The Case of the Missing Servant, by Tarquin Hall has been compared with The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall. They were both written by white guys. Hall is a British author, McCall is Scottish. Both traveled and lived in the countries where their detective novels take place. There is definitely more "mystery" to the detective stories by Hall. There is a similarity in the level of charm, the slightly obsequious, foreigner doing a take on "native" culture that permeates both books, at times almost cloyingly pandering.
It IS true that India is a complex country of mixed languages, religions and castes. It would be dizzying to an outsider. Hall does a fine job with his glossary in the back of his book. I wish he had provided footnotes within the book, however. I didn't realize there WAS a glossary until I had finished. I had been guessing by context what the meaning was to a "tea-walla" for example. You see the ending "walla" attached to enough different functions and you start to figure out they are vendors of some kind.
Other words were more mysterious. "Namashkar" which the character's greet each other with, is apparently a derivative of "Namaste" which I had never heard. "Namaste" which is basically the equivalent of "Aloha" a common greeting, meaning "love" I have heard translated as "the higher self in me acknowledges the higher self in you," or more simply, "I see you." Aloha, which we say in the islands, is used both as "hello" and "good-bye" although its actual meaning is something more akin to warmth, candor and love.
In a society where people use such words so freely you might think people would grow callous to the meaning. While some do and some don't, over all I would say both Indian and Hawaiian culture are tolerant in inclusive. Both societies absorb a lot of different lifestyles. Both acknowledge and embrace things as diverse as homosexuality, mixed marriages, and enormous class differences. The mix of so many cultures and languages in both places has made a form of English the lingua franca. In Hawai'i we call it "pidgin": slang made of every language slathered over English, with its own unique tenses. So I read with interest the Indian-English dialogue in this book, where many nouns are "verb-ized" with an "ing" ending. Some American words have been twisted, thus the movie making industry is known as "Bollywood." Some British words are more common than the American counterpart due to the history of the subcontinent.
Mr. Vish Puri, aka "Chubby" is our main character. He's likeable enough. In the first chapter we find him wolfing down deep fried spicy Indian junk food, which has been declared off limits by his doctor. We can relate right away to this main character. Who can resist the smells of Indian junk food? The author does a good job of describing the many delicious treats: yoghurt flavored lassi, spiced tea called "chai" and deep fried pakoras. He brings to life the hustle and bustle. The last few books I read, read so much like screen plays, it was quite refreshing to find an author capable of painting a scene with descriptive words. On the cover of the book, a blurb from Entertainment Weekly gushes, "India, captured in all its pungent, vivid, glory, fascinates almost as much as the crime itself."
Within his world Chubby has a loving wife, a nosy mother, nice kids and a variety of Sherlock Holmes type rag tag employees. Hall makes a couple of nice points regarding the history of sleuthing half way through the book during a fictional lecture our beloved detective makes at the police academy. He brings up the history of fingerprint technology as coming from India. It strikes a nice prideful balance to some of the other toss off comments about India. The book is meant to be comical, but some of the truths about post colonial India are more painful than funny.
It certainly IS a shame that there is so much corruption and bribery in the justice system, which of course makes a private detective main character a tough sell. Alexander McCall skirts the issue in his series, by making the cases not really about legal matters. His detective, Precious, is checking out errant husbands. Vish Puri DOES do perform a playful inquiry into a prospective groom as one of the cases, but the main case is about a murder. I shudder to think that in real life, such a case would never be solved.
There is more than one book in this series. While this is certainly an enjoyable read for a long plane trip or at the beach I think it lacks the charm of Alexander McCall series. For one thing, Precious is a character who has overcome some difficulties to get where she is. By contrast, Vish Puri is a average middle class Indian man. He shows one or two examples of his ability to "notice" information, ala Holmes, however, the things he notices are not that impressive. Too much of his information sort of "falls in his lap" for the sake of moving the plot forward. There weren't too many red herrings either, to pique our attention. The book meanders along pleasantly, like taking a vacation in India. Where we get to experience the sights and smells and some the fascinating oddities, without having to leave our chair.
The Christian Science Monitor recommended it with the following, "Great fun, and full of musings on modern India."
The Washington Times offers, "The stories from 'the files of India's most private investigator' make for hilarious reading and also paint a vivid picture of life in a modern Indian city. It's all great fun."
From his native UK, Hall received the following review "Entertaining. . .Hall combines an insider's insight with the eclectic eye of a good foreign correspondent. . . .the very opposite of the 'exoticism' of which this kind of fiction is often accused. Instead of escaping into 'another world,' western readers are encouraged to see an unflattering reflection of their own values and desires.