The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (Vish Puri Series #3)

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Overview

When an elderly Pakistani visiting India dies frothing at the mouth during a banquet, it’s not a simple case of Delhi Belly. His butter chicken has been poisoned. To solve the case, India’s “Most Private Investigator,” Vish Puri, must infiltrate the dangerous world of illegal gambling, following a trail that leads deep into Pakistan—the country in which many members of the investigator’s family were massacred during the 1947 partition of India. The last piece of the puzzle, however, turns up closer to home when ...

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The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (Vish Puri Series #3)

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Overview

When an elderly Pakistani visiting India dies frothing at the mouth during a banquet, it’s not a simple case of Delhi Belly. His butter chicken has been poisoned. To solve the case, India’s “Most Private Investigator,” Vish Puri, must infiltrate the dangerous world of illegal gambling, following a trail that leads deep into Pakistan—the country in which many members of the investigator’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 person in the world with whom he has sworn never to work: his Mummy-ji.

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Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
“India, captured in all its pungent, vivid glory, fascinates almost as much as the crime itself.”
The Times (London)
“Splendid . . . Entertaining . . . Vish Puri is large, constantly hungry, a perpetual victim of Delhi's traffic congestion, and a wonderfully engaging P.I. . . . . A joy to read.”
People
“A wry whodunit, with recipes”
Booklist
“A thoroughly engaging series… Hall has a gift for conveying the rich stew of competing cultures in contemporary India with a wonderful economy of image… Hall presents a complex hero in a complex country with a great deal of history, humor, and panache.”
Alexander McCall Smith
“These books are little gems. They are beautifully written, amusing, and intensely readable.”
The New York Times Book Review - Marilyn Stasio
“Hall writes amusing mysteries. . . . [His] affectionate humor is embedded with barbs.”
Booklist
“A thoroughly engaging series… Hall has a gift for conveying the rich stew of competing cultures in contemporary India with a wonderful economy of image… Hall presents a complex hero in a complex country with a great deal of history, humor, and panache.”
The New York Times Book Review - Marilyn Stasio
“Hall writes amusing mysteries. . . .[His] affectionate humor is embedded with barbs.”
People Magazine
“A wry whodunit, with recipes”
From the Publisher
“These books are little gems. They are beautifully written, amusing, and intensely readable.”

“India, captured in all its pungent, vivid glory, fascinates almost as much as the crime itself.”

“Hall writes amusing mysteries. . . . [His] affectionate humor is embedded with barbs.”

“Splendid . . . Entertaining . . . Vish Puri is large, constantly hungry, a perpetual victim of Delhi's traffic congestion, and a wonderfully engaging P.I. . . . . A joy to read.”

“It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood turns this into a movie or a TV show. . . . The three books develop nicely with each central mystery a little more complicated and dangerous than the one before. . . . It’s quite possible that what has begun as fun series will become a genuinely great one.”

“A wry whodunit, with recipes”

“Outstanding third mystery . . . Well drawn, colorful characters bolster a whodunit sure to appeal to those who enjoy a dash of humor with their crime.”

“A thoroughly engaging series… Hall has a gift for conveying the rich stew of competing cultures in contemporary India with a wonderful economy of image… Hall presents a complex hero in a complex country with a great deal of history, humor, and panache.”

“Vish’s third outing continues the tradition of Hall’s lively franchise.”

Alexander McCall Smith
“These books are little gems. They are beautifully written, amusing, and intensely readable.”
Entertainment Weekly
“India, captured in all its pungent, vivid glory, fascinates almost as much as the crime itself.”
The New York Times Book Review
Hall writes amusing mysteries. . . . [His] affectionate humor is embedded with barbs.
Marilyn Stasio
The Times (London)
“Splendid . . . Entertaining . . .Vish Puri is large, constantly hungry, a perpetual victim of Delhi's traffic congestion, and a wonderfully engaging P.I. . . . .A joy to read.”
The Huffington Post
“It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood turns this into a movie or a TV show. . . .The three books develop nicely with each central mystery a little more complicated and dangerous than the one before. . . .It’s quite possible that what has begun as fun series will become a genuinely great one.”
People
“A wry whodunit, with recipes”
Booklist (starred review)
“A thoroughly engaging series… Hall has a gift for conveying the rich stew of competing cultures in contemporary India with a wonderful economy of image… Hall presents a complex hero in a complex country with a great deal of history, humor, and panache.”
Booklist (starred review)
“A thoroughly engaging series… Hall has a gift for conveying the rich stew of competing cultures in contemporary India with a wonderful economy of image… Hall presents a complex hero in a complex country with a great deal of history, humor, and panache.”
From the Publisher
“These books are little gems. They are beautifully written, amusing, and intensely readable.” —Alexander McCall Smith

