Monday, 13 June 2011

Jolly Good Jaunt

I had fun with these books, I really did.

However, several minor details: The first paragraph was supposed to be the standfirst, and the first letters of "South Extension Amateur Theatrical Society" and "Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education" were meant to be in bold, in case nobody gets the joke; the initials for both "organisations" spell "SEATS" (as in theatre seats) and "DIRE" (presumably the state of superstition vs rationality in India).

India's CSICOP, meanwhile, is known for its mouthful of a full name: Indian Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), which is an affiliate of the US-based Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI).

Hence, the "fixed" version of the published review below.

Maybe I should have left more clues or something for the editing team.

Jolly good jaunt
Reading about the exploits of a Punjabi private detective and his assistants is like taking a fun and fast-paced Indian autorickshaw ride

first published in The Star, 12 June 2011

It's been a while since I've read a good detective story, especially one that's not only action-packed but also has witty writing, fast pacing, and quirky dialogue.

And a memorable lead character like Vishwas Puri. The portly, pompous Punjabi private eye and proprietor of Most Private Investigators Ltd is the protagonist of British journalist-turned-author Tarquin Hall's series of detective novels set in India.

For Puri, danger is his ally (he dices with death with each chilli pakora he eats) and confidentiality is his agency's watchword (never mind his Bollywood dreams for his case files).

Tarquin Hall's Vishwas Puri novels

Being mentioned in the same breath as Johnnies-come-lately Poirot, Holmes, et al (who, like himself, don't really exist) offends him. Puri insists that his profession, his methods, go way back to the time of Indian sage and diplomat Chanakya, who wrote a treatise on spying and investigation over 2,000 years ago. He scoffs at younger competitors who appear to watch too much CSI, dress like Horatio Caine and think the handheld UV light is the ultimate crime-solving tool. Portly he may be, but he's also tough in his own way: Have you ever eaten a naga morich, one of the world's hottest chillies, without flinching?

Good detectives in India don't work alone, so Puri has a team of experts, most of whom are code named. There's Tubelight, a former professional thief; Handbrake, Puri's chauffeur and once-cab driver; Nepali femme fatale Facecream; tech wizard Flush; Ms Chadda, telephone operator of many voices; and Elizabeth Rani, Puri's secretary. At home there's his loyal wife Rumpi and his mum. Puri's mum, known only as Mummy, is a bit of a sleuth herself and is, apparently, something of a clairvoyant.

But this is India, and his talents don't appear to receive great acclaim. Puri languishes in semi-obscurity, largely scorned by the police. His daily bread involves sussing out prospective grooms and numerous petty crimes, when he's not solving major cases such as the Case Of The Laughing Peacock, the Case Of The Pundit With Twelve Toes, and one about a missing polo elephant.

We are thrust into the Case Of The Missing Servant, Hall's first book in the series, in the middle of one such groom-sussing stakeout. Not long after Puri wraps that up, a clean lawyer – a rarity in modern India, it seems – comes a-calling. The lawyer's maidservant is missing and awful rumours of her disappearance are swirling around him. It's not long before the lawyer is jailed for a crime he says he didn't commit – and then someone tries to shoot Puri.

The bigger hazard for our sleuth, however, is his girth, which marks him as a candidate for obesity-related ills, but that has not diminished his love of fiery chillies, pakoras, and other spicy, buttery Indian fare. The Missing Servant also introduces us to India's marriage customs, class divisions and its supposedly shady real estate scene.

We know that Puri survives the assassination attempt, the chillies and cholesterol, because The Case Of The Man Who Died Laughing came out about a year later. The second book highlights the struggle between superstition and science in India, with a bit of sci-fi thrown in. Guru-buster Dr Suresh Jha is killed, seemingly by the four-armed goddess Kali. The murder victim and his association appears to be based on real-life Indian guru-buster, the late Basava Premanand and his rationalist group, the Indian CSICOP (Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal).

While Puri and gang are off chasing goddesses, magicians and a fake guru, wife Rumpi and Mummy amuse themselves investigating a robbery at a kitty party (typical ones usually involve middle-aged women gossiping and drinking tea, so fish your minds out of the gutter now, please).

Hall's writing and language grow on you, like an overly chummy Punjabi with a booming voice who wraps a thick hairy arm around your shoulder, hustles you to the nearest bar and plies you with drinks. I found myself wanting to speak in tongues by the time I finished the two books, rolling my tongue outrageously as I aped the characters. Plus, you get more than one case and more than one detective. Mummy holds her own as she pokes her nose into danger – and grows on you as Delhi's answer to Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote.

Word play abounds. In The Missing Servant, one chuckles at the shallow pun in the desperate lawyer's plea to "find this bloody Mary!"; Puri's multi-talented telephonist belongs to the South Extension Amateur Theatrical Society. In The Man Who Died Laughing, the late Dr Jha is founder and head of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education. And then there's the running gag that involves Puri getting a knock in the head, either by accident or by an unknown assailant.

Hall's India is one big caricature where circumstances serve the cartoonish narrative and plot. The unsavoury socioeconomical and political climate and unflattering stereotypes help make Puri and gang, victims and the supporting good guys stand out – perhaps a bit too much. Though Puri is not above it all. Problems at home include water and power cuts ("load shedding") and a brother-in-law who fancies himself Punjab's Donald Trump. And our old-fashioned gumshoe bemoans creeping Western influences and declining morals, and believes that mums – and women in general – don't make good detectives.

But you won't care, because you'll have too much fun with these novels. I sure did.

However, there have been no new Vish Puri novels out since The Man Who Died Laughing. It would be a shame for the series to end after such a spectacular take-off. And I really want to know about that missing polo elephant.

The Case of the Missing Servant
Tarquin Hall
Arrow Books (2009)
312 pages
ISBN: 978-0-09-952523-3

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing
Tarquin Hall
Hutchinson (2010)
334 pages
ISBN: 978-0-09-192567-3


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