The Case of the Love Commandos is solved by India's #1 private detective.

So, here we go again. The vainglorious Vishwas Puri, who styles himself India’s #1 private detective, is off and running on another case with his motley team of assistants . . . and his mother. On three cases, actually, which is only par for the course for the corpulent, food-fancying sleuth. For starters, he’s having a hard time figuring out who stole millions in jewels from a client’s home safe. But his wife Rumpi insists he go along with the family on a pilgrimage to a shrine atop a mountain in the north. Fortunately, from Puri’s perspective, he is called away at the last minute to look into The Case of the Love Commandos. And what a case it is! Those jewel robbers can wait.

Now, this takes some explaining. Arranged marriages are still common in India, even among some in the educated elite. In fact, Vish Puri himself agrees with the practice, which turned out well for him. But many younger people rebel at the idea. And among the rebels is one of Puri’s assistants, a young Nepali woman he calls Facecream.

The Case of the Love Commandos (Vish Puri #4 of 4) by Tarquin Hall (2013) 321 pages ★★★★★ 

Facecream, it turns out, has joined a group called the Love Commandos; they’re dedicated to helping young people escape before they’re forced to marry people they don’t love. (Yes, it’s a real organization.) And now, despite their exceedingly clever efforts, a young Dalit man who is one of their intended beneficiaries has been abducted from a safehouse they maintain.

India’s #1 private detective takes on the caste system, the political elite, and a mysterious genetic research institute

Well, that’s bad enough in its own right. But when the young man’s mother is brutally murdered and the police deliberately arrest a man who cannot possibly have committed the crime, the case suddenly takes on sinister implications. As Facecream and Puri himself will soon find, the caste system and the nation’s political elite are both involved in the young man’s abduction. And, somehow, a mysterious, foreign-funded genetic research institute is implicated as well. It’s a knotty case, to say the least, but nothing is beyond the skills of India’s #1 private detective!

Having read all this, you might well assume that The Case of the Love Commandos is a complex mystery tale leavened by the humorous antics of an investigative crew with silly nicknames (Tubelight, Door Stop, and so forth, as well as Facecream). Of course, it is both those things. But author Tarquin Hall is a serious journalist who has lived with his Indian wife in Delhi for a decade or more, and he manages to illuminate the social and political reality of India—as well as its cuisine—with remarkable fidelity.

Fascinating perspective on Indian society today

Here, for example, are two of the revealing passages that Hall tosses off in the course of telling his tale:

  • Most of the action in the novel is set in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous. (The state is home to some 228 million people, making it the equivalent of the fifth largest country in the world, edging out Pakistan, Brazil, and Nigeria.) U.P., as the state is frequently known, is notoriously corrupt. “Often referred to as India’s badlands,” Hall explains, “Uttar Pradesh was deeply feudal, with a caste landscape that was bewilderingly complex. Mafia-like networks controlled every aspect of the economy, and dacoits [armed robbers] indulged in kidnapping, smuggling and carjacking.”
  • And here is Facecream, masquerading as a village schoolteacher: “A sense of hopelessness, of defeat in the face of insurmountable corruption, swept over her. The village headman skimming the children’s only meal was but one of thousands doing the same across the country. . . Little wonder that the Mao-inspired Naxalite movement was gaining ground across huge swaths of the country.”

Yet none of this sociological or political commentary comes across as labored in The Case of the Love Commandos. The dialog reflects typical patterns of speech when north Indians with less than perfect command of English speak the language casually. It’s colorful, and often amusing to educated Westerners, with phrases such as “the clock is doing ticktock” appearing here and there. And, if you’re a foodie, you’ll likely love the book for another reason: Vish Puri may be India’s #1 private detective, but he is also the country’s #1 foodie. But he would have a competitor in Tarquin Hall.

For additional reading

Previously I’ve reviewed the three earlier novels in the Vish Puri series:

Perhaps 20 good books about India, past and present would interest you, too. And for similar titles, see The best Indian detective novels reviewed here.

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