Alessandra Barrow, Culture Editor, The Hague, Netherlands
The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Hutchinson, London 2011. 22 – 4 euros
Genre: Crime, Mystery – Fiction
Driving back from the family holiday in Italy, I stumbled upon (well my mother stumbled upon and I just sat in the car and listened) the third ‘Vish Puri mystery’, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, by Tarquin Hall. The story follows the portly Punjabi detective, Vish Puri ‘India’s Most Private Investigator’, as he and his team of well nicknamed staff, Tubelight, Flush and Facecream; investigate the poisoning, by means of butter chicken, of Faheem Khan, father of a famed Pakistani cricket player. Puri’s investigations brings him into the dark world of match fixing and gambling as well as touching on the legacy of Partition and tensions between India and Pakistan (Tarquin Hall, 2012). Suffice it to say, the audio book certainly helped pass the time on the long car journey back from Italy to England and drove my curiosity to read another of Hall’s detective novels. This time I picked up Hall’s second Vish Puri mystery, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing.
I have to admit when I first heard The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, I assumed the author was Indian or of Indian descent, given the story’s wide use of Hinglish and detailed descriptions of Delhi. However, as a name like Tarquin Hall would suggest, he is a British-born writer and journalist who often writes for the likes of The Observer, The Times and The Daily Telegraph (Tarquin Hall) . His previous novels have struck a far more serious note than the Vish Puri mysteries. His third book, Salaam Brick Lane recounts a year Hall spent living in London’s Brick Lane and the stories of the people he met there (Rushby, 2005). Today, Hall lives in Delhi, as he has since the mid 1990s and is married to Indian-born BBC reporter and presenter Anu Anand (Sharma, 2015)
The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, like all Vish Puri mysteries I have so far read, follows two mysteries, one investigated by Vish Puri and the other by his mummy-ji, something which Puri finds particularly irritating given his traditionalist stance, reiterated in every book, that “Mummies are not detectives!” The main Vish Puri plot follows the murder of a well known rationalist-‘guru-buster’ seemingly by an apparition of the goddess Kali (Hall 2011, 24, 94) . This leads Puri and his team to investigate one of India’s famed ‘Godmen’ who, as it turns out, is more of a con man using his ashram to exploit gullible followers.
In this cheerful and easy-to-read novel, Hall picks up on a number of the issues associated with India’s Godmen, particularly their closeness with politicians and their cult-like following, enabling them to abuse the power they have over their followers. Given that The Man Who Died Laughing was published in 2011, this novel feels especially foresightful, given the recent rape convictions and controvices of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in 2017 and Asaram Bapu in 2018 (The Times of India, 2018 ; BBC, 2017) . These convictions led to a myriad of comment and questions in both Indian and international media as to why India was “obsessed” with celebrity Gurus and why they are so powerful. As with any complex issue there was a multitude of answers ranging from Hinduism causing Hindus to be more gullible, the failure of Indian modernisation to provide for all to the protection of corrupt gurus by corrupt politicians (Panikkar, 2017 ; Hindustan Times 2017) . Hall’s Puri hints at all three answers, but with a greater respect for what the character sees as the necessity of Gurus, or, as he puts it,
“If we are to escape the cycle of birth and rebirth, a guru must be there to show the way. But that does not mean we follow any Tom, Dick or Harry, no?” (Hall 2011, 214)
My one critique to Hall’s stories is to do with his second novel, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, where Puri’s critique of the British felt, at times, like Hall was somewhat compensating for his own Britishness. Similarly Puri’s fervent dislike of Pakistan in the beginning of the novel again made the character feel, at times, more like a caricature rather than the pompous but lovable Puri he becomes in the later books. I have yet to read the first Vish Puri mystery, but I suspect, given the final two books’ better character relatability, that Hall, in The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, was still trying to find a balance in Puri’s character and his many opinions (Sawhney, 2009). Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri Mysteries, are gentle and humorous reads for anyone with a curiosity for India’s quirks and wanting to enjoy a well written detective novel. Hall’s first-hand knowledge of India provides pleasant insights which will only add to what you may have picked up from lectures or reading the news. The books are written for a western audience, and so are also accessible to anyone without prior knowledge of India or the Indian language, if the Hinglish gets to much, there is a helpful glossary in the back of all the books (and I noticed that in The Case of the Love Commandos, the fourth and most recent Vish Puri mystery, recipes for Detective Puri’s favorite dishes are listed too!) Sharma, 2015).