When "Guru Buster" Dr. Suresh Jha is murdered--apparently by the Hindu goddess Kali--in broad daylight in a city park during a regular exercise meeting of the Laughing Club, Delhi is all abuzz with speculation about his killer, or killers. Could the noted skeptic have been killed by his arch-enemy, His Holiness Maharaj Swami, a noted guru whose work Dr. Jha had debunked on numerous television news programs? Might it be a less famous "god man" with a chip on his shoulders? Or could it be a truly supernatural killing, a vindictive act by the dark goddess herself?
Most Private Investigator Vish Puri isn't sure who did kill Dr. Jha, but he's positive there's a rational, real-world explanation. Even though it'll take all his detection strategies to find a way through the political apparatus of Maharaj Swami's organization, not to mention into the secret techniques of some of India's most cunning magicians, Puri is determined to take on the case. As his secretary notes, "The idea that Vish Puri could resist getting involved in such a tantalizing murder was preposterous. There was as much chance of him going without his lunch."
Which, as readers who first met Puri in The Case of the Missing Servant already know, is pretty much nil. Soon Puri, with his trusty operatives at his side (or at least doing his bidding) is in hot pursuit, even as he pursues the equally pressing matters of satisfying his prodigious appetite and keeping tabs on his wife's extravagant spending on their unborn grandchildren. Although this is the second book in a series, readers don't really need to have read the first one to appreciate Puri's unconventional investigative approaches, complicated family life, or sardonic humor.
Tarquin Hall's mysteries are very, very funny, to be sure, and the mystery plot is genuinely engaging, but readers who are drawn to the growing number of mysteries set in locations other than the UK and the US will appreciate not only Puri's wit but also his perceptive observation of and commentary on contemporary Indian culture. Hall manages to intersperse this sort of information seamlessly into the narrative, for the most part, as Puri's reflections grow organically out of his investigations into different geographic locales and economic and cultural aspects of Indian life. As he emerges from the Metro subway system onto the street level, for example, Puri muses, "It was not uncommon for him to experience such a sense of dislocation when working in Delhi these days. The India of beggars and farmer suicides and the one of cafés selling frothy Italian coffee were like parallel dimensions. As he slipped back and forth between them, he often found himself pondering the ancient Indian axiom that this world is but maya, an illusion, a collective dream."
The contrasts and contradictions in modern Indian life lie at the heart of Tarquin Hall's mystery, not only in the reflections of his protagonist but also in the mystery plot itself. Past clashes with present, superstition collides with rationality, as Hall cleverly captures--even in the guise of a fairly breezy murder mystery--the essential nature of contemporary India. Readers might find themselves viewing India and its people with a new understanding and appreciation; that is, if they're not too busy trying not to die laughing.
This review was originally published in November 2010, and has been updated for the June 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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