“A thoroughly engaging series . . . Hall has a gift for conveying the rich stew of competing cultures in contemporary India with a wonderful economy of image. . . . Hall presents a complex hero in a complex country with a great deal of history, humor, and panache.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Outstanding . . . Well-drawn colorful characters bolster a whodunit sure to appeal to those who enjoy a dash of humor with their crime.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“India, captured in all its pungent, vivid glory, fascinates almost as much as the crime itself.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Hall writes amusing mysteries . . . [his] affectionate humor is embedded with barbs.” —Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

“Splendid . . . Entertaining . . . Vish Puri is large, constantly hungry, a perpetual victim of Delhi’s traffic congestion, and a wonderfully engaging P.I. . . . A joy to read.” —The Times (London)

“Hall takes the reader into a very Indian, very Delhi web of spirituality, sin, slums, and power broking, but all treated with a veneer of wit and intelligent absurdity.” —India Today

“Modern India, in all its colorful squalor, provides a vivid backdrop for this well-crafted whodunit.” —Jean Westmoore, Buffalo News

The New York Times Book Review
Hall writes amusing mysteries. . . . [His] affectionate humor is embedded with barbs.
Marilyn Stasio
The Huffington Post
“It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood turns this into a movie or a TV show... The three books develop nicely with each central mystery a little more complicated and dangerous than the one before… It’s quite possible that what has begun as fun series will become a genuinely great one.”
Library Journal
PI Vish Puri suspects cricket star Kamran Khan's father, Faheem, a Pakistani mogul, of tainting India's professional cricket league. While he is attending a star-studded banquet, Faheem is poisoned and dies. Shortly afterward, Vish's ex-Scotland Yard contact, James Scott, hires him to find out who killed Faheem. Scott is part of a new Clean Up Cricket campaign to combat the illegal betting industry and shake out the sport's crooks. Vish delves into the cricket world, which entails a much-dreaded trip across the border to Pakistan. Concurrently, his mother suspects another motive for Faheem's death, and she's begun her own investigation. Her interest is personal, harkening back to the tortured times of the late 1940s when British India was partitioned into two countries. The dueling detectives thus independently pursue two valid threads as they seek an increasingly desperate murderer. VERDICT While sometimes straying toward borderline cuteness, Vish still endears himself to the most hardened reader in his third outing (after The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing). His mother's search for answers to her own lost history adds depth. The series is a natural for Michael Stanley's "Detective Kubu" fans. [See Prepub Alert, 3/21/12.]
Kirkus Reviews
India's Most Private Investigator faces threats from near and far as he grapples with the death of a Pakistani cricket-ace's father. The butter chicken served at the VVIP table of the Delhi Durbar Hotel promises to be most delicious. It also proves fatal. One bite and Faheem Khan keels over dead. Fortunately, one of the VVIPs is Vish Puri (The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, 2010, etc.), invited with his wife and Mummy-ji by his nephew Rohan of the Delhi Cowboys to a post-match feast. His presence on the scene prompts Sir James Scott, working for the Indian Cricket Board, to hire him to investigate. Unfortunately, Faheem's son Kamran, bowler for the Kolkata Colts, has gone back to Rawalpindi to mourn. So Puri, who had never met a Pakistani in person before the Khans, must travel across a most-feared border in pursuit of justice. His dread of being in Pakistan is soon replaced by the terror of learning that Mummy, who pretends to be on a mission to bury the ashes of Ritu Auntie's late husband in the Ganges at the holy city of Haridwar, is actually investigating Khan's death too. While Vish focuses on a point-shaving scheme as an obvious motive, Mummy zeroes in on her fellow VVIPs. But what could the elderly mother of Satish Bhatia, the Call Center King, or Mrs. Megha Dogra, wife of Ram Dogra, the Prince of Polyester, know about the murder of an elderly Pakistani? Vish Puri's third outing continues the tradition of Hall's lively franchise.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451613179
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 6/4/2013
  • Series: Vish Puri Series , #3
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 243,651
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Tarquin Hall is a British author and journalist who has lived and worked throughout South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. He is the author of The Case of the Missing Servant, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, and The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, along with dozens of articles and three works of nonfiction, including the highly acclaimed Salaam Brick Lane, an account of a year spent living above a Bangladeshi sweatshop in London’s notorious East End. He lives in Delhi with his wife, Indian-born journalist Anu Anand, and their son.

