The only thing that will clear Vish Puri’s client of murder is a task that would daunt Sherlock Holmes himself: find one woman with an unknown last name on the whole of the Indian sub-continent. But then Sherlock Holmes could never have imagined the exhaustive knowledge India’s most private investigator has of the country’s customs, cultures and people. Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, the first of the Vish Puri mysteries, introduces readers to the amazing deductive powers of the detective known to his friends as “Chubby,” along with the characters and technologies that make his business a success.
Puri is a traditional man living in a changing world, modern-day New Delhi. But that’s not to say that he’s out of touch. The description of his office evokes his respect for the past and the present:
The room’s focal point, however, was the shrine in the far corner. Two portraits hung above it, both of the draped in strings of fresh marigolds. The first was a likeness of Puri’s guru, the philosopher-statesman, Chanakya, who lived three hundred years before Christ and founded the arts of espionage and investigation. The second was a photograph of the detective’s late father, Om Chander Puri, posing in his police uniform on the day in 1963 when he was made a detective. (p. 14)
In fact, Hall’s genius is in his understanding that while the façade of India is transforming, the soul of the country remains very much the same. Puri capitalizes on both his knowledge of New India – BPOs, love marriages, real estate millionaires – and his intimate understanding of the old – the Arthashastra, hijras, tribal societies – to solve his cases.
Along with Puri, whose mustaches and self-satisfaction reminded me of Hercule Poirot, Hall offers up a cast of offbeat and mostly likeable characters, including Facecream, the agency’s intrepid female operative, Rinku, the slightly shady best friend from Puri’s youth, and Mummy-ji, the detective’s indomitable, sleuthing mother. I imagine these characters will take on even greater roles as the series develops.
From my reading of the first book in each series, I would say that there are a lot of similarities between the Vish Puri mysteries and those of another British ex-pat writing about murder and mayhem in a former colony, namely Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Both series feature detectives working in traditional, polyglot societies that are in a state of rapid development. Both series are written by men who clearly have an intimate knowledge of the culture, although they are not members of it. Both shy away from vogue goriness and focus on the cerebral aspects of detective work. I have enjoyed the first books in both of these series, and would recommend them to mystery lovers (especially lovers of old-style mysteries), and those who love to read books about other cultures.
But honestly, the cultural scholar in me wonders about how well these cultural observers are doing. How would an Indian react to Vish Puri or a Botswanan to Precious Ramotswe? Have these characters been “Anglicized for my protection?” That’s what I can’t know. (As a New Yorker, I sense “outsider” as soon as an author has a “Brooklynite” put ketchup on a hot dog – for god’s sake, who would do such a thing? The author must be from Kansas, I think.) So I’d love to hear from anyone in India or Africa that has read these books. How well have the outsiders captured the cultures for those of us who can only dream of going to such places? It doesn’t make the mysteries any less enjoyable, but it would be nice to know.