Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator

When we meet fifty-one year old New Delhi detective extraordinaire Vish Puri, he’s consuming chili pakoras with relish–and obsessive neatness, for he’s afraid to leave any evidence of his meal lest his wife discover he’s flouting his doctor-mandated low-fat diet. Oh, and the reader is presented with a helpful footnote directing her to the glossary on page 297, for help with the word pakora.

The first page of this book pretty much sums up all that’s right (and the very little that’s not) with The Case of the Missing Servant (Simon & Schuster, 2009). Tarquin Hall (whose name, I must confess, immediately conjured for me the image of a stately manor filled with grim ancestral portraits) has created someone very special in Vish Puri, and the opening note of gentle humour and irony (the detective avoiding detection by his wife) immediately made me warm to the protagonist. But. While there are no further footnotes, this book contains a Glossary with a capital G. If I hadn’t borrowed The Case of … from the library, I’d have liberated it from pages 297 to 310, for this glossary includes sari and namaste and samosa–and oh, the horror–chai. CHAI. If my next English village cozy mystery doesn’t include a glossary explaining jumper, hiya, scone and cuppa, I shall take it very personally indeed.

Much of the business of Vish Puri’s Most Private Investigators Ltd. flows from the Pre-Matrimonial Service, i.e., investigations into the lifestyle and finances of clients’ potential (arranged) marriage partners. But now, Puri is presented with a truly interesting case by a prominent lawyer, Ajay Kasliwal, whose maid Mary vanished from his house in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Mary’s employer doesn’t know where she was from, doesn’t know her last name, doesn’t have a photograph of her, and Mary had no identifying documents. (Note: Many domestic workers in India are desperately poor migrants from marginalized areas, and as they’re unskilled, uneducated workers, they’re usually unprotected by legislation. Consequently, they are ill-treated and exploited all too often. Yes, this is a national shame.)

Puri must find the missing Mary amongst India’s billion people, and find her fast, for Kasliwal’s political enemies are claiming he impregnated the maid and subsequently murdered her. Puri and his trusty sidekicks (whom he’s code-named Tubelight, Handbrake, Flush and Facecream respectively) battle against the uncooperative local police and the intransigent Mrs. Kasliwal, all the while continuing with their ongoing pre-matrimonial investigation cases. Then things take a dire turn when someone attempts to shoot Puri.

It’s often tricky to write about India without coming off either as condescending or willfully blind towards the country’s flaws, but Hall’s balancing act is near perfect–he acknowledges the corruption and crappy infrastructure and structural injustice, but is quick to note uniquely Indian avenues to happiness. He is also both cognizant and appreciative of the cultural notions of duty and honor that kick in when the State and the toothless media fail its citizens. You could do much worse than use this book as a primer to contemporary Delhi–Hall is an acute observer with a nuanced understanding of North India (and Delhi in particular), and is careful to avoid stereotypes and generalizations.

My only beef with this book is the overabundance of explanation about the setting, and it’s not only to do with that Glossary. The initial chapters have a strong whiff of journalistic description about them–there’s much in the vein of “With the population explosion–now 16 million and rising–came a dramatic increase in crime”–and sometimes the writing takes on an expository tone. When Hall hits his stride, however, everything falls into its proper place, and I didn’t surface till page 297.

While there’s much to savor in Hall’s choice of setting, the true appeal of this book for me lies in its characters, both main and secondary (Puri’s mother Mummy-ji is awe-inspiring, and I’m very intrigued by Facecream and her khukhri knife). As a morally upright yet realistic person who actually gets things done in New Delhi (!), Puri is as heroic as he is agreeable, and indeed, Hall writes him with fond indulgence that’s very appealing. There are three further Vish Puri books, and I suspect that they’ll be even better than the first installment, now that Hall has the explain-ey bits out of the way. So it’s back to the library for me for The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Sounds like a hoot.

Weekend read: Harry Potter by Ayn Rand

Oh, I love funnywoman Mallory Ortberg (of The Toast), and if you haven’t read her work yet, you couldn’t do better than start with her Harry Potter Ayn Rand mash-ups. Like so:


Here’s an excerpt from the first piece.

Harry and Ron stood before the Mirror of Erised. “My God,” Ron said. “Harry, it’s your dead parents.”

Harry’s eyes flicked momentarily over to the mirror. “So it is. This information is neither useful nor productive. Let us leave at once, to assist Hagrid in his noble enterprise of raising as many dragon eggs as he sees fit, in spite of our country’s unjust dragon-trading restrictions.”

“But it’s your parents, Harry,” Ron said. Ron never really got it.

Harry sighed. “The fundamental standard for all relationships is the trader principle, Ron.”