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Read an Excerpt

One

Stripped down to his undergarments and tweed Sandown cap, Vish Puri stepped onto his wife’s old set of bathroom weighing scales. He watched with apprehension as the needle jerked violently to the right and settled on 200 pounds.

“By God,” the detective muttered to himself. “Two extra pounds are there. She is going to kill me—certainly if not totally.”

He tried lifting one foot off the pressure pad and shifted his weight to see if it made a difference. It didn’t.

“Well, nothing for it,” he said with a sigh, stepping back onto the floor.

Puri checked that the bedroom door was locked, picked up the scales and turned them over. He removed the bottom panel, exposing the crude mechanism inside. Then he squeezed the pressure pad between his knees. When the needle reached 196, he jammed a wooden peg into one of the cogs.

The scales could now register only one weight: 196 pounds.

“Hearties congratulations, Mr. Puri, saar!” he told himself with a smile after double-checking his handiwork. “Diet is coming along most splendidly.”

Still, the detective knew that he’d bought himself a week or two at the most. Eventually all the lapses of the past fortnight would catch up with him—for “lapses” read numerous chicken frankies, five or six kathi rolls (he had been on a stakeout; what else was he supposed to eat?), and a significant portion of the Gymkhana Club Sunday brunch buffet (the Pinky Pinky pudding had been irresistible).

He was going to have to lose at least a token amount of weight—enough to keep Rumpi and that bloody Dr. Mohan off his back.

Fortunately, he believed he had found the answer to his prayers: diet pills. According to a flyer that had been stuffed under the windshield wiper of his car, these promised “miraculous and exceptional results!”

Puri fished out the flyer from his trouser pocket and read it again just to check that his eyes hadn’t deceived him. “Tired of being a big motu, but want to enjoy your gulab jamuns?” he read. “ZeroCal is the answer! It contains a special fiber that absorbs fat molecules and converts them into a form the human system doesn’t absorb. So now you can carry on getting your just desserts!”

Puri chuckled to himself. “Just desserts,” he said. “Very good.”

He stuffed the flyer back into his trouser pocket as footsteps sounded on the top of the stairs. They were accompanied by his wife’s voice: “Chubby? Are you ready? We had better get a move on, no? There are bound to be traffic snarls.”

The detective went to the door and opened it.

“What have you been doing in here?” asked Rumpi as she entered the room. “Don’t tell me you were listening in on the servants again with one of your bugs. You know I don’t like it when you do that, Chubby.”

“Just I was weighing myself, actually.”

“And?”

Puri stepped gingerly back onto the scales, one foot at a time. They gave a creak, but the peg held.

“Hmm. One hundred and ninety-six pounds,” she read. “So you’ve lost . . . two pounds. It’s something, at least. But so far I don’t see any improvement.”

She looked her husband up and down, scrutinizing his stomach, which bulged out beneath his cotton undershirt like a lumpy pillow.

“You still look . . . Well, if anything I would say you’ve got a little larger, Chubby.”

“Must be your eyesights, my dear.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight, I can assure you,” said Rumpi, her voice thick with suspicion. “I just hope you’re keeping off those chicken frankies,” she continued with a sigh. “It’s for your own good, Chubby. Remember what happened to Rajiv Uncle.”

Ah, poor old Rajiv Uncle. Last month he’d suffered a massive heart attack while at the wheel of his Mahindra Scorpio and taken out four feet of the central barricade of the Noida Expressway. The fact that he’d been fifty-four, only a couple of years older than Puri, had not been lost on Rumpi or his three daughters. Mummy had seen fit to comment on it as well—along with his three sisters-in-law, numerous aunties, and even a cheeky nephew or two. Indeed, given the great Indian family system in which everyone knows everyone else’s business and everyone exercises the right to involve themselves and comment upon everyone else’s affairs, the detective had recently found himself on the receiving end of a good deal of health-related advice. Most irritating of all had been the impromptu lecture from his seventeen-year-old niece, whose opinions on most things in life were informed by India’s edition of Cosmo magazine.

Age still trumped youth even in today’s changing middle-class society, so he had been able to tell her to put a sock in it. But over his wife, he enjoyed no such advantage.

“Yes, my dear,” he replied with a prodigious yawn. “Now I had better get changed. You’re right. It is getting late. And I would be making one stop along the way.”

“Please don’t tell me you’re working, Chubby—not today of all days.”

“Ten minutes is required, only.”

