THE CASE OF THE MISSING SERVANT by Tarquin Hall. Simon and Schuster, 2009. Hardcover.
310 pages. $24.
Tarquin Hall writes about private detecting in India in the same way that Alexander McCall Smith writes about it in Botswana: with great warmth, humor and a bit of mystery. At first blush, you’d be tempted (with reason) to think that Hall’s Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator , was nothing but a blatant ride on the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency gravy train. The truth is they are similar. But it is not a bad thing. Any mystery lover knows there are different kinds: hardboiled, cozy, police procedural, among others.
What Hall has done, just like McCall Smith, is quite brilliant, actually: the successful blend of the cozy mystery, seen through the lens of a non-Western culture.
India, specifically Delhi, can be said to be one of the main characters in this novel. Hall illuminates the sights and sounds of the city in a way that I have not quite seen in a novel of this kind. The quotidian lives of the city’s inhabitants are sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative like delicious nuggets. Hall neither glorifies the city nor castigates it, but rather unravels a city in which exists every kind of person one could imagine. The caste system gets interesting treatment here, too, starting with Mary, the “missing servant” of the title. One of the challenges in locating Mary or finding out about her possible demise is that Mary is simply a servant, and given no status or regard in society. When Puri asks Mary’s former employer Mrs. Kasliwal what Mary’s last name might be she replies, “I never asked, Mr. Puri. Why should I? She was just a maidservant, after all.” The disregard for Mary is palpable, as she is variously described as a Christian who likes to “put it about” and a dark “Bihari” type. The trouble finding her killer is taken only because prominent lawyer Ajay Kasliwal has been accused and put in prison. When he hires Vish Puri, very interesting and often understated hilarity ensues.
Puri, nicknamed “Chubby” by his Mummy, (who has more than a bit of sleuth in her as well) deals with all sorts of situations in New Delhi society. His wife, the supportive Rumpi, dotes on her husband as she worries about his expanding girth and his insatiable appetite for greasy, fried snacks. His team consists of Tube-light (a heavy sleeper), Facecream (a beautiful and feisty Nepali and former Maoist), Flush (possessing a flush toilet), Handbrake (his new driver) and the notoriously lazy office boy Doorstop, their unusual monikers in keeping with the Punjabi tradition of nicknaming. He is called Boss affectionately by his employees, who admire him for being both a super sleuth and a master of disguise.
Hall has written a thoroughly enjoyable book, though I imagine his detractors will bemoan the glossary in the back of the book (incredibly helpful, though, to those new to the culture of India) as well as the fun he has with the wonderful Indian turn of phrase. At times the mystery itself takes a backseat to the mayhem that seems to dog Puri everywhere he goes, but that’s the joy of this book: just about everything is different from what you expect it to be. Puri himself is a fascinating character study: savvy, intelligent, lovable and patient, and one that Hall has given incredible depth to. “Puri was also careful to appease the gods, visiting the temple at least once a week and observing all the major festivals. If all that failed to protect him … well, the detective had not stared death in the face without being somewhat fatalistic. As he was fond of saying, ‘We’re all one breath from this life to the next,only.’”
Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.