I once shared a breakfast table with Val McDermid, who turned out to be a somewhat brutal-looking lady with tiny revolvers dangling from her earlobes. She looked like she could perpetrate all the crimes in her novels with one hand, while mopping up her breakfast with the other. During that brief guru-shishya (teacher-student) session I learnt—while being hypnotized by those revolvers—how a career as a small-town hack had fed into her writing. No other genre of fiction, she said, lets the writer peek into so many different kinds of social strata.
Of course, not all journalists can make the transition and become fantastic crime writers, but it was with great curiosity that I started reading Tarquin Hall’s debut detective novel The Case of the Missing Servant, given that he’s another British journalist turning to crime. Among Hall’s earlier non-fiction books, Salaam Brick Lane, about a year in London’s Indo-Bangladeshi ghetto, is something of a landmark in the landscape of funny and unusual memoirs. These days Hall lives in New Delhi off and on, a city whose everyday life, habits, food and speech patterns he has ladled into the masala of his novel in generous doses.
Crime files: Vish Puri solves mysteries in the concrete jungle of Gurgaon. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Vish Puri, the master detective, is, of course, a caricature and might not have been entirely out of place in an R.K. Narayan novel—that is, if Malgudi had ever needed a private eye. Like most of us in India, he’s got BP and is told by his doctor to avoid salt, chillies and greasy junk, but is chomping away on chilli pakoras on the very first page as he stakes out the “Defcol” (Defence Colony) residence of a suspect.
Puri is a serious “capsicum junkie” and every morning he lovingly bathes the leaves of his Assamese chilli plants with a spray gun. He dresses in orthopaedic squeaky shoes, a safari suit and any one of his 14 trademark tweed caps imported from Bates Gentlemen’s Hatter in Piccadilly. Despite his Londonstani hat, Puri hates it when people compare him to Sherlock Holmes, who had merely “borrowed the techniques of deduction established by Chanakya in 300 BC”.
If there’s ever a film made on him, Puri already knows that the hero will be played by Anupam Kher (and his wife should be upgraded to Rekha). Despite such Bollywoodish credentials, a novel like this walks firmly in the footsteps of British drawing-room detectives, and there is enough obvious homage, such as when Puri casually asks his new client whether he’s a lawyer residing in Jaipur. The man is taken aback. Puri explains: “From your Law Society of India monogrammed tie and type of briefcase, I deducted you are a man of the Bar. As to your home town, traces of red Rajasthani sand are on your shoes. Also, you mentioned air-dashing to Delhi. You arrived here thirty minutes back. So should be you came by the five o’clock flight from Jaipur.”
The Case of the Missing Servant: Hutchinson, 312 pages, Rs495.
Hall’s India is an ulta-pulta (topsy-turvy) Malgudi gone to seed: People aren’t nice to each other, policemen are likely to be crooks, Puri’s own childhood friend is a mega-corrupt tycoon (and yet remains a best friend), urbanization is chaotic and NCR stands for National Crime Region. Investigations take Puri to sad servant hovels as well as the homes of the newly rich, whose talking automatic toilets sluice and blow-dry the user while telling their bottoms to “have a nice day”.
If there’s a problem with the novel, it is perhaps that Hall tries to put a little too much “India” into it, which hampers the narrative progress. The Case of the Missing Servant is essentially written for a Western readership, which needs a lot more explanation to make sense of what’s going on. On the other hand, Hall writes with heart, and he is witty, clever and inventive, which makes this a refreshing addition to the detective genre.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based Swedish writer of crime fiction. Write to Zac at firstname.lastname@example.org