Monday, March 7, 2011

In the Spotlight: Tarquin Hall's The Case of the Missing Servant

Hello, All

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. In real life and in crime fiction, sleuths have to be clever and intuitive to catch criminals They also have to rely on a team of people to work with them because nobody knows or can do everything. So let’s take a closer look at a private investigator who uses his ingenuity and his team to solve crimes – Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas “Vish” Puri, owner and manager of Delhi’s Most Private Investigators, Ltd. Today let’s focus on Puri’s first outing, The Case of the Missing Servant.

As the novel begins, Puri and his team are closing in on the truth about Ramesh Goel, who’s planning to marry Vimi Singla. Before the marriage took place, though, Vimi’s parents wanted to find out everything they could about Goel’s background. So they hired Most Private Investigators, Ltd., to investigate Goel. This sort of matrimonial background check is the most common kind of case that Puri gets, and he and his team are well-prepared. They find out bad news about Goel, but they do close the case satisfactorily. No sooner has the team finished the Goel case than Puri and the team are challenged with a very unusual kind of case.

Ajay Kasliwal is a successful attorney who’s been accused of murdering Mary Murmu, a family servant. Mary disappeared some months ago, and someone’s brought a case against Kasliwal suggesting that he may be responsible for killing her. Kasliwal claims that he is innocent and being framed because he’s trying to use Delhi’s court system to get rid of corruption. Kasliwal is far from perfect, but Puri agrees to take the case and clear the lawyer’s name if he can. So he and his team begin to try to find out who Mary was, where she came from and what happened to her. Meanwhile, Puri has also been hired by powerful Brigadier Kapoor, whose granddaughter Tisca is to be married to Mahinder Gupta. Kapoor doesn’t know of anything particularly wrong about the prospective bridegroom’s background, but something doesn’t seem right to him. So he asks Puri to find out as much as possible about Gupta.

The stakes suddenly get higher when Ajay Kasliwal is arrested for murder. Now, the case makes major headlines and the police begin to use the case as an “example case” to show that they are not influenced by wealth and power. Puri and the team have to face off against the police, who are determined to punish Kasliwal and the murderer, who doesn’t want to be caught. There’s also pressure from the Kasliwal family to solve the case as soon as possible. As if that’s not enough, Puri is also under pressure to complete the Kapoor case. And he’s become the target of a mysterious shooter. Despite these challenges, though, Puri and his investigation team slowly put together the truth about what happened to Mary Murmu.

There are several aspects of this novel that tie it together. One of them is the camaraderie and teamwork among the members of Vish Puri’s team. Each of his employees has specific talents and skills that are suited for one or another part of an investigation, and each has a nickname. There’s Facecream, a beautiful Nepali who often plays undercover roles. In the Kasliwal case, she infiltrates the Kasliwal house as a new servant and finds out crucial information. Then there are Tubelight (so called because he takes a long time to get going in the morning) and Flush (who comes from first home in his village to have a flush toilet). Those two operatives are very helpful in tracking down leads. There’s also Handbrake, Puri’s driver, who’s adroit at getting through Delhi traffic, and Door Stop the office boy, who does as little as possible. Puri’s work team is rounded out by Elizabeth Rani, his widowed secretary who manages everything at the office. As we follow the investigation, it’s easy to see that the team members respect and depend on each other, and on their boss. It’s also easy to see that, although Puri has no lack of self esteem, he depends on his team, too.

Another important element in this novel is Puri’s family. Puri may be a hard-working private detective, but he is also very much a family man. He loves his dear wife Rumpi and his daughters. And although he likes to be in charge of his life, Puri knows better than to let his wife find out when he’s been eating food that’s bad for him. There’s also Puri’s mother whom he calls Mummy ji. She’s a strong capable woman who has her own ideas about how to go about detection. In fact, at one point, someone shoots at Puri, narrowly missing him. He, of course, puts all of the resources he has to work to find out who’s responsible. But for Mummy ji, this is more than just a case; this is her child. So she wants to get involved in the investigation. Puri discourages her and although he always treats her with respect, he does not want her involved. Mummy ji has her own way of doing things, though and in the end it’s she who finds out what’s behind the shooting.

Then there’s the character of Puri himself. He’s a skilled detective with a lot of intuition. He’s smart and he knows how things work in Delhi. But he’s also all too human. He eats more than is good for him and has a fondness for food that’s bad for his health. In fact, his nickname is Chubby. He makes his share of mistakes and he has difficulty sometimes accepting help from others. But he’s likeable, smart, and easy to root for as he goes about his cases.

