Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri trilogy of novels, about “India’s Most Private Investigator”

Tarquin Hall 'The Case of the Missing Servant' book cover

What caught my attention when I first heard of the Vish Puri trilogy of novels (hat tip to my friend Bhavika for recommending them to me) were the quirky titles: The Case of the Missing Servant, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, and The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken. Written by British freelance journalist Tarquin Hall, the trilogy is about Vish Puri – “India’s Most Private Investigator” – and outlandish mysteries that have been solved by him. Think of Vish Puri as an Indian version of Sherlock Holmes, although it’s a comparison that causes much chagrin to the detective who dismisses Holmes as a “veritable upstart”.

(You may have heard of Tarquin Hall’s book Salaam Brick Lane, which, along with Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, is one of the best pieces of literature on Asian culture in Britain in my opinion.)

Tarquin Hall 'The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing' book cover

Each novel has a colourful premise: an investigation into the “character” of boy matched for ‘arranged’ marriage, a missing servant in a wealthy family, a prominent scientist murdered by an apparition of the Hindu goddess Kali, the father of a Pakistani cricketer poisoned at a high-society. Assisting Vish Puri in his investigations is an ensemble cast of minions with bizarre code names such as “Facecream”, “Handbrake”, and “Tubelight” and a plethora of relatives you would expect of a stereotypical Indian “extended family”. There’s also Vish Puri mother “Mummyji”, who is a retired school principal and fancies herself as a bit of a detective too; for some reason, her description reminded me of Modern School Vasant Vihar’s principal Goldy Malhotra. Not quite sure whether that was indeed the inspiration!

Tarquin Hall 'The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken' book cover

The mysteries themselves are not hard to figure out – that’s not the allure of these novels. Novels about India tend to fall into staid categories, either going for the foreign-born Indian returning home (The Namesake), or rural Indians on their journey climbing up in prosperity (The White Tiger, Life of Pi). Hall goes beyond the remit of a detective novel, providing insightful social commentary into the transformative changes that have been sweeping through India’s urban elite in the past two decades in a way that only an outsider – an expat – can. His descriptions of Delhi’s Punjabi culture are written with local speech mannerisms that do come across as forced at times, but the pace and light-hearted tone of the novels keep the reader engaged. (Oh, and the descriptions of food! That’s partly what made be yearn coming back to India last year in winter.)

While Vish Puri may not be able to dethrone Satyajit Ray’s Feluda novels for the crown of best Indian fictional detective, he is a colourful enough character to make it worth an enjoyable read. Also, Tarquin Hall’s blog is quite funny.

2 replies on “Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri trilogy of novels, about “India’s Most Private Investigator””

My take on these novels:
Contrary to what the cover of the book suggests, Tarquin’s Vish Puri isn’t the Indian Poirot. He is in fact more closer to Sherlock, in terms of case solving tactics.

But Tarquin Hall’s murder mysteries aren’t mysteries at all! We are offered a third person narrative of the investigations of Vish Puri, a ‘jasoos’ not so highly revered in the local public’s eye. These are the third person narratives of his investigations as written by the fictional character of ‘Madam Rani’, so facts come to light as the story unfolds, you don’t get hints or have opportunities to read between the lines and deduce something, something you’ll always find in Agatha Christie Murder ‘Mysteries’ Books. So all we are doing is, sitting back and having a look at how his ingenious investigations take place and are expected to enjoy the ride, flavored with some good food and witty stuff thrown in here and there.

Also, in his latest novel “The case of the Deadly Butter Chicken”, you’ll find a lot of inconsistencies. for example, Earlier in the book when we were shown the first match in Kotla, The Pakistani fast bowler was playing the match ‘against’ Delhi in the premier league and as you read a little time later, you are told that the fast bowler is a Delhi bowler (Something that the author sticks to till the end), but surprisingly enough, Tarquin Hall has paid a lot of attention to small details, like the names of the pavilion in the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium or the name of the famous “aloo sabzi” eatery in Chandni Chowk.

The friend who recommended the books to me (Bhavika) wrote to Tarquin Hall about some inconsistencies too, and actually heard back from him! So hopefully some of the future editions of the book will be edited with corrections.

I agree that you aren’t given much clues to figure out the mysteries yourselves, but the reveals never came as a shocker to me. It’s one of those things that I could just see coming, unlike the “aha!” moments that Feluda novels have. Still, I think the charm of Vish Puri novels lies in the description of Indian culture more than the mysteries themselves.

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