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Unlike Sharon, (my fellow LitStack contributor), who could actually vouch for the accuracy of Tarquin Hall’s descriptions and provide an interesting introduction, I’ve never been to India. (Yes, I actually want you to click the link and read the first two  paragraphs of her review before continuing.)
I think the closest I’ve ever come to visiting India was in attending “Malaysia Night” at London’s Trafalgar Square — which might be a completely offensive thing to say, as the two countries could actually have nothing in common other than curry and general geographic location. I’m whitely ignorant enough not to know, and apparently snide enough to not delete either of these sentences.
But! That doesn’t mean I couldn’t also enjoy the hell out of this book, the second installment in the Vish Puri series of mysteries. And, after sitting through David Edwards’ Artscience: Creativity in the post-Google Generation last week (you don’t have to click on that one), it was nice being able to turn pages with a genuine desire to keep doing so.
The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing brings back Puri, the lovably plump Dehliite detective, to discover what’s behind the murder of a prominent scientist and myth-buster, who’s apparently been smote by one of the Hindu religious goddesses he spent his life disproving. Needless to say, there’s more to it than a whodunit; we’ve also got classic back-and-forth espionage, hidden identities, subsequent cover-up murders and various lunch breaks to keep us busy.
In weaving his mystery, Hall balances character quirk and plot substance to perfection, offering something not unlike my own take on the perfect amount of creamer for early-morning iced coffee: light enough for quick and easy consumption, but not so much that it washes away the real purpose of what you’ve paid for. By mid-novel, I found myself looking forward as intently to the colorful idiosyncrasies of Puri’s speech and habits as to his next tactical move on the case.
What I also liked — aside from the fact that Puri’s wife and elderly mother get to investigate a crime in their own subplot — were Hall’s sly insertions of purely cultural dialogue, which draw out the traditional-to-modern transition that’s taking place in India beneath all the action. It’s not just that one of the detective’s operatives is named Flush (since his was the first house in the village to have a Western-style toilet), it’s also the subtly-placed discussions of societal gender roles, and Puri’s own less-than-liberal attitudes about skimpy outfits and homosexuality.
So while the craft of Hall’s detective story is certainly one that runs many layers deep, challenging readers to think and engage while remaining utterly fun, there’s more to this entire novel than meets the eye. Maybe it stems from his past career as a journalist, or maybe it’s all that international traveling he’s done, but there’s something about the intangibly wide dynamics of this guy’s style that I genuinely dig.
So The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing is a great summer read, and it’s also pretty good fiction on its own terms, which is always a totally pleasant surprise.