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.

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".

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 criminalmind@livemint.com

Close