This novel takes place in Delhi, and all throughout the story is woven the culture of that part of India. Food, drink, social customs, family and social structures and much more all reflect modern Delhi. And without being graphic, Hall doesn’t paint an unrealistically idealistic picture of the city. He addresses class issues, overcrowding, corruption and more. Yet, he also captures northern India’s vibrancy, colour and appeal. Here is a snippet, for instance, of a visit Puri makes to Jaipur:

“Beneath faded, dusty awnings cobblers crouched, sewing sequins and gold thread onto leather slippers with curled-up toes. Spice merchants sat surrounded by heaps of lal mirch, haldi and ground jeera, their colours as clean and sharp as new watercolor paints. Sweets sellers lit the gas under blackened woks of oil and prepared sticky jalebis. Lassi vendors chipped away at great blocks of ice delivered by camel cart.”

The language patterns, too, place the reader distinctly in that part of India: For instance, here’s a bit of some instructions that Mummy ji gives her driver:

‘You wait here and don’t do sleeping’ instructed Mummy. ‘Just I’m going to check around. Should be I’ll revert in ten minutes. But in case of emergency, call home and inform my son’s good wife. You’re having the number, na?’”

There are several Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and other words and expressions used, too, but there’s a handy glossary in the back of the novel, so it’s quite easy to understand what’s being said. And Hall keeps things neatly in context, so it’s not hard to figure out a word’s meaning, even if you don’t use the glossary.

A uniquely Delhi mystery with a singular sleuth, The Case of the Missing Servant weaves together some interesting characters, a solid mystery and a dash of humour, too. But what’s your view? Have you read The Case of the Missing Servant? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 14 March/Tuesday 15 March – Last Rituals – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Monday 21 March/Tuesday 22 March - Skinny Dip – Carl Hiaasen

Monday 28 March/Tuesday 29 March – One Good Turn – Kate Atkinson


  1. In my efforts to keep up with your excellent Spotlight series I read this book last week and overall I did enjoy it though at points I thought it bordered on 'twee' - similar to the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books in that I ejoyed a couple but am not inclined to read dozens of them. I did love the setting though - it really brought the place and the people to life (though it made me hungry) and the characters, particularly Mummy ji were a treat.

  2. Bernadette - I know what you mean about coming a bit close to twee. I think everyone has a different threshold for that, and I can certainly see why you sensed that this book flirted with it more than once. But as you say, the setting is really so excellent, as are the characters. I'll be very interested to see what Hall does with the series as it goes on - whether it'll get a bit grittier or not. I'm quite fond of Mummy ji myself, by the way, and I hope to see her in the next instalment.

    ...and thanks for the kind words and for your interest in this series :-).

  3. This sounds most interesting - I love travelling to foreign countries in my reading - no long line-ups! I am reading a book about India right now - The God of Small Things by Indian author Arundhati Roy.

  4. Jan - Oh, your current read sounds really interesting, too! And I agree completely; one great thing about books that take place in different settings is that you get to pay a visit there without the hassles of actually traveling. And The Case of the Missing Servant is most definitely a taste of Delhi and Northern India.

  5. I really love the Indian culture. Could be why I love reading Rayna's blog so much. This seems like a book I would love to read. I wonder if I can fit it into Dorte's International challenge?

  6. Clarissa - I love Rayna's blog too. It's wonderful! And one thing I love about it is what I learn about India. On that score, I think you'd like this book very much. And I'm quite sure it'd count for Dorte's Global Reading Challenge, too.

  7. I always enjoy your spotlights (no matter when I get a chance to read them). This sounds like an interesting read. I agree with Jan. Reading is a great way to travel.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Mason - Thanks :-). I'm always so happy, too, when you take the time to stop by. And you and Jan are both right: reading really gives us the opportunity to travel in ways we probably never could in real life.

  9. I am a big fan of this series. Not 'twee' at all to me. ;<) I love the characters, the culture, and the food. The traffic, the crowding, the corruption are all drawn so well that I could almost feel myself there. I wrote about it on the blog if you'd like to read it:

    and the second one, also:

    I'm so glad you spotlighted the book, and I hope it draws many readers to this wonderful series.

  10. Nan - I think it is a terrific series, too. And you know, everyone's got a different definition of what's twee and not. For me, I thoroughly enjoy the series and I am happy to let others know about it.

    And folks, please visit Nan's reviews of The Case of the Missing Servant and of The Man Who Died Laughing. They are both excellent reviews!

  11. I did look at Nan's blog. Thank you for leading me to another great blog; I'm now a follower.

  12. I am normally very suspicious of books set in India but written for a Western audience (Vish Puri is not even available in Indian stores) because they tend to pander to either of two stereotypes - exotic India or impoverished, corrupt India. But once in awhile, a book comes along that surprises me by writing about the real India, and this sounds like one of them. When I was reading the exerpt of Mummy-ji, I could actually 'hear' a grand aunt by marriage talking.
    Thank you, Margot, for giving me a book that I would have loved to write, if only I could.