The four Vish Puri novels published to date won’t suit everyone’s taste. To enjoy these detective stories to the fullest, you probably need to have an intense curiosity about life in India and a high level of tolerance for languages you’re very unlikely to understand. The author, Tarquin Hall, is not himself Indian. However, he lives in Delhi, where the novels are set, and is married to an Indian woman. And it’s clear from even a cursory reading of these fascinating books that Hall is intimately familiar with the language, food, and lifestyles of India. In fact, his books may give you a better feel for the country than any travel guide. (FYI, I have spent a fair amount of time in India myself, traveling there on seven occasions over the years.)
India’s #1 or #2 private investigator
The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing is the second book in the Vish Puri series. Puri is a well-to-do man of about 60 years of age who bills himself as India’s “Most Private Investigator.” He is of Punjabi extraction and speaks that language but is also conversant in Indian English as well as Hindi. He switches smoothly from one to another with frequency. Puri is overweight, egotistical, pompous, and walks with a cane because one of his legs is shorter than the other—and he may be even as brilliant as he thinks he is. As we learn in The Case of the Missing Servant, the first book in the series, Puri regards himself as either India’s #1 or #2 private investigator, depending on the mood he’s in.
The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing (Vish Puri #2) by Tarquin Hall (2010) 322 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
The man who died laughing
In The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Puri sets out to solve the murder of a friend and former client who died under mysterious circumstances. Along with another half-dozen other men, Dr. Suresh Jha, the “Guru Buster,” was attending an early-morning session in a Delhi park of the Rajpath Laughing Club. (Yes, there are such things in India, and they’re popular.) They were gathered in a circle laughing, often without any reason except that they believed it was healthy to do so. Suddenly, an apparition appeared in their midst: the four-armed goddess Kali. Smoke billowed up from their feet, and suddenly Kali drew a sword and murdered Dr. Jha, then disappeared as though into thin air.
But Puri is undaunted. As he remarks to the man who runs the Laughing Club, “Allow me to assure you, sir, Vish Puri never fails . . . No amount of hocus or pocus or jugglery of words will prevent me.”
“I will perform a spectacular miracle”
However, it’s bad enough that Dr. Jha was murdered. Even worse, he had publicly denounced one of the most powerful men in the country as a charlatan and a common criminal on national TV. Maharaj Swami, known as “Swami-Ji” to one and all, was revered as a living saint by 30 million people. In their face-to-face confrontation, Swami-Ji had vowed that “within the month, I will perform a spectacular miracle that will leave no one—not even atheists like my friend Dr. Jha here—in any doubt about my powers.”
Investigating Dr. Jha’s murder will bring Vish Puri and his faithful staff into dangerous conflict with Swami-Ji, the politicians the “Godman” has bribed, and India’s small community of professional magicians. The case will also take Puri from one end of Delhi to another, from the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods to the most elegant homes.
A celebration of Indian cuisine
The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing is cleverly plotted and suspenseful to a fault. It’s also a showcase of Indian cuisine. Here, for example, is how the author describes Puri’s wife, Rumpi’s, preparation for a meal: “First, she added, jeera, chili and turmeric powder to the boiled aloo and then mixed the atta in a bowl with a little water until it turned into a dough. Then, while Monika mopped the floor, Rumpi heated her tava and retrieved the ghee from the fridge.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t understand a word of that. Had I been passionately interested in Indian food, though, I might simply have turned to the back of the book. There is an extensive glossary of words in Indian languages there. A lot of them are about food.
About the author
Tarquin Hall is an English journalist and writer who has spent most of his life living abroad. In addition to the four Vish Puri novels that have appeared as of this writing, he has published four nonfiction books that reflect his extensive travels in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
For additional reading
Previously, I reviewed The Case of the Missing Servant at Vish Puri is either India’s #1 private investigator or #2. I’ve also reviewed The Case of the Love Commandos (Vish Puri #4)—India’s #1 private detective and the Love Commandos.
This is one of the Good books about India, past and present that I’ve reviewed on this site.
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