Featured Author Review: The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall

 

This month, we’re thrilled to host Tarquin Hall as our July Featured Author. 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 traveling extensively in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. He is the author of six 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 exclusive reports include a profile on Emma McCune, an English woman who married Southern Sudanese guerilla commander Riek Machar; the draining of Iraq’s marshes by Saddam Hussein, and a one-on-one with former Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in a Syrian safehouse.

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. The second in the series, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, was released in June 2010.[4] The third, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, is scheduled for release in July 2012. Hall is currently working on the fourth title, which is due for publication in 2013.

Hall lives in Delhi. He is married to the Indian-born BBC reporter and presenter Anu Anand.They have a young son and daughter.

Thanks to Tarquin and Simon & Schuster for supporting LitStack and allowing us to feature his great novels on our site. We begin this month Featured Author segment with The Case of the Missing Servant.

 

The Case of the Missing Servant
Tarquin Hall
Simon & Schuster, 2009
ISBN-10: 1416583688

— ♦ —

After visiting India in 2006 and 2007, I was hard pressed to relate to friends and family the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells that constantly assailed my Western sensibilities.  Especially daunting was city traffic; even with a highly skilled driver I felt as if I was in the midst of a swirling, threatening maelstrom.  It took days for me to realize that the seeming chaos of weaving, honking, breakneck speed and sudden gridlock was the norm for the native city dweller.

Equally difficult was trying to reconcile what to my mind were egregious disparities in the human condition with nonchalant acceptance on the part of my Indian compatriots: destitute beggars knocking on car windows looking for a handout, shanty towns at the base of walled mansions, women washing bright clothing in water that had pooled in roadside ditches, all against a backdrop of complaints about corrupt government, greed-driven business and the laziness of the lower castes.

How much easier it would have been to have handed inquirers a copy of Tarqin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, rather than attempting to explain the weft and warp of Indian life through my own biased eyes – and they would have enjoyed an entertaining tale, as well.

The Case of the Missing Servant is the first of (so far) three novels chronicling the exploits of Vishwas Puri (“Vish” for short), the venerable managing director of Delhi’s Most Private Investigators, Ltd.   Vish is not the typical steely-eyed, wise-cracking PI.  The 51 year old Punjabi detective is portly, opinionated, somewhat parochial and more than a touch vain.  He is fond of Sandown caps and safari suits, prominently displays his many awards and commendations, prides himself on his powers of observation (scoffing at comparisons with Sherlock Holmes, who he calls a “Johnny come lately”), and sneaks spicy foods against his doctor’s express orders.  He is also a man of high principles, outstanding character, and possesses an underlying sweetness that endears him to his friends and employees.

Proudly old fashioned, Vish eschews modern technology and techniques for tried and true methods that employ observation, disguise, and a shrewd understanding of society and motivations.  He utilizes a network of hired help and social contacts that ensures stealth, subtlety and above all, confidentiality.  This comes in handy for the cases that are his bread and butter: investigating prospective partners for arranged marriages that are still a staunch tradition in modern India.  It is therefore no surprise (especially to Vish himself) when an up and coming barrister seeks him out to locate a household maid who has mysteriously vanished.

The barrister feels that the maid’s disappearance is being used to cast doubt on his character and therefore discredit his work (which has upset some powerful legal cronies).  When a young woman matching the maid’s description turns up dead, the barrister is arrested for murder and it is up to Vish to not only clear his client, but also to balance his other investigations – including discovering who took potshots at the detective himself as he tended his prized chilies in his rooftop garden.

As a detective novel, The Case of the Missing Servant is pretty straightforward.  Where this work shines – and it does shine – is in the environment in which the story unfolds.  From Page 1, author Tarquin Hall lets us see firsthand how Vish thinks and operates. We taste the spices, hear the soft lilt of voices, we gain insight into the social mores and cultural roles that make India such a vibrant and unique society.  We also meet other memorable characters that move in and out of Vish’s world: his headstrong mother, who fancies herself a detective in her own right, his “team” of hired operatives (only known by their descriptive nicknames – Facecream, Tubelight, Flush, Handbrake) who come from other castes and levels of society, Rinku, his boyhood friend who has followed a somewhat dubious path to prosperity but remains loyal to family, old Brigadier Kapoor, a national treasure who hires Vish to dig up dirt on his spinster daughter’s fiancé because of the taint of “new” money, and many others who in their actions, their reactions, their speech and their dreams and fears, give us gracious access to a slice of contemporary India.

Perhaps it is because Tarquin Hall is not a native Indian but has become familiar with the land and its people (even marrying into an Indian family) that allows him to capture the nuances of speech, of behavior, of thought process, and relate them to the reader in such a way as to make Vish Puri and his fellows indelibly vibrant and keenly interesting.  Throw in something of a crusade, a few lines of well imagined mystery and enough surprises to keep it lively, and you have a very entertaining read (or three… so far).

Leave a Reply