“I don’t understand,” Ron said.

“Of course you don’t,” said Harry affectionately. “This principle holds that we should interact with people on the basis of the values we can trade with them – values of all sorts, including common interests in art, sports or music, similar philosophical outlooks, political beliefs, sense of life, and more. Dead people have no value according to the trader principle.”

“But they gave birth to y–“

“I made myself, Ron,” Harry said firmly.

Read the rest here.  And go on to  The Chamber of Secrets,  Prisoners of Collectivism , Goblet of Fire, Order of Psycho-epistemology, and Half-blood Prince.  You’re welcome. And now, the wait for The Deathly Hallows begins.

I’ll leave you with this lovely cover of Fabio-Harry battling evil Marxist Dementors in The Prisoners of Collectivism.

The New Hercule Poirot Mystery: The Monogram Murders

Hercule Poirot is back, mes amis! As you probably know, crime novelist Sophie Hannah received permission from the Christie Estate to resurrect Poirot for a new 1929 adventure  in The Monogram Murders (William Morrow, Sept. 2014). There’s a new narrator this time round–a young Scotland Yard detective named Edward Catchpool, with whom Poirot shares a lodging house. Catchpool is less bumbly, but oh! a lot more confused than Hastings of the beautifully unsuspicious mind.

At a London coffee-house, Poirot strikes up a conversation with a scared woman named Jennie who claims she’s being pursued by a murderer–and that she deserves to be killed, as it’s “the only way to make things right”. Later that evening, he meets Catchpool, who tells him about three murders at the swank Bloxham Hotel. Two women and a man have been found poisoned in their respective rooms, their bodies laid out in a formal manner, each one’s mouth holding a monogrammed cufflink bearing the letters PIJ. Intuiting a connection between the two events, Poirot sends Catchpool off to Great Holling (a St. Mary Mead stand-in), where the two murdered women came from, to talk to the locals and figure out what PIJ stands for, while he tries to track down Jennie, fearing she’ll be be the next victim.

Taking on the creation of a writer who’s been outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible is a gargantuan (and to me, mostly thankless) task; no wonder the curtain has stayed down all these years. I’ve never read any of Hannah’s work– she’s authored nine psychological thrillers, and they might all be superb, but alas! The Monogram Murders left me mostly unmoved. I finished this book primarily to find out the identity of the killer, for Hannah’s writing isn’t anywhere nearly as readable as Christie’s deceptively easy style. The book is undone by meagre characterizations, and none of the cast really comes to life. Catchpool was so thinly fleshed in that I can’t picture him at all. Hastings was a bit of an ass, but he was a loveable ass; Catchpool is just…flat. His defining characteristic–he’s a Scotland Yard detective with a long-standing aversion to dead bodies–seemed ill-chosen and downright weird. Don’t get me wrong: it’d be a great plot point were it lovingly explored in a psychological thriller, but in a brisk whodunit, the set-up borders on the ridiculous, because we never learn why Catchpool, given his phobia, chose to deal with murder in his professional life.

The plot centres around events in the past, and while it’s a solid, well-engineered plot triumphantly evocative of Christie, there’s little in the present-day narrative to make the reader feel truly invested in the outcome. Fatally, Hannah omits from her dramatis personae a likeable person (or persons) whose fate depends on the investigation. There are very few secondary characters, so the identity of the murderer is restricted to a small cast of suspects. And there simply aren’t enough juicy sub-plots involving these characters–the whole lot of them could have been poisoned too, for all I cared about them. Furthermore, I enjoy the touches of melodrama in Christie’s books (it’s at least partly why Poirot and Marple make for such good convalescence reads), and I found the book curiously staid. The dewy romance, the illegitimate child given away under duress, the snooty titled lordling, the long-lost sibling returned from the colonies, the false identity–all plausible plot devices in the time period, and ones that Christie employed with much relish in her oeuvre–are noticeably absent in Hannah’s work.  The setting is 1929, but you wouldn’t figure that from atmospheric detail but from the absence of modern technology. Hannah is careful with dialogue and setting, but mostly in terms of what she leaves out, and she makes little effort to build a picture of 1929 London for the reader–there’s scant references to the outside world or of the characters’ attitudes towards the issues of the day.

