Monday, 11 March 2013

Bowled Over Again

The adventures of a portly Punjabi private eye continues

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 11 March 2013

After discovering and enjoying Tarquin Hall's first two Vish Puri mysteries about two years ago, I was "doing tension" waiting for the next instalment since reading about it online. It quietly slipped into bookstores in the middle of 2012.

I had thought that The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken was a working title.

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken
When the third Vish Puri mystery unfolds, the portly Punjabi private eye is in the bathroom weighing himself, and the signs aren't good. Things take a dark turn when Puri, eager to avoid a monumental scolding from dear wife Rumpi over his weakness for high-calorie munchies, resorts to (gasp!) rigging the bathroom scales and quaffing diet pills.

However, the real mystery begins when Faheem Khan, the father of Pakistani cricket star Kamran Khan, croaks after eating some tainted butter chicken during a dinner party. Puri suspects the incident may also be tied to a poisoned dog that interrupted an earlier cricket game.

So begins our hero's descent into the shadowy world of underground betting syndicates, cricket match-fixing and money laundering. Puri is also investigating the theft of somebody's record-breaking moustache, a case that's more for comic relief rather than advancing the main plot.

Also making a return are Puri's crack team of mostly undercover operatives: professional thief Tubelight, Nepali femme fatale Facecream, electronics wiz Flush, and his secretary Elizabeth Rani, as well as the somewhat lovable scoundrel Rinku, Puri's childhood friend.

And how can I not mention Puri's mom, who's also a bit of a sleuth herself? Mummy-ji, who was also at the dinner party, had a look at Kamran Khan and, you'd swear, it's like she'd seen a ghost.

On the pretext of helping a friend, she does some investigation of her own, revisiting the horrors she'd witnessed after the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947. Of course, mother and son would eventually find themselves co-operating in an effort to find Faheem Khan's killer.

Those who have enjoyed the first two books will be glad to know that the magic is preserved in this one. The writing is compelling, entertaining and crafted with the wry eye of a well-travelled expat.

With topics such as cricket betting syndicates and the aftermath of Partition, Hall's latest Vish Puri novel is darker than the first two. Puri's assistant Tubelight braves the paltry, stomach-turning living conditions in the slums in his search for the poisoned dog's remains. Our hero's life is threatened several times. A tragedy in Puri's family comes to light.

Another topic that is touched upon briefly is the alleged trade of blood diamonds in Surat, considered the world's diamond capital. We only get the barest of hints that the mastermind may be laundering money by buying diamonds, and that's it.

There are plenty of funny bits in the narrative as well as the dialogue. For one, the Punjabi PI is bewildered by the IT jargon used by one of his suspects. "What the hell was 'dynamic content'?" our protagonist wonders. "And how could a computer eat cookies?"

An entertaining lesson on Mumbaiya pigdin/Indian English slang can be found in an informant's exchange with Puri. A dead murder suspect, "Fawda Bhaiyya was game bajaana suumdi style", so he couldn't have hanged himself.

Besides, the deceased "was dedu foot so couldn't reach the punkah. Plus, he was totally fultoo and doing balle balle with his biscuit."

Have fun Googling that. But I'm sure you'd rather read the book.

The realism of Puri's world buoys seemingly outa elements such as Flush's remotely operated robot with a camera, leaving readers free from having to suspend disbelief and follow the hijinks of the intrepid Indian investigator, his gang and his mom.

The only major gripe I had was that my paperback edition does not include the "three mouthwatering recipes from the Vish Puri family kitchen" as promised by some retailers.

Spicy, scrumptious, and at times side-splitting and surreal, The Case of The Deadly Butter Chicken is an excellent continuation of the Vish Puri series.

(Coincidentally, there's a real Indian cricketer called Kamran Khan out there. For maximum reading pleasure, please unplug yourself from the Web and remember that it's fiction.)

This version includes a correction. Also, here's my review of the first two books.

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken
Tarquin Hall
Hutchinson (2012)
360 pages
ISBN: 978-0-09-193741-6


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