Murder and humor meet in this exotic gem of a mystery. Tarquin Hall's The Case of the Missing Servant takes place in the heart of India and serves up a sharp and entertaining whodunit through its array of colorful, memorable characters.
Vish Puri is a middle-aged private eye with a quick mind and an enterprising team (one that includes eyes and ears with nicknames like Facecream and Tubelight, plus a woman who answers nine undercover phone lines with a variety of voices). He prides himself on being a disciple of statesman Chanakaya and continues the ancient tradition of espionage and investigation that his guru has established. His bread and butter lies in investigating marriages, from doing background checks for couples who opt to marry for love instead of doing it the old-fashioned, arranged way to shadowing spouses accused of adultery. Since he trumpets that 'confidentiality is our watchword,' he also finds himself in some high-profile cases.
Such is his latest one: a female servant has disappeared from the employ of controversial lawyer Ajay Kasliwal under mysterious circumstances. The lawyer pleads his innocence and instructs Puri to help him. But with the servant's first name being his only lead, Puri must use all his resources to uncover the truth. It sounds almost impossible to solve at first but I admire how Mr Hall created a character who is smart enough to recognize opportunities and make India's red tape and complex systems work for the benefit of truth -- all in a light and very believable manner.
According to his biography, Mr Hall has worked and lived in India for quite some time and his familiarity with its way of life, language, and quirks definitely show in this novel. He has a very descriptive eye that he uses to establish the setting: 'Beneath faded, dusty awnings, cobblers crouched, sewing sequins and gold thread onto leather slippers with curled-up toes. Spice merchants sat surrounded by heaps of lal mirch, haldi and ground jeera, their colors as clean and sharp as new watercolor paints (p54-55).' As someone who is not at all that familiar with the Indian culture, I enjoy how passages like this create what Anne Shirley would call 'scope for the imagination.' Even though there is a part of me that wonders if Western authors writing about Eastern subjects tend to romanticize things, in the end, I think whatever traces of Orientalism there may be in the text still made the story come alive. I thought it made the setting such a delicious addition to the whole reading experience.
I enjoyed that there are three different plots going on at once. Aside from the main mystery, Vish Puri also has to a) dodge bullets from a mysterious party who wants him dead; and b) investigate the prospective groom of the granddaughter of a respected and decorated war veteran. What I liked most is how these sub-plots could hold their own against the main story without taking the focus away from it. I thought Mystery A was handled with panache (thanks to the presence of Puri's fascinating Mum) and was resolved so that it could still be revisited in latter adventures. On the other hand, there was Mystery B which involved a nice heartwarming twist that I admired. To some degree, I had guessed the outcome of the main mystery but there was still an element there that I didn't anticipate, which made the whole puzzle satisfying for me.
Mr Hall has created memorable characters that feel very authentic and I am intrigued to follow each one of them. The Case of the Missing Servant is a very enjoyable start to a promising series. It certainly made me want to read more of Vish Puri's India!
NOTE: This review is done in response to the Whodunit Reading Challenge hosted by Mary, Myra, and Fats at Gathering Books.