I was raised in a family of storytellers,” the author said, “and grew up reading Robert Ludlum, Jack Higgins, and Ross MacDonald. There wasn’t a lot of literature around in India in the 1970s.”

After studying in the States, he said he played “catch-up” by reading American literature, ashamed that he had only read what he had come to consider “low-brow” page-turners. But he has come back to the genre in both his reading and writing, praising the works of contemporary writers Colin Harrison, John Burdette, and Benjamin Black (the pen name of acclaimed Irish literary novelist John Banville).

“There’s an artificial divide between thrillers and literary novels,” Mr. Ahmad said. “I’m trying to write books that I’d like to read myself – they have to have real characters, good pacing, and places I’m interested in.”

And, while his path to publication seems relatively smooth, the author says it wasn’t really so: “I had an agent trying to sell ‘The Caretaker.’ I got nice rejections. The literary folks said it was too thrillerish and the thriller publishers said it was too literary.”

He persevered. And, as he developed his novel, he continued to submit literary short stories and personal essays to journals and magazines, finding success under his real name, all the while developing A. X. Ahmad, his deft alter-ego.

His advice to others dreaming of becoming writers: Keep at it. Write whenever and wherever you can. Learn the business. And self-promote.

“As writers we no longer have the luxury of just sitting and writing,” Mr. Ahmad said. “You have to create a public persona, build a website, blog, create your own literary community.”

He is doing just that, with readings from “The Caretaker” scheduled up and down the East Coast, including two on the Island this summer. In the meantime, grab a copy and cancel all your appointments as you enter the compelling world of Ranjit Singh.

To hear a clip of “The Caretaker” audio book, click here.

Amin Ahmad will read from “The Caretaker” at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven on Wednesday, July 17, at 7 pm. He will also appear at the Mystery Author Brunch with Linda Fairstein at Behind the Bookstore (behind Edgartown Books) on Wednesday, August 8, from 10 am to 12 noon.