Puri escaped into the bathroom to attend to his handlebar moustache, which was looking limp after the rigorous shampoo and conditioning he’d given it earlier. First, he groomed it with a special comb with fine metal teeth. Then he applied some Wacky Tacky wax, which he heated with a hair dryer so it became soft and pliable. And finally, he shaped it into a symmetrical handlebar, curling the ends.

“Pukka!”

He returned to the bedroom to find his wife sitting at her dresser, putting on her earrings. Her long, straight hair hung down her back over the blouse of her lustrous black and gold Banarasi sari.

Puri went and stood behind her, placed his hands on her elegant shoulders and smiled.

“Beautiful as the first day we met. More beautiful, in fact,” he said.

Rumpi smiled back at him in the mirror. “Still quite the charmer, aren’t you?” she said.

“Once a charmer, always charming,” cooed the detective, and bent down and kissed the top of her head.

• • •

A thick January fog had engulfed Delhi and its unstoppable suburbs overnight. And when the Puris set off for South Delhi at midday—some eight hours before the murder—mist still veiled the imposing glass and steel buildings along the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway. Bereft of the sunshine usually gleaming off their futuristic façades, the beacons of the new India suddenly looked pale and subdued.

It was still bitingly cold as well. Not freezing, it had to be said, but the short winter always found the vast majority of the capital’s inhabitants woefully ill prepared. With no means to heat classrooms, the city’s schools had been closed for the past week. “Load shedding” led to frequent blackouts. And the morning newspapers brought daily reports of a dozen or so deaths amongst the countless thousands living in Delhi’s makeshift jhuggis.

The languid figures Puri spotted through the fogged-up windows of his Ambassador, layered in chunky cotton sweaters, reminded him of Victorian polar explorers in the days before brightly colored, mass-produced puffer jackets and fleeces. He spotted security guards standing outside the gates of a call center huddled around an electric cooking ring, chins tucked on chests like disobedient boys sent to the naughty corner. Farther on, a gang of laborers breaking rocks in a ditch wore scarves wrapped over the tops of their heads and under their chins, lending them a strangely effeminate look despite the arduous nature of their task.

Puri and Rumpi had spent yesterday afternoon volunteering at a local charity, distributing blankets to the city’s poor. Many of those they’d encountered had been visibly malnourished, making them especially vulnerable to the cold. The experience had served as a sharp reminder that for all the growth in the economy, for all the fanfare about dazzling GDP figures and IT this and that, there was still so much need and want. Upon returning home last night, Puri had felt moved to write a new letter to the most honorable editor of The Times of India, pointing out that it was the duty of the “proper authorities” to make improvements and the responsibility of “ordinary citizens” to hold them accountable.

“With so much of change coming to modern society, it is of the upmost importance and necessity, also, that we continue to uphold the role of dharma,” he’d written. “Dharma has been the underlying concept of our civilization over so many of millennia. Let us not forget the meaning of the word itself. This most cherished and honored of words comes to us from the root ‘dhr,’ meaning ‘to hold, to bear, to carry.’ For both Chanakya, founder of the Maurya Empire, and our great emperor Ashoka, it meant ‘law, virtue, ethics and truth.’ Let us abide by these most honorable of principles, and with them firmly set in our minds, let us remember our collected responsibility to others and one another also.”

His message was evidently lost on the city’s drivers. Despite the poor visibility, cars and trucks sped up behind the Ambassador flashing their headlights and honking their horns, and wove through slower-moving traffic like getaway vehicles fleeing bank robberies. Cocky hatchbacks, their side mirrors folded inward, squeezed between other vehicles, making three lanes out of two. The occasional rusting three-wheeler suddenly came into view, puttering along in the fast lane.

And sports cars rocketed past, vanishing instantaneously into the fog. Puri kept bracing himself, anticipating a screech of brakes and the boom of a high-speed impact, but they never came. Could this lack of carnage be attributed to divine providence? he wondered. Or had Indian drivers developed the heightened reflexes of demolition derby drivers given that they faced similar conditions? Certainly the police played no part in keeping the traffic moving safely. Puri didn’t spot a single patrol car along the entire route. There weren’t any hazard signs in place, either. And so it was with a sigh of relief that he greeted the exit sign for South Delhi and the Ambassador was delivered safely down the off-ramp. A broad carriageway carried the car past the gated communities of the super-elite, where the tops of luxury villas peeked over high walls ringed by security cameras. They passed a series of identical concrete “overbridges,” which held aloft the city’s new flyovers, and soon reached the AIIMS spaghetti junction. The detective found it impossible to pass the installation-art steel “sprouts” growing from the embankment without making some disparaging comment, and today was no exception. “If that is art, then my name is Charlie with a capital C!” he said, becoming all the more vocal when Rumpi said that she quite liked them.

