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.