Entertaining, escapist reading (4 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published in 2009 by Arrow
The paperback edition is 312 pages.
I’m on something of a mystery/detective kick at the moment. I’ve been a bit busier at work than usual and when I’m at home, wedding planning is taking up a lot of time aswell. Therefore, sometimes all I want to do is curl up with a crime novel and while away a pleasant few hours- so this intriguing sounding read set in India seemed to fit the criteria perfectly. With it being a detective-based read it has justifiably received comparisons to Alexander McCall Smith’s series’; however for me this was much grittier than The No 1. Ladies Detective Agency books, which I also love and the setting was completely different. The Case of the Missing Servant also offered a fascinating glimpse into life in Delhi, a place that I am hoping to visit in the very near future.
The first book in this series introduces us to Vish Puri, lead detective at Most Private Investigators Ltd. Portly, chilli-addict Vish has worked on a lot of cases through the years, but up until now his main body of work has primarily been in screening prospective partners in advance of arranged marriages. That soon changes following the arrest of a high-profile lawyer who is accused of murdering his maidservant. On top of the murder case is an attempt on Vish’s own life along with a potential grandfather-in-law to-be who is convinced that a prospective groom is not all what he seems. Puri and his team of undercover operatives are soon taken on a complex journey across modern India in an attempt to uncover the truth…
I found myself engaged in this books storyline immediately, pulled into the vividly atmospheric descriptions of Delhi, which sounds like such a melting pot of a city, a mysterious place where tradition mingles with modernity. The writing is pacey and laced with subtle humour and it was so interesting to get to know Vish and his family- his doting wife Rumpi and his mother, Mummy-Ji, who has some interesting career aspersions of her own. They, along with Puri’s undercover operatives- the hilariously named Facecream, Tubelight and Flush are a really well-written cast of characters, albeit not as developed as the main protagonist, though I’m sure that will change as the series progresses.
Puri himself has his flaws (arrogance and vanity), which in all honesty makes him all the more likeable. Warned by his doctor that he needs to curb his weight, he is also known as ‘Chubby’ by those closest to him, yet cannot resist delicious Indian pastries and street food, much to his wife’s chagrin. Puri is portrayed as a typical Punjabi yet is something of an eccentric in his love of tailored British clothing and his crime-solving methods. He is convinced that detective work has its roots in ancient Indian culture and dismisses Sherlock Holmes as something of a ‘Johnny-Come-Lately.’ Consequently, his crime-solving methods are a mixture of old and new endeavours, though he certainly achieves results.
I can see why the comparisons to Alexander McCall Smith have come about. Like McCall Smith, Tarquin Hall brilliantly introduces the reader to a non-Western way of living without continually ‘dumping’ information. India isn’t just street vendors, call centres and poverty, though Hall certainly doesn’t shy away from exposing some of its more corrupt sides either. This book is full of fascinating observations about life in Delhi and Indian culture, not to mention some absolutely delicious sounding descriptions of Indian food (one of my favourite cuisines). I think though, that this book is slightly less ‘gentle’ in its storytelling approach, as from the outset there is a murder as well as mentions of rape, which is (from what I recall) not something overtly discussed in the No 1. Ladies Detective Agency books, if ever. They are slightly more ‘quiet’ in their narrative than this and I personally consider the humour in this book to be a bit more offbeat. This book also contains swearing, which is encompassed as part of the dialogue so whilst not particularly ‘in your face’ may be something to note for potential younger readers. Puri, unlike Mma Ramotswe is also an established detective already going into the first book, so the dynamics of this series are very different.
Handily, this book does contain a glossary of Indian terms, though as this was hidden at the back of the book, wasn’t especially useful as I didn’t come across it until I had completed the novel already. D’oh! As a consequence of this, I wasn’t actually aware of some of the cruder terms contained in the novel until then.
Featuring a not-so-obvious whodunit and a hero slightly more Poirot than Sherlock, I would definitely recommend The Case of the Missing Servant to any reader who enjoy a well-written, quirky crime novel. It was a complete page-turner and a series I’m really glad was suggested to me via Goodreads. Fortunately I already have the second book in the Vish Puri series sat on my shelves, which I can’t wait to read at some point soon- and I hope there are many, many more of these books to come!