"I'm really interested in the idea of mobility between cultures and within your own life," she says.

"My parents had a mixed-race marriage. When they lived in Britain in the 1960s, no one would rent them an apartment. In my books, I'm constantly mining the reality of interracial relationships, of being an outsider and trying to decide which culture fits you better."

She came to Baltimore in the early 1980s to attend Goucher College. After two years of studying international relations, she switched to the writing program at Hopkins. She graduated in 1986 and then started work at The Evening Sun.

Three years later, she co-founded a book club at the paper, and one member was a new features writer named Laura Lippman. They began a friendship that is now in its third decade.

The two women are an intriguing mix of surface contrasts and underlying similarities. Lippman is blond and statuesque while Massey is petite and dark, dressed in clothes that emphasize her Indian heritage.

Both Lippman and Massey write books that express deeply held commitments to social justice. Both possess a formidable sense of personal style that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Though neither was a novelist when they met, the two women independently wrote and published their first mystery novels within seven months of one another in 1997.

Massey had immersed herself in Japanese culture from 1991 to 1993, when she was living overseas with her naval officer husband.

"I wanted to learn as much about Japan as I could," Massey says. "I had a chance to become a student of tradition and understand ritual and folk customs, and I took my life in Japan really seriously. I didn't spend a lot of time with foreigners. I spent a lot of time with the Japanese, living off the base, going out every day and trying to learn things by going really back to the basics, like: How do you actually make tofu? I was very interested in kimono, in old patterns and how fabrics are dyed and embroidered and things like that."

Lippman has joked that Massey's books make it safe "to embrace my inner Martha Stewart, pre-criminal indictment and conviction."

By exploring the social issues underlying the details of Japanese flower-arranging and antique chests, Lippman says, her friend's books make it intellectually respectable to be a girl.

"In the food world, all this attention is being paid right now to slow cooking," Lippman says. "But in publishing, a lot of people want instantaneous gratification. Sujata is enormously patient. She doesn't rush it. She takes the time and puts in the work."

When Massey was writing "The Sleeping Dictionary," for instance, she enrolled in the University of Minnesota and spent a year studying Hindi sentence structure.

Lippman says the way Sujata tackles home repair projects — and by now, she's been through several major overhauls — is the same way she approaches writing.

"Sujata has been done multiple renovations, and her books have been through multiple revisions," Lippman says. "She is very clear-eyed about what she does. She sees the big picture."

And part of that big picture includes knowing where home is. In 2006, Massey and her family left Baltimore for Minnesota's Twin Cities, where her family lives.

But the longer they stayed in the Midwest, the more they realized that it was Charm City that felt like home.

Almost exactly a year ago, Massey and her husband purchased an 1897 Victorian fixer-upper with six bedrooms, sleeping porches and a myriad of nooks and crannies and unsolved puzzles that would appeal to a historically minded novelist who likes to solve mysteries.

"There's a social style to Baltimore and Washington that's very comfortable to me," the author says.

"People who don't know you will talk to you about their lives. You can be in a gym and the person working out next to you is a Holocaust survivor. Then you can go to the Stony Run Friends meeting and people will talk about how they helped integrate housing in the 1950s.