Book Review: The Case of the Missing Servant

Tarquin Hall. The Case of the Missing Servant. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. 310 pages.

Vish “Chubby” Puri is the self-proclaimed finest private investigator in India, and in this, the first novel to feature him, the reader follows him as he cracks a case and, along the way, picks up some of his backstory.

Hall has created a complex, sometimes-opaque, but nonetheless likable character in Puri. Living in Delhi, Puri has his share of exciting cases, though he mostly picks up routine matrimonial investigations. This is a great example of the way that Hall weaves socio-historical observations into his mystery: once, marriage was a local affair, as the families involved knew each other intimately before the arranged match. Now, with the rise of mega-cities and geographic mobility, parents no longer know exactly what they’re getting in a marriage. Enter Puri, whose investigations reveal the financial, social, moral, and criminal reality of the proposed husband or wife. It’s an interesting cultural juxtaposition, since in the US a similar detective would be doing a lot of divorce work.

The case itself–the quest to clear the name of a high-profile reforming lawyer who’s been accused of murdering one of his servants–almost takes the backseat to Hall’s depictions of modern urban India. With a few suggestive details, Hall is able to bring to life the social complexities of the large, polyglot country. The divide between rich and poor, the confusion and dislocation of Delhi, the rigidly stratified social system–Hall builds them all up around Puri so we understand not only the detective, but the world he lives in.

Puri is an idiosyncratic detective: he’s loaded with quirks and foibles and, like Peter Falk Columbo, conceals a sharp analytical mind and keen observational sense beneath a rumpled exterior.

To be glib, The Case of the Missing Servant is Sam Spade meets Slumdog Millionaire. The Indian version of the quiz show is even name-dropped in the book–a coincidence perhaps, but a lucky one, since viewers of that film may find the book an excellent companion piece.

Spread the love