She and Puri were still arguing, albeit good-naturedly, when the car turned into Laxmi Bai Nagar.

“Number four oblique B, H Block, Lane C, off Avenue B.” He read the address from a text message he’d been sent on his phone. “Behind all-day milk stall.”

Handbrake, his driver, acknowledged these instructions with a “Yes, Boss” and promptly pulled over to ask for directions.

“Aaall daay milk staall kahan hai?” he asked an auto rickshaw driver.

“What is this case you’re working on, Chubby?” asked Rumpi as they waited.

She rarely inquired about Puri’s work (and he in turn usually only told her about an investigation once it was over). However, on this occasion, she felt she had the right to know. It was a big day for her family, after all.

“You remember Satya Pal Bhalla?” he replied.

“That tabla player?”

“No, other one—moustache fellow.”

“Oh God, don’t tell me.” She moaned.

Puri gave a knowing nod. “Absolutely, my dear. A total weirdo, we can say. But he called this morning, only, in quite a panic. Seems he got looted.”

This was an oversimplification. But the detective had no intention of providing Rumpi with the details. The whole thing would sound ridiculous and she would insist on driving directly to their destination, the Kotla cricket stadium, where her nephew, Rohan, was due to play in one of the opening matches of the new, multi-billion-dollar cricket tournament, the ICT.

To the detective, however, the case was as tantalizing as a jalebi to a fly. He’d had to handle a lot of run-of-the-mill work in the past month or so—a slew of bog-standard matrimonial investigations, a mundane credit card fraud, several death verifications for insurance companies.

Worst of all, he’d found himself helping that bloody Queenie Mehta of Golf Links prove that her upstairs tenant was eating nonvegetarian food when the lease strictly forbade the consumption of meat on the premises. It didn’t help matters that from the start Puri had sympathized with the “offender,” nor that the investigation itself had been especially unchallenging. True, the tenant in question had been careful not to place any incriminating evidence in his garbage, disposing of the bones from his illicit meals outside his home. But after one of Most Private Investigators’ operatives had followed him to the butcher’s and covertly videoed him buying a kilo of mutton, the case had been brought to a speedy conclusion.

Was it any wonder that the attempt to cut off Satya Pal Bhalla’s moustache, the longest in the world, had every cell in his detective brain tingling with anticipation?

Who would have done such a thing? A rival for his title? Someone with a grudge? Anything was possible in Delhi these days, Puri reminded himself. With the city’s population growing exponentially, corruption endemic, and the elite amassing fabulous wealth as well as adopting Western tastes and lifestyles, Indian crime was taking on ever-new facets.

Just look at the story on the front page of today’s paper. Six months ago, if the report was to be believed, an Indian hacker had accessed America’s Pentagon computer system and downloaded dozens of top-secret files related to security in South Asia.

A commentator in the same paper likened these times to the myth of Neelkanth, when the demons churned the ocean in search of Amrita, the nectar of immortality. What they created instead was poison, which had to be consumed by the god Shiva.

From this legend came the Hindi saying “Amrut pane se pehle Vish pinna padta hai.” Roughly translated it means “You can’t have the sweet without the sour.”

• • •

Three wrong turns, a couple of U-turns and two more stops-to-ask-directions later, Handbrake pulled up outside the address. Puri’s prospective client, Bhalla, lived in a three-story government-housing complex for babus and their families. There were dozens of such blocks in South Delhi, most of them built in the 1950s and ’60s. Architecturally uninspiring, painted in the same government-issue off-pink, and only distinguishable from one another by the letters and numbers stenciled on their façades, they had become some of the most desirable addresses in the capital. H Block was set amongst neem trees and small communal gardens known as “parks,” where children played in the sunshine that was now breaking through the fog.

Puri made his way up the bare concrete staircase to the third floor. The sound of hissing pressure cookers came from inside one of the other apartments. A smell of roasting cumin and fried mustard oil filled the air.

Outside the door to 4/B, he found several pairs of shoes lying in a jumble. He unlaced his and placed them to one side. The bell brought an elderly servant woman bearing a pair of rubber chappals.

The detective was standing on the landing trying to get his stockinged toes between the toe rings when Raju Pillai stepped out of the apartment.