What about Poirot? Well, of course, there’s a generous scattering of Belgian-not-French reminders,references to the little grey cells,  and exclamations of the incroyable! variety. I actually thought Hannah got Poirot down very accurately, apart from one sour note–this Poirot is grievously lacking in compassion compared to Christie’s creation. ‘Poirot’s face was a mask of contempt. “If that is your opinion, then you must be every murderer’s favorite policeman.” ‘ he tells Catchpool.  In another instance, he tells the unfortunate Catchpool not to console him. “Always you want to turn away from pain and suffering, but I am not like you, Catchpool! I cannot countenance such…cowardice.” Zing! We all hold deeply cherished opinions about Poirot, and while he’s always seemed arrogant and full of himself and pompous and theatrical, I’ve never thought him capable of meanness, especially to his friends. I could (of course) be completely wrong in my assessment of Poirot, but let’s face it: it’s going to be nigh impossible for any author to win this game against us beady-eyed Poirot aficionados who’ve had decades in which to cement our opinions. Sophie Hannah, I feel for you, I do.

In sum, I found  The Monogram Murders admirably plotted, deftly engineered, and singularly devoid of charm. I think the probability of liking this book boils down the mysterious affair of writing style. It’s hard to judge if newcomers to Christie would warm to this novel; I imagine they’d enjoy the intricacy of the plot, but wouldn’t quite see what the fuss surrounding Poirot was about. And that would be a bit of a shame, n’est-ce pas?

Wonder by R.J.Palacio

Wonder by R.J.Palacio (Knopf, 2012) has over 5000 (mostly) 5-star reviews on Amazon; it’s apparently a phenomenon. 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, born with severe craniofacial anomalies, enters fifth grade at public school after  having been homeschooled all his life. He makes a few friends, and a few enemies who decide that his appearance makes him fair game for bullying; the majority of the kids don’t take sides.

Wonder is, in essence, a book about the importance of taking sides, of actively choosing to be generous and acting upon that impulse. In the context of Auggie’s condition as a form of outsiderness subject to discrimination, I was reminded of Beverly Tatum’s quote about the conveyor belt of racism.

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt… Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around…But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt- unless they are actively antiracist- they will find themselves carried along with the others.” 

There is everything to like and admire about a book that demands positive action from those who would remain bystanders and consider neutrality a sufficient response in the face of injustice. The fifth-grade English teacher at Auggie’s school gives the class a precept every month; the first precept is: “If you have the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” As the novel progresses, we witness the precept put to the test, and it’s heart-rending to read about Auggie’s struggle to be treated like a “normal” person in the real world.

I lent this book to a wonderful warm-hearted 10-year-old friend who read it in one breath and loved it. I would probably love it too were I a middle schooler, but seeing as I’m a cynical old biddy, I confess to two reservations.  [SPOILERS] My main issue was that the kids were too nice to be realistic–there’s ONE truly rotten apple in the entire fifth grade class. It’s simply too hard to believe that so many kids would value kindness over popularity and be so nice to Auggie. What’s this school, Utopia Elementary over in Messier 82? Which brings me to my second reservation, about the book’s ending. [MAJOR SPOILER] At the close of the school year, Auggie gets a medal and finds, to his surprise, that he is popular.  Auggie’s essentially being rewarded for being himself, for living his life as a child with an anomaly, and I found that somewhat condescending. (For more about this issue, see, for example, this parent’s discomfort when her disabled daughter is called heroic.)  So I’m going to recommend this book whole-heartedly if you plan to buy it for a younger reader or if you look fondly upon your school years, and recommend it with slight reservations for the rest of the world.

Every Day is Malala Day by Rosemary McCarney

Every Day is Malala Day (Second Story Press, 2014) is a picture book detailing a (symbolic) letter written to Malala Yousafzai by girls from all over the world in response to her advocacy for girls’ education.  (The United Nations declared last year that July 12, Malala’s birthday, would be celebrated as Malala Day.) The book features photographs of young girls from around the world, with each page containing a single phrase or line of text from the letter, finishing off with excerpts from Malala’s 2013 speech at the UN.

It’s a beautiful book, with an inspiring message of solidarity and hope (“Girls everywhere are behind you. We are raising our hands with you…as you represent all of us.The world will see what girls can achieve-if only they let us.”)  The photographs are lovely–there are girls from all over the world, variously naughty, steely-jawed, defiant, blank-faced, wary and fearful. The author, Rosemary McCarney, heads the Canadian chapter of Plan International, a charity seeking to improve the lives of children, and proceeds from the sale of this book will go towards the Because I am a Girl Fund.

Note that Every day is Malala Day is the sort of kids’ book that must be read with an adult who will illuminate and comfort along the way. The suggested reading age is 5-8, but I’d lean towards 8-10. Although the narrative is structured in the manner of a picture book, the topics and vocabulary aren’t picture book-ish at all, and many concepts are stated in an abstract fashion that confounded my just-turned-seven child. “In many countries, bullets are not the only way to silence girls. Early marriage… poverty… discrimination… violence… all play a part.” My son didn’t understand a thing. But the subtlety and complexity of this work in no way lessens its value. Every Day is Malala Day is a tool that works best in adult hands–to build a story for children.

