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by Tarquin Hall
McClelland & Stewart, May 2009
298 pages
$29.99 CAD
ISBN: 0771038259

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Much like India where the action takes place, Tarquin Hall's first mystery is peopled with a host of colourful characters and various plots. They stem from the "Most Private Investigators Ltd," a detective agency 'the best' founded and managed by Vish Puri, a rotund man from Punjab, addicted to fatty food, vain, honest, convinced of his many talents which he constantly proves. He leads a quiet family life but, with the help of his employees, earns a more than decent living solving cases varying in importance, from investigating husbands-to-be to murder.

Here the main plot consists of the disappearance of Mary, a humble servant. Rumours have it that she was abused and killed by her employer, a respected lawyer intent on cleaning up India's corrupt legal system. Claiming his innocence, he hires Vish Puri to find the truth. As is the case in real life, the detective must work on other cases while dealing with someone intent on killing him. Despite this abundance of activity and characters involved, the reader never gets lost, a tribute to Hall's writing skills.

My main appreciation of the novel rests in the way India, especially Delhi, becomes truly alive and believable. Without being ponderous, there is a lot of information about the Punjabi and other castes and religions woven into the story. It is achieved with little everyday touches like the food eaten, the use of nicknames, all wrapped in light humour. There is also a good insight into Indian society, where a still feudal society coexists with the advantages of modern technology. Here, marriages are still arranged love marriages are considered disrespectful to the parents but parents find brides through the internet. Here too we find courts that are corrupt and slowed with red tape, a work structure where each has his limited niche, police are so poor as to be unable to pay their phone bills, the daily rationing of water. etc. We are very far from life in the West, although some bits are included, like Vish Puri's "Mummy" who refuses to heed her son and pursues her own investigation with the help of other strong-willed, more independent older female friends.

What might become an irritant for certain readers is Hall's use of a foreign language structure in the dialogues to stress the 'Indianness' of the characters. After an initial shock, one rapidly gets used to it however, especially since most of the book is written in conventional English. As a bonus, at the end of the book, there is a glossary of expressions and food and that proves to be very helpful.

I really enjoyed this mystery with its good plotting and endearing characters, straightforward but also a pastiche of the classic mystery, with its echoes of Sherlock Holmes. In short, if you want a book that will both entertain and inform, this one is for you.

Reviewed by Nicole Leclerc, July 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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