A maidservant employed by a high profile lawyer, Kasliwal goes missing from his house. Mrs. Kasliwal is a hard employer, known to be severe with her servants, and the lawyer himself is a promiscuous man, suspected by police to have molested and murdered the young girl, Mary.
Is the lawyer really guilty of the crime or is he just a victim of water mafia? Is Mary brutally murdered, as are hundreds of other poor girls or is she lucky enough to survive rape and murder assault? As the story moves back and forth between Delhi and Jaipur, Vish Puri comes into picture. He is the proprietor of Most Private Investigator, a self confessed disciple of Chanakya, who firmly believes that Kasliwal is innocent. Will Vish Puri be able to prove his convictions right? Will he be able to trace the fate of the girl, known only as Mary, without a surname, address or photograph to count upon? Or will he himself be killed by an unknown danger?
These and many other questions are tackled in the 298 page long detective story ‘The Case of the Missing Servant’ by Tarquin Hall, where Vish Puri does a brilliant job of unmasking a thrilling mystery, encountering quite a lot of surprises and facing plethora of sensitive issues.
However, not just for Vish Puri, this month turned out to be full of surprises and excitement for me as well, at least as far as my reading pattern is concerned. First there was the inspiring autobiography by Mahatma Gandhi, closely followed by Nehru’s personal letters, and the impressive study of human nature in Chitra Banerjee’s novel-cum-collection of short stories. And, now I have laid my hands on a ‘whodunit’ murder mystery. Four genres in all of two weeks is much spicier than I usually expect my reading shelves to be.
I seldom read detective stories. In fact, the last such book I remember reading is ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘, if only Steig Larsson is broadly limited to the category of murder mystery writer. And, one thing I really hate about reading a mystery is that I have to be extra careful while reviewing it. As if I divulge too much of the story, the readers’ fun would be spoiled, and if I keep the cards too close, the story loses its sheen and I am not able to do justice to the novel.
However, at least, for the present novel, I do not face such a handicap, as the book is much more than a simple murder mystery. It is an amalgam of suspense, drama, exploration of human mind and a perfect paint picture of Punjabi Society of Delhi. In fact, it would be wrong to categorize the book as simply a mystery, though at the surface it appears to be so. But, the author Tarquin Hall has done a commendable job in elevating its status from a pavement sleaze to a carefully constructed mirror image of modern times.
Tarquin Hall, as the name itself suggests is a non Indian writer, but he has successfully sketched the character of Vish Puri, as a true Punjabi, who is fond of chicken tikkas, and teeters under the influence of his dominant Mummyji. The author seems to have a deep understanding of India, its literature, local food, Delhi’s unique Hinglish lingo and even of punjabi expletives. As a result, the book genuinely showcases the ‘nouveau riche’ of Delhi society, who are swelled with newly minted money, having moved higher up the ladder at a jet speed, and yet are unable to restrict themselves from eating greasy kebabs and freely using the ‘mc-bcs’ expletives. And, very thoughtfully, Hall portrays the character of Vish Puri, as a portly, persistent sleuth who is able to combine the ancient principles of Chanakya with the modern techniques. While dealing with a new breed of society, he mixes effortlessly in their lives, searches for hidden truths, and brings into limelight the negative side of his ‘cases’ all for the sublime purpose of matrimonial alliances.
The detective techniques used by Vish are ingenious in nature, and make ready use of doodhwallah, kooraywallah, ayahs and drivers, the usual gossip mongers in any Indian family. Puri extensively places Tubelight, Flush and Facecream, his accomplices as servants and gathers inside information. He does not shy away from using the false Crime Branch badges and multiples of passports, while solving his cases. His usual sources are highly placed relatives and friends, and he works within the framework of society, taking advantage of usual loopholes.
It is predominantly because of the genuine characterization, that the book becomes enjoyable. Though, it can hardly be termed as a perfect mystery. In fact, the suspense was over, 80 pages before the final end. And, Hall needlessly prolonged the novel in the style of ACP Pradyuman of CID fame, so that Puri can give an impressive speech. But, still I liked the novel, and sacrificed my sleep, all thanks to an involving side plot featuring Mahinder Gupta and his fiance Tisca Kapoor. Ironically, the author could manage the suspense more successfully in the sub plot rather than in the main narrative.
However, all said and done, one may enjoy the book without expecting too much out of it. It may not impress a hard core detective fiction fan, but is worthwhile as a fresh attempt at creating a desi sleuth. I liked Hall’s insightful inclusion of the full forms of acronyms like STD and NOIDA, which we hardly ever notice in real life. He had even included a glossary of Hindi words at the end, which may be useful to the Non-Hindi knowing readers.
So, the final verdict – as a different story, with a fresh perspective, it is definitely a paisa vasool. But, as a pure murder mystery/detective fiction, it is hardly worth the high price tag it commands!