“Thank the God you’ve come, Mr. Puri,” he said. “I’m at my wit’s end!”

As was fitting for the director general and honorary secretary of the Moustache Organization of Punjab (MOP), Pillai sported a thick black walrus with bushy muttonchops. He pulled the door shut behind him.

“Satya-ji’s in such a state, I tell you,” he said, keeping his voice down and giving a quick glance backward as if someone might overhear. “Thought I’d come over to see what I could do for him.”

“Very good of you,” intoned Puri.

“I thought it better we have a private conference before you get the facts from the horse’s mouth.”

“Must have been quite a shock, losing half his moustache and all,” said the detective, who was still struggling with the chappals.

“Can you imagine, Mr. Puri? Thirty years plus he’s been nurturing and grooming it. Cared for every last whisker. That level of dedication and commitment is seen only rarely these days. And then phoof! Half of it vanished into thin air! From right under his nose, no less. I tell you, Mr. Puri, India has lost one of its greatest treasures. The Taj Mahal of moustaches! Something of which all Indians could feel proud.”

“On phone, Satya-ji said it was removed in the wee hours,” said Puri. “He was sleeping or what?”

“Seems so, Mr. Puri. Must have been drugged somehow.”

“He said also one security guard got hold of the thief but he escaped.”

“Exactly. The guard spotted a gentleman climbing up the side of the balcony in dead of night. Thus he alerted the police, but they failed to arrive. So he took it upon himself to investigate. Quite a fearless fellow, it seems. He caught the intruder in the act and gave chase. Seems a struggle took place. Thus the removed portion of the moustache was recovered.”

Puri finally managed to get the chappals on, more or less, his heels protruding over the backs.

“He is present—this security guard?” he asked.

“The police inspector, one Surinder Thakur, got hold of him for questioning.”

“He was able to make positive ID—the security guard, that is?”

“Not that I’m aware.”

The detective took out his notebook and wrote down Thakur’s name before asking, “The removed section of the moustache is where, exactly?”

“Thakur has taken it for evidence. Against all our protestations, I should say.”

“He offered any theory to what all happened?”

“Frankly speaking, Mr. Puri, I don’t believe he’s taking the case seriously. Seemed to find the whole thing amusing for some reason!”

“Our Dilli police are not performing their duties in a professional manner,” said the detective with a solemn shake of the head. “You’ve any theory yourself as to the identity of the guilty person? Could be a rival moustache grower, no?”

“Not a member of MOP, that is for sure!” said Pillai, bristling. “Our members are all respectable gentlemen. From well-to-do families, I should add. You yourself are a member, Mr. Puri.”

“Yes, but surely . . .” ventured the detective.

“Each and every member is aware of the supreme effort and sacrifice required to grow an award-winning moustache,” continued Pillai. “Never have I seen one hint of jealousy aimed at Satya-ji. Everyone is proud of his accomplishment. You recall the reception after he returned from U.S. last year? One and all gave him a hero’s welcome.”

Puri nodded knowingly, loath to admit that he hadn’t attended the special dinner that had been held to honor Satya Pal Bhalla. The truth was he attended few MOP functions if he could help it. He’d become a member to do his bit for promoting the growth of moustaches amongst Indian youths (it was, after all, sad and shocking to see how many young Punjabi men were not “sporting” these days) and to indulge in a bit of socializing and networking with like-minded individuals. But over the years the organization had been hijacked by a competitive group of individuals. All they talked about was, well, moustaches. And Rumpi, for one, refused to attend any more of their functions.

“I can’t listen to the debate about wax versus gel ever again,” Rumpi had protested after the 2007 annual dinner, her last.

Satya Pal Bhalla was the worst offender. A Grade II bureaucrat employed in the Central Secretariat Stenographers’ Service, he was one of a breed of Indians who were desperate to stand out from the crowd 1.2 billion strong and therefore dedicated their lives to extreme pursuits. The ultimate prize for such types was an entry in the bestselling Limca Book of Records.

Growing his thirteen-foot-long leviathan had brought Bhalla fame and kudos. Indeed, no one stepping into his living room could fail to be impressed by the collection of photographs on the walls, of Ballah posing with the great and the good.

While Pillai went to fetch the victim from his bedroom, Puri circled the room admiring the photos. Mother Teresa; ace batsman Sachin Tendulkar; the father of India’s nuclear bomb, Dr. Abdul Kalam; Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan . . . Bhalla had met them all.

