Dubbed “a wonderfully engaging P.I.” (The Times, London), Tarquin Hall’s irresistible protagonist Vish Puri has become an international favorite through a series that "splendidly evokes the color and bustle of Delhi and the tang of contemporary India" (The Seattle Times). Now the gormandizing, spectacularly mustachioed sleuth finds himself facing down his greatest fears in an explosive case involving the Indian and Pakistani mafias. When the elderly father of a top Pakistani cricketer playing in the multi-million-dollar Indian Premier League dies during a post-match dinner, it’s not a simple case of Delhi Belly. His butter chicken has been poisoned. To solve the case, Puri must penetrate the region’s organized crime, following a trail that leads deep into Pakistan - the country in which many members of the P.I.’s family were massacred during the 1947 partition of India. The last piece of the puzzle, however, turns up closer to home when Puri learns of the one person who can identify the killer. Unfortunately it is the one woman in the world with whom he has sworn never to work: his Mummy-ji.
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This is the third Vish Puri detective story, but my first read in the series. I didn't feel disadvantaged by not having read the first two books. I felt immediately immersed in modern Delhi, where gleaming skyscrapers filled with call centers sit next to street markets, cricket matches are the subject of wild enthusiasm (especially with the new feature of blonde American cheerleaders in skimpy outfits), and the streets are jammed with hair-raising kamikaze drivers––and the occasional cow. In today's Delhi, the status of money is beginning to replace the caste system, but the old world remains in the multi-generational households, arranged marriages, and religious rituals.
Vish Puri, affectionately called Chubby by his family, is the Boss of Most Private Detectives, assisted by a large group of operatives with colorful monikers like Tubelight, Facecream, Handbrake, Flush, and Chanel No.5. Even his beloved Mummy-Ji gets in on the sleuthing action on occasion––though against Puri's wishes.
As the story begins, Puri has been put on a diet by his wife, Rumpi. He'll do anything to make her happy, but he finds food irresistible. The descriptions of his meals were so mouth-watering I finally had to resolve not to read the book unless I had already eaten.
Puri has several cases on his plate (no pun intended): the murder (by poisoned Butter Chicken) of wealthy Pakistani Mr. Khan at a cricket federation dinner; allegations of cricket match fixing; and the "theft" of the long, luxuriant mustaches of two men.
Puri's adventures are comic, but author Tarquin isn't just playing for laughs. He doesn't turn a blind eye to the corruption in Indian society or its inequities, like an elderly servant who is made to sleep on her master's kitchen floor. The police force is inept (and worse), and Puri is himself hampered by VIP suspects who refuse to cooperate with his investigation and threaten him for daring to approach them. One thread of the plot goes back to the horrific days of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, as Muslims fled north and Hindis and Sikhs south, with massacres of the refugees and abductions of women along the way.
What a pleasure to read a mystery with such charming, lively characters, and to be both entertained and educated. I listened to the audiobook and found its reader, Sam Dastor, to be a delight. His neutral narration was in a clear, British accent, and his characters' Indian-accented dialog seemed dead on.
The best Butter Chicken I ever had was at Amber India in Palo Alto, CA. Here's the recipe from that restaurant published some years back in the San Francisco Chronicle: Ingredients:
3 pounds chicken (2 half-breasts, 2 thighs, 2 legs), skinned Juice of 1 lemon 1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes 2 teaspoons salt 1 1/2 cups unflavored yogurt 2 tablespoons heavy cream 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic paste (see note) 1 1/2 teaspoons ginger paste (see note) 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon garam masala 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon powdered ginger 1/2 teaspoon ground red chile Pinch garam masala Pinch mace Pinch nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper 2 teaspoons brown sugar 1/4 cup butter 2 cups canned tomatoes, chopped 1 tablespoon tomato paste 2 cups water, or more as needed 2 tablespoons heavy cream 2 teaspoons ground fenugreek Salt to taste
1. Make 3 parallel cuts on top of each piece of chicken. Place the chicken in a resealable heavy-duty plastic bag. 2. Combine the lemon juice, red pepper flakes and salt; pour over the chicken. Seal the bag and refrigerate for 30 minutes. 3. Combine the yogurt and cream in a bowl; blend well. 4. Mix together the garlic paste, ginger paste, coriander, cumin, garam masala and salt. Add to the yogurt mixture, blending thoroughly. 5. When the chicken has marinated for 30 minutes, remove it from the refrigerator, open the bag and pour in the yogurt mixture. Reseal the bag and refrigerate overnight. 6. To make the sauce: Combine the ginger, ground chile, garam masala, mace, nutmeg, white pepper and brown sugar in a small bowl. 7. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, the spice/sugar blend and water. Simmer, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes. 8. Add more water if the mixture gets too dry. 9. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. 10. Remove the chicken from the marinade; discard the marinade. 11. Arrange the chicken pieces in a baking pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Bake for 30 minutes. 12. Let the chicken cool until you can handle it, then remove the meat from the bones in bite-size pieces; discard bones. 13. Add the chicken meat, the cream and fenugreek to the sauce. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Taste, and add salt if desired.
PER SERVING: 325 calories, 28 g protein, 8 g carbohydrate, 20 g fat (10 g saturated), 126 mg cholesterol, 380 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Yields: Serves 4. Note: Ginger paste and garlic paste are available in jars. Look for them in Asian markets, and supermarkets that have large ethnic-food sections
This is not as dark as Colin Cotterill's Dr Siri investigations, not as playful as Alexander McCall Smith, but still a humorous and cozily entertaining global gumshoe listen along those lines. You will learn something about modern India along the way; in fact, you could criticize the author for being too didactic and not as skilled (yet) as the earlier mentioned authors in weaving the learning into the tale.
The author also has something else in common with McCall Smith and Cotterill: a non-native writing about a culture, albeit one he seems to know, respect, and understand well -- but as an outsider myself, I am not the best judge of the accuracy of the portrait or of Sam Dastor's narration -- both of which I enjoyed.