Tarquin Hall's first foray into fiction is a fine attempt by any standards. As a journo based in South Asia for much of the 90s, his study and insight into Indian society and custom is thorough and the reader is rarely suspicious of the writer's distinctly non-Indian roots. His marriage to an Indian-American of Punjabi upbringing also helped immensely, I would imagine, as Hall's characterization, setting and insight are positively flawless. He successfully manages to put the pizzazz back in the detective genre.
Hall's detective Vish Puri, is eminently likeable, as most Punjabis are, being typically rotund, jovial and fiercely proud of his culture and heritage, evidenced by his blind faith in his guru Chanakya and his bible, the peerless 'Arthashastra'. He believes the Holmes' of the world to be nothing more than dilettantes and upstarts, who copied Chanakya's principles in their method but never gave any credit to the source. He lives in an upper middle class neighborhood with his wife, Rumpi, his 4 daughters and his mother Mummy-ji. Suitably, he also carries the nickname 'Chubby'. He heads up Most Private Investigators ('Confidentiality is our watchword') and carries out mainly pre-marriage investigations, as most detectives in India do. But when he is called in to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a maid servant from a reputable lawyer's bungalow, things get pretty interesting. Using his vast network of informants as well as his able associates, the wonderfully nicknamed Flush, Tubelight and Facecream, he moves from clue to clue, from west to the east of the country, and from suspect to suspect, until the truth is finally out. In the mix is Mummy-ji, a budding detective in her own right, who despite being an irritant to Puri in his investigations, is sniffing out the culprit in her own little mystery. This subplot is actually a master-stroke in terms of plot handling and enhances the reading experience, giving the reader a perfect little distraction, a breather if you will, from Puri's own relentless case file.
The book, while being generally amusing and light hearted, is also serious in the issues it lays bare. Apart from being detective fiction, it is also in part a social commentary on the dichotomy of modern India, much like some of the issues explored in Adiga's dark 'The White Tiger'. A good read on the whole and Puri proves to be a worthy successor to the likes of Bandyopadhyay's Byomkesh Bakshi, Ray's Prodosh Mitter and Keating's Inspector Ghote. The Indian detective is alive and well and Puri should have many more cases to solve. I can already see a few film adaptations in the offing.
My only quibble with the text is the constant and unnecessary use of Indian English by the characters, which ceases to be funny after about the first 50 pages. In any event, I look forward to Hall's next, 'The Case Of The Man Who Died Laughing'. Don't skip this. It's great fun.