His moustache had also brought him promotional work. By the window hung some framed print advertisements in which he had appeared. One for Shift clothes detergent depicted him standing with his moustache stretched out in both directions. Brightly colored shirts and underwear hung from it. “A deep clean you’ll want to show off,” read the slogan.

But now it seemed Bhalla’s career was over and the man himself looked bereft. His moustache’s left tendril had been completely shorn off, leaving the right section still curled around his cheek like a Danish pastry.

“Heartfelt condolences, sir,” said Puri as he entered the room. “What you must be feeling I cannot imagine.”

“Is no one safe in their own house?” asked Bhalla, as if the detective was somehow responsible for the break-in. “Look at me! Look at what is left! I’m a freak!” He tugged at the bare section of his upper lip, his eyes burning with anger. “I want him caught, Puri! Do you hear? I want him to pay! We all know who did this and I want you to get him! Whatever it takes!”

The detective raised a calming hand. “Who is it you believe was the culprit exactly, sir?” he asked.

“Ragi, of course!” Bhalla’s anger flared. “He’s been after my number one status for years! Finally he’s found a way to get me out of the way!”

It was true that Gopal Ragi was now, by default, the Moustache Raja of India. It was also true that he and Bhalla hated each other.

“Recently that bastard accused me of wearing hair extensions!” he continued. “I told him, ‘Go to hell!’ And he threatened me! You know what he said? That if he was me, he would watch his back! And his moustache, also! His exact words!”

“There were witnesses, sir—to his threat?”

“So many!”

“You can provide names, is it?”

“Everyone knows he threatened me, Puri! Ask anyone.”

Pillai now spoke up, reiterating in an equitable manner that he could not bring himself to believe that a fellow MOP member could be responsible for such a horrific act. But he was shouted down.

“What does he know?” bawled Bhalla with a smirk. “Nothing! I’m telling you. It was that bastard for sure.”

“The truth will come out in the wash,” said Puri. “But first I must know what all happened here.”

“All I can tell you is this,” said Bhalla in an irritated monotone. “After eating my khana last night, I felt ill and went to bed early. This morning I woke later than usual. Must have been nine. The maid was waiting by my bed. She was the one who broke the news and informed me the police were waiting. I went directly into the bathroom and looked in the mirror and . . . and, well, you have seen this . . . this massacre. What that bloody bastard has done to me!”

“You said you felt ill, is it? What is it you ate exactly?”

“Channa batura.”

“You like it mirchi, is it, sir?”

“Hotter the better.”

“Who else shares the house?”

“Myself and the maid.”

“No family?”

Bhalla raised his hands and dropped them onto the arms of his chair, clearly frustrated at the line of questioning. “What has that got to do with anything?” he demanded.

Puri’s placid, inquiring gaze elicited an answer. “My wife’s no more. A boy comes during the day to clean and do shopping and so forth. He’s a new one. Use-less.”

“He’s present, also?”

“Didn’t come today. Inspector Thakur’s visiting his home. It’s far—two hours at least.”

“He comes every day back and forth, is it?”

“Look, I don’t give two damns about his travel arrangements. What I care about is Ragi’s whereabouts last night.”

“I understand your frustration, sir,” responded Puri. “Nonetheless facts are required. So tell me: this channa batura . . . the maid prepared it, is it?”

“Yes” was the laconic reply.

“Any is left over?”

“It got finished off.”

“What time you ate exactly?”

“Eight thirty.”

“You always eat at this hour, sir?”

“Always.”

“She ate also—the maid, that is?”

“Must be.”

Next, the detective examined what was left of the moustache, scrutinizing the shorn section of the upper lip. The hairs were cropped close to the skin. It was a meticulous job.

“Expertly done, one can say. Any implements were left behind—scissors and so forth?”

“Nothing was found.”

A honk of the Ambassador’s horn reminded him that Rumpi was waiting. He checked his watch. Fifteen minutes had passed. He would have to make his search of the crime scene a quick one and return later if necessary.

He made his way to the bedroom, the chappals cutting into the middle portion of the bottom of his feet so that he was forced to tiptoe. On the bedsheet, the detective found a few shavings, indicating that the work had indeed been carried out while Bhalla lay asleep. There was also some shaving-foam residue on the side table, as well as a water mark in the shape of a razor.

But why not cut off both parts with scissors and be done? Puri wondered. Surely the spiteful thing to do would have been to cut both ends off and leave them lying on the floor—a matter of a couple of minutes’ work.

“Why so thorough a job?” he said out loud.

Pillai, who was lingering in the doorway asked “What was that you said?”

