When I saw the novel The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall at the library, I was torn. Obviously, I like mysteries and I like books set in India, but still, the concept made me nervous, partly because I feel slightly protective about books written about India--I want them to be good, and I worry that they might not be. It turns out that I had no reason at all to worry about this one. Hall has written an extremely entertaining novel, and his knowledge of India, and the way that tradition and modernity mingle and contradict each other, is extensive. He's also great with details and dialogue both; he has the rhythms and peculiarities of Indian-English sentences down perfectly.
Hall's detective is Vish Puri, proprietor of the Most Private Investigators, Ltd. Puri--known as Chubby to his family and friends--is a plump, rumpled, middle-aged Punjabi with a penchant for pakoras and a soft spot for safari suits and nicknames. (His assistants are known only as Handbrake, Face Cream and Flush.) Much of his business is taken up with routine matrimonial investigations, but when an honest (and seemingly innocent) Jaipur lawyer is accused of the murder of one of his housemaids, Puri takes the case.
While I enjoyed the mystery part of the story, I almost enjoyed more the details, especially of how Puri runs his business. I can't exactly say how realistic it is, but after reading/listening to many mysteries where the private investigator doesn't engage in anything wilder than a snack-food fueled stake out or the occasional car chase, I loved the complexity of Puri's operations. I love the idea, for example, that in his office (above Bahrisons book shop in Khan Market, where I've bought many books over the years) is a room with 9 phone lines, devoted solely to incoming calls from cases. Tending to the lines is a member of an amateur dramatic society from Greater Kailash who enjoys the job because it gives her time to knit in between answering the phones in different voices and (supposedly) from different locations. In another scene, Puri meets the proprietor of one of Delhi's most comprehensive costume shops. The old man outfits Puri as a Sikh, complete with turban and whiskers, but also supplies costumes for some of his assistants, including a fake mangled hand for one posing as a beggar.
Several reviews I read compared this to Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, and it's true that both feature charming detectives in exotic locales. But in Puri, Tarquin Hall has created an endearing detective all his own. If the comparison gets him a wider readership, then I'm all for it, but the book is entertaining enough on its own not to need any coattails.
As with most mysteries, I listened to this one as an audio book, and I thought that Sam Dastor did a fabulous job narrating. Some of his inflections were so spot on that I thought of all of my various Delhi friends who speak exactly like that. The paper copy of the book, however, contains a glossary, which apparently includes definitions of all of the yummy food that Puri eats throughout the novel. (I don't know, however, if it includes all the Hindi swears that are in the book. I was pleased that I recognized at least a few. )
The next book in the series comes out in just a few weeks--The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing--and I'm already looking forward to it. I'll be happy to be back in Vish Puri's Delhi--in which I see enough of my Delhi to make me homesick--anytime.