Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Review: Tarquin Hall's The Case of the Man who Died Laughing

Publisher: Hutchinson, London
Indian Price: Rs 550
Available: All major book shops

“Have you met Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator?”

Well I met him finally this week, and I must say, Im totally bowled over. England has Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple. Belgium has Hercule Poirot. US has so many. Even Sweden has its Lisbeth Salander (Millenium series- Stieg Larsson). Its time India had one of its own.
To be fair, we have our Felu da, the Holmes-esque Bengali genius. But he is so niche, that so few even in the country outside of Bengal know of his brilliant exploits. That’s the problem. Our detectives are so regional, so bound by the foibles and tics of a particular race, that outside of it, so few know of them, even if translated.
Tarquin Hall comes to somewhat bridge the gap. Vish Puri is quintessentially a Delhi-wallah. With his Punjabi quirky habits, aloo parantha-s and family ties, he is still a part of the cosmopolitan middle class baby boomer ethos. With his “arrrey”s and using “no?” after sentences (he is supposed to be here by now, no?) he talks our language. He says every thing is just “tip-top”, so “no need to do tension”. Its so us, no?
Oh and finally someone having ghee dripping aloo paranthas and aloo tikki masala, and similar saliva inducing stuff, finally finally, Indian street food on a world class book.
The story?
The “Guru Buster”, Dr Suresh Jha, takes on Maharaj Swami on television and incurs his wrath. Maharaj Swami promises his death on a certain day due to his non believer’s attitude. On the said date, in full view of the world, while attending the morning session of the laughing club in the open, a twenty foot Goddess Kali appears, levitating in all her terrible glory and with a sword, strikes Jha dead, disappearing without a trace after the act. It falls on Vish Puri to trace down the murderer. Science, religion, magic, logic, superstition… every thing is rolled into one. And adventure. The must-have of a good detective novel, DISGUISE. Vish Puri is master of disguise. His helpers and side kicks, male and female, are dependable and masters in their own game. And it’s a page turner too.
Here is what I liked about this book apart from its innate Indian ness. The book makes you guess much in the fashion of Agatha Christie. Its got genuine detective flair. It is topical. And with the guru-frenzy still very much on in the country, it is very relevant. You wish someone would make your mother in law read this. Talking of which, the mother in law herself in this book is a detective of sorts. So yo not only have your “Indian Poirot” but a bit of your Indian Miss Marple as well. And its so much fun. You cant help laughing through the book. Who else had made murder such a joke?
Here is what does not work. The book is too Indian. So while Indians will totally identify with it, readers in other countries would be a little lost. But seems after reading the book, it is meant for a predominant Indian audience, either in the country or the huge diaspora spread across the world. In that case Tarquin Hall did a brilliant job.
There is too much going on. There are three separate cases in the book. You sometimes wish the chapters would not keep going to Mummy Ji-s kitty party case. It is enjoyable in itself, and is perhaps meant to be a comic relief, but the whole book is comic, and the action never reaches feverish pace, so probably comic relief is not required at all. However the characters all being believable and lovable, it does not become too much of a hindrance, though it mars the overall composition of the case.
The third point would be a spoiler. The end of the book and the solution of the case, the murderer, so to say, is a anti climax. You so wish it were someone else. But its ok as all the bad guys are actually bad guys and they all will get punished. But gee, the murder… something is missing about the ending. It needed a better tying up. Then again, the journey is so enjoyable that the destination in itself can have its faults.
Finally it does what any good detective book should do. Get good word of mouth, and make the reader buy the other books in the series. Im definitely reading “The Case of the Missing Servant” next.

Rate: 8/10

About the author: from his website

Tarquin Hall is a British writer and journalist.
He was born in London, 1969, to an English father and American mother. Hall has spent much of his adult life away from the United Kingdom, living in the United States, Pakistan, India, Kenya and Turkey, and travelling extensively in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. He is the author of five books and dozens of articles that have appeared in many British newspapers and magazines, including the Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Observer and New Statesman. He has also worked in TV news and is a former South Asia bureau chief of Associated Press TV. His chosen subject matter has proven extraordinarily diverse. He has written features on Wilfred Thesiger, Texan rattlesnake hunters, the Taliban and British-Asian Urdu poets.
Hall’s books have received wide acclaim in the British press. His second, To the Elephant Graveyard was heralded by Christopher Matthew in the Daily Mail as “a classic.” His third, Salaam Brick Lane, about Brick Lane in the East End of London, was described by Kevin Rushby in The Guardian as “charming, brilliant, affectionate and impassioned.” Salaam Brick Lane recounts a year spent above a Bangladeshi sweatshop on Brick Lane.
In 2009, Hall published his first mystery novel The Case of the Missing Servant introducing the Punjabi literary character Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator. Hall′s second novel in the Puri series, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, is scheduled to be released on 15 June 2010. The sequel follows Puri as he unravels who really murdered a renowned Indian scientist.
Hall is married to the Indian-born BBC reporter and presenter Anu Anand. They have a young son.


  1. Wow thats a good review. i am definitely reading the book :)

  2. Wow i like the review. Surely will read both :)