A million free books waiting to be read

Openlibrary.org is the sort of thing that makes me believe in the future of humankind. It’s the ultimate public library, online. It was set up with Aaron Swartz as the original engineer baaaack in 2006, but I only discovered its existence earlier this year, and as none of my friends seem to have heard of it either, I thought I’d share it here. 

Open Library is a site that lets you read books online sans monthly fees or invasive information gathering, with no downloads or PDFs–you read on your browser. You check books out for 2 weeks at a time, upto a maximum of 5 books, and place holds on books you want which happen to be checked out. No late fees, ever–the books are automatically returned after 15 days.  You’ll find Neil Gaiman and Barbara Kingsolver and John Irving  and Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome and Robin McKinley and Octavia Butler and A.S.Byatt and Alan Garner and Salman Rushdie and Georgette Heyer and tons of  mystery writers including Patricia Wentworth and Laurie R. King and Dorothy Sayers and Elizabeth Peters and M.C.Beaton and of course Christie, and you’ll even find kids books including Dr. Seuss and the current oligarchs of my son’s bookshelf, Roald Dahl and Geronimo Stilton. Pretty freaking awesome. I have no idea how it words re: copyright except that it’s all legal.

All you need to join  Open Library is an email id. And time! It’s a time sink like nothing I’ve experienced. Consider yourselves warned.

Two Graphic Novels: Good as Lily and Relish

I’ve been reading some great graphic novels lately, and here are two brief reviews.

Good as Lily by Derek Kirk Kim: After a run-in with a obdurate pig pinata on her eighteenth birthday, Grace Kwon is confronted by three avatars of herself as a kindergartener, a thirty-something adult, and a seventy-year-old woman respectively. Chaos ensues as Grace sneaks her other selves into her home while keeping her parents in the dark. The rambunctious selves refuse to stay quietly hidden  in Grace’s closet, but visit her at school, taking it upon themselves to interfere with Grace’s life. Despite what it seems, they haven’t visited just to drive Grace insane; rather, Grace comes to understand that the three selves represent watershed moments in her emotional life, offering her the chance to better understand issues that might keep her from realizing the best version of her future.

gal_final

This story would make such a great movie or play–it’s sort of like The Kid meets Freaky Friday meets Groundhog Day, but Korean-American, and without a hokey Disney ending. And if parts of the story are a bit over the top, and if some of the dialogue is obviously written for laughs, well, it adds to the cinematic feel (the book is divided into Acts rather than Chapters).  The only real issue I had with the book was Lily. As a plot point, Lily is  just not strong enough– she comes in too late and leaves too early, and I’m surprised Kim put her in the title given her skimpy presence.  But look past that glitch, and what you have is the rarest of reads–a light yet satisfying story. And a thousand bonus points to Kim for gracefully incorporating Korean culture sans stereotypes or explaining notes.

Here’s a better picture of the four Graces (image from Kim’s website). I think my favourite was the cranky halmoni (grandmother).

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Relish by Lucy Knisley:  Relish is a  graphic memoir of Knisley’s life so far (she’s in her late twenties) viewed primarily through the lens of food. Knisley, who seemingly leads an idyllic life steeped in the arts, grew up in a family of foodies, and for her, food is variously an emblem, a metaphor and a vehicle to gain understanding. Above all, it’s an immensely pleasurable end in itself. If you belong to the food-is-fuel camp, you should probably skip this review. If, on the other hand, if you enjoy mindfully preparing food and sharing it with your loved ones,  if you’ve long identified your own particular tea-soaked madeline episode,  if you take special pleasure in eating as an “an act of focussed giving and sharing”, you’ll love this book. Oh, and the illustrations are very Hergé-esque — clean and bold and filled with fascinating detail. I especially love the presentation of the recipes–look at this one for Huevos Rancheros.

exerpt

 

 (Click the image to embiggen)

Of course, our culinary choices intimately mirror our politics (and are often political statements in themselves) but Knisley resolutely avoids taking a stand on any contentious food-related issues, focussing solely on her personal journey. In order to achieve the latter aim, she sometimes ducks/over-simplifies issues (“Say what you will…we wouldn’t be eating [junk food] if it didn’t taste good.” Is that really an answer?) But overall, this is a lovely book begging to be gifted, ideally to a novice or youthful chef starting a long-term affair with food. Knisley writes with infectious enthusiasm–she’s never pretentious and never tries to be profound, and consequently, Relish is hugely readable.  You come away from this book  yearning for a simple life with good food and great friends–some of whom just happen to be chefs. What’s not to relish?

(I heard about this book on Nupur’s delish food blog, One Hot Stove.)