But the detective ignored the question. “Tell me one thing,” he said. “The security guard saw this moustache thief climb inside over the balcony, is it?”

“Came banging on the door, from what I understand,” answered Pillai.

“Thus our visitor got panicked and ran away. He went over the balcony again?”

“I believe so. That was when the security guard fellow gave chase.”

Puri headed into the kitchen. The maid, an elderly servant woman, was standing at the counter making paneer. She looked scared, but the detective read nothing into this. Servants were often shoddily treated and always fell under suspicion as soon as anything went wrong in a household. Was it any wonder they feared authority?

He began by asking her if it was true she’d eaten any of the same food.

“Yes, sahib,” she answered timidly in Hindi.

“You felt drowsy?”

“Yes, sahib.”

“How much did you eat?”

“A small portion.”

“Where did you sleep last night?”

“The same place I always do. Here on the kitchen floor.”

“On a bedroll?”

“A sheet of newspaper.”

Puri managed to disguise his disgust at the manner in which this woman was forced to live.

“Did anyone else enter the kitchen in the past twenty-four hours?” he asked.

“One man came yesterday. To check the gas canister registration.” She added hurriedly, “He showed me his identification. He was from the MCD.”

“He was alone in the kitchen?”

“The phone rang after he came. I went to answer it. So I—”

“Who was calling?” interrupted Puri.

“A sales wallah. From the phone company.”

“The channa was sitting on the stove?”

“Yes, sahib.”

“Would you recognize this gas canister wallah?”

She looked down at the floor. “My eyesight is not good, sahib.”

Puri asked her whether she’d been woken in the middle of the night by the security guard banging on the door, and she confirmed that this was indeed what had happened. He thanked her and made his way to the apartment’s back door. It led onto a small balcony. There were scuff marks on the top of the wall and down the side of the building.

He returned to the living room. The Ambassador’s horn sounded again.

“Vish Puri will take the case,” announced the detective with a bow that was intended to convey humility. “Seems we are dealing with a cunning individual. He entered the premises yesterday afternoon only. Then and there, he added some knockout drug to your channa. So much chili was present that you did not notice the taste.”

His fee, Puri went on to explain, would be four thousand rupees per day, plus expenses.

“So much?” exclaimed Bhalla, wide-eyed.

“One week I’ll require in advance. Cash, banker’s draft or electronic transfer only.”

“Show me results first, Puri, then only I’ll make payment,” insisted Bhalla.

The detective gave a truculent shake of his head. “Rest assured, sir, Vish Puri never fails. In my long and distinguished career, no mystery till date has gone unresolved or unsolved.”

“Two thousand per day, three days maximum,” suggested Bhalla.

“Price is final, no negotiation.”

Puri tiptoed toward the door. As he reached for the handle, Bhalla relented. “Just get me Gopal Ragi!” he said.

“First-class,” replied the detective. “I would be sending my man later to pick up payment.”

He returned to the Ambassador to find Rumpi fuming.

“You’ve been twenty minutes, Chubby!”

“Hearties apologies, my dear,” answered Puri. “The case is more complicated than I imagined. A most hairy set of circumstances, we can say.”

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2014

    Highly recommend

    Recently discovered the Vish Puri series by Tarquin Hall..love, love, loved each of the 4 books, to date. Cannot wait for more! Please hurry Mr. Hall, i need my next Vish Puri fix! Even if u haven't visited India, and especially if u have, you will thoroughly enjoy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2014

    Good read

    Once again Tarquin Hall comes through. These books are a good way to immerse yourself in modern day Indian culture. The food descriptions are tempting. I just wish a glossary was included. Vish Puri is a greater than life character, complete with his crew of creatively named helpers. Can't wait for the next book.

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  • Posted October 21, 2013

    Love this series

    I love the Vish Puri series, and the third installment doesn't disappoint. I really appreciate the glossary at the end of the book, as it makes the local lingo used so much more understandable and fun.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2013

    Not a great book

    Much like Alexander McCall Smith, these books reflect the land they are written about through the eyes of the protaganist. Much like #1 Ladies Decective Agency, the characters speak in a kind of "pigin english" and the mash up is hard to follow. And, Hall has no qualms in getting very political and almost foppish with his characters. It's not something I enjoy, but I am not his target audience.

    I WANTED to like this book, but even the recipes leave a lot to be desired.

    [I recieved this book as a Goodreads/FirstReads winner. All opinions are 100% mine]

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2012

    Another fun mystery in India.

    Good book. I like the little twists and turns in this story. I especiallly enjoyed Chubby's mother's involvement.

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