Not being funny but I would never have thought I would be recommended a book by both Gav of Gav Reads (his review here) and also my Gran, yet in the case of ‘The Case of the Missing Servant’, the first Vish Puri mystery by Tarquin Hall, these two recommendations came most highly. Had Gavin not chosen this book for The Readers Book Club earlier this month I would definitely have ended up reading it on their recommendations and the fact that this was a crime series set in India, a country I am rather fascinated by though I have not had the pleasure of visiting yet.
Arrow Books, 2010, paperback, 312 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
Vish Puri is one of India’s leading private detectives, well that is what he would have you know although occasionally you are left to wonder how much of that is truth and how much is pomp. In the main Vish’s line of detection is that of families wishing for one of their offspring’s betrothed to be investigated for their background and if they might be an ideal addition to the family. It isn’t the most glamourous or exciting investigating but occasionally there are instances with twists. However off and on Puri gets a real mystery and in ‘The Case of the Missing Servant’ Puri is hired to find the maid servant of Ajay Kasliwal, a prominent lawyer, who he has been accused of murdering since her sudden disappearance. It is cases like this Puri thrives on, they are also the kind of cases where one might make enemies which might be why someone is trying to get Puri killed.
One of the things that I most admired about ‘The Case of the Missing Servant’ was how Hall created a genuinely intriguing mystery that managed to really look at Indian society and how it treats the classes/caste system in many ways. He looks at how things have changed in India over the decades and how the modern world is changing time-honoured traditions for everyone living in the country. It gives the book an additional depth, on top of the intrigue of the mystery that is at the forefront of the book. From the judicial system, or lack of it, to the situation with arranged marriages Hall manages to really encapsulate a country in a time of great change.
“In the old days, there would have been no need for Puri’s services. Families got to know one another within the social framework of their own communities. When necessary, they did their own detective work. Mothers and aunties would ask neighbours and friends about prospective grooms, and the families’ standing and reputation. Priests would also make introductions and match horoscopes.
Today, well-off Indians living in cities could no longer rely on those time-honoured systems. Many no longer knew their neighbours. Their homes were the walled villas of Jor Bagh and Golf Links, or posh apartments in Greater Kailash. Their social lives revolved around the office, business meetings and society weddings.”
Another thing that I really liked about the novel was that it is really a book of team detection. Puri might be the lead detective yet really he can, to a degree, be rather bumbling and without a team around him it would be highly unlikely that he could solve the puzzle by himself, though he would have you think the contrary. I mean without Facecream, who he sends to pretend to be a maid and spy on the Kasliwal family, or Tubelight and Flush who do some of the menial hunting (and truly dangerous and physical things) he wouldn’t be able to solve everything that came his way.
“Puri had positioned two of his best undercover operatives, Tubelight and Flush, down in the street.
These were not their real names, of course. Being Punjabi, the detective had nicknames for most of his employees, relatives and close friends. For example, he called his wife Rumpi; his new driver Handbrake; and the office boy, who was extraordinarily lazy, Door Stop.”
I also greatly admired Hall’s way of interweaving several mysteries all at once. In some crime novels we simply get one criminal on the run doing all sorts of horrendous things. With Vish Puri we not only get ‘The Case of the Missing Servant’, we also get three investigations into future spouses of families (one is ending at the start of the book, one sort of peters out and vanishes, one has a brilliant twist which I loved) and on top of that we get Puri’s own mother investigating who has tried to shoot her son. This strand for me, and indeed Puri’s mother, really stole the show for me and I loved every single chapter with her in it, in fact I am hoping that she gets her own standalone series.
“Puri had learned from hard experience that it was impossible to hide dramatic elements in his life from his mother. But he would not tolerate her nosing about in his investigations.
True, Mummy had a sixth sense and, from time to time, one of her premonitions proved prescient. But she was no detective. Detectives were not mummies. And detectives were certainly not women.”
This I suppose is a positive way to tap into some of the flaws that I found in the book. Firstly I wasn’t sure if it knew what sort of crime novel it wanted to be. In some ways, particularly with its sense of humour and the bumbling and pompous Puri at the helm, it felt like it was a cosy crime novel (which as a fan of M.C. Beaton I have no prejudice about at all) yet with its additional depth and uncovering of Indian society it also felt like it was trying to be a more thought provoking novel too – yet in being both something was lost from both parts. I do wonder if having read Kishwar Desai’s ‘Witness The Night’ first some time ago, which was the latter but very funny with its darkness, might have had something to do with this, maybe.
I also didn’t really think (and I wonder if this is why the Poirot comparisons have been made) that Hall liked Puri very much and was actually using him as a figure of fun in more than just a ‘ha, ha’ way. It could be, as Gavin mentions on The Readers Book Club (and we have a small tiff about it) that it is a debut novel. This could also link into the fact that I don’t think anyone could guess the culprit, as it felt a little bit like a triple twist thrown in at the end last minute, whilst I don’t expect to guess every crime novels denouement (I’m not that clever) I want to at least be able to try.
‘The Case of the Missing Servant’ leaves me a little conflicted. On the one hand I loved the fact that the book gave me so much more (I haven’t even touched on the fascinating bits about the history of Indian detection) than I was expecting and met the eye, all done without trying to prove a moral point or bash me over the head with research. Yet occasionally I didn’t connect and I am wondering if it was with Puri himself? Overall though I enjoyed it, see I am puzzled.
I think I will have to try another one to make my mind up about this fully which shouldn’t be difficult to do as they have become so popular. With two more already published, another on the way, and mentions in this book of Puri’s past cases like ‘The Case of the Missing Polo Elephant’, ‘The Case of the Pundit with the Twelve Toes’ and ‘The Case of the Laughing Peacock’ it looks like there will be plenty more to choose from, though as I like to read a series in order I should try the second, ‘The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing’, next – though I do know the ending having read some of it to Gran in hospital. Hmmm.