The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri Series #1)

The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri Series #1)

by Tarquin Hall
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The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri Series #1) by Tarquin Hall

The first in a detective series that “immediately joins the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency as representing the best in international cozies” (Booklist, starred review).

Meet Vish Puri, India’s most private investigator. Portly, persistent, and unmistakably Punjabi, he cuts a determined swath through modern India’s swindlers, cheats, and murderers.

In hot and dusty Delhi, where call centers and malls are changing the ancient fabric of Indian life, Puri’s main work comes from screening prospective marriage partners, a job once the preserve of aunties and family priests. But when an honest public litigator is accused of murdering his maidservant, it takes all of Puri’s resources to investigate. With his team of undercover operatives—Tubelight, Flush, and Facecream—Puri combines modern techniques with principles of detection established in India more than two thousand years ago, and reveals modern India in all its seething complexity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439172377
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 04/20/2010
Series: Vish Puri Series , #1
Pages: 310
Sales rank: 515,033
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

The Case of the Missing Servant

  • Vish Puri, founder and managing director of Most Private Investigators Ltd., sat alone in a room in a guesthouse in Defence Colony, south Delhi, devouring a dozen green chili pakoras* from a greasy takeout box.

    Puri was supposed to be keeping off the fried foods and Indian desserts he so loved. Dr. Mohan had “intimated” to him at his last checkup that he could no longer afford to indulge himself with the usual Punjabi staples.

    “Blood pressure is up, so chance of heart attack and diabetes is there. Don’t do obesity,” he’d advised.

    Puri considered the doctor’s stern warning as he sank his teeth into another hot, crispy pakora and his taste buds thrilled to the tang of salty batter, fiery chili and the tangy red chutney in which he had drowned the illicit snack. He derived a perverse sense of satisfaction from defying Dr. Mohan’s orders.

    Still, the fifty-one-year-old detective shuddered to think what his wife would say if she found out he was eating between meals—especially “outside” food that had not been prepared by her own hands (or at least by one of the servants).

    Keeping this in mind, he was careful not to get any incriminating grease spots on his clothes. And once he had finished his snack and disposed of the takeout box, he washed the chutney off his hands and checked beneath his manicured nails and between his teeth for any telltale residue. Finally he popped some sonf into his mouth to freshen his breath.

    All the while, Puri kept an eye on the house across the way and the street below.

    By Delhi standards, it was a quiet and exceptionally clean residential street. Defence Colony’s elitist, upper middle-class residents—army officers, doctors, engineers, babus and the occasional press-wallah—had ensured that their gated community remained free of industry, commerce and the usual human detritus. Residents could take a walk through the well-swept streets or idle in the communal gardens without fear of being hassled by disfigured beggars...or having to negotiate their way around arc welders soldering lengths of metal on the sidewalks...or halal butchers slaughtering chickens.

    Most of the families in Defence Colony were Punjabi and had arrived in New Delhi as refugees following the catastrophic partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. As their affluence and numbers had grown over the decades, they had built cubist cement villas surrounded by high perimeter walls and imposing wrought-iron gates.

    Each of these minifiefdoms employed an entire company of servants. The residents of number 76, D Block, the house that Puri was watching, retained the services of no fewer than seven full-time people—two drivers, a cook, a cleaner-cum-laundry-maid, a butler and two security guards. Three of these employees were “live-in” and shared the barsaati on the roof. The overnight security guard slept in the sentry box positioned outside the front gate, though strictly speaking, he really wasn’t meant to.

    The family also relied on a part-time dishwasher, a sweeper, a gardener and the local press-wallah who had a stand under the neem tree down the street where he applied a heavy iron filled with hot charcoal to a dizzying assortment of garments, including silk saris, cotton salwars and denim jeans.

    From the vantage point in the room Puri had rented, he could see the dark-skinned cleaner-cum-laundry-maid on the roof of number 76, hanging underwear on the clothesline. The mali was on the first-floor balcony watering the potted plants. The sweeper was using up gallons of precious water hosing down the marble forecourt. And, out in the street, the cook was inspecting the green chilis being sold by a local produce vendor who pushed a wooden cart through the neighborhood, periodically calling out, “Subzi-wallah!”

    Puri had positioned two of his best undercover operatives, Tubelight and Flush, down in the street.

    These were not their real names, of course. Being Punjabi, the detective had nicknames for most of his employees (and this being India, his company was as labor intensive as they came), relatives and close friends. For example, he called his wife Rumpi; his new driver, Handbrake; and the office boy, who was extraordinarily lazy, Door Stop.

    Tubelight was so named because he was a heavy sleeper and took a while to flicker into life in the morning. The forty-three-year-old hailed from a clan of hereditary thieves, and therefore had been highly adept at cracking locks, safes and ignitions since childhood.

    As for Flush, he had a flush toilet in his home, a first for anyone in his remote village in the state of Haryana. An electronics and computer whiz, during his career with Indian intelligence he had once managed to place a microscopic bug inside the Pakistani ambassador’s dentures.

    The other member of the team, Facecream, was waiting a few miles away and would play a crucial part in the operation later that evening. A beautiful and feisty Nepali woman who had run away from home as a teenager to join the Maoists but became disillusioned with the cause and escaped to India, she often worked undercover—one day posing as a street sweeper; the next as irresistible bait in a honeytrap.

    Puri himself was known by various names.

    His father had always addressed him by his full name, Vishwas, which the detective had later shortened to Vish because it rhymes with “wish” (and “Vish Puri” could be taken to mean “granter of wishes”). But the rest of his family and friends knew him as Chubby, an affectionate rather than derisive sobriquet—although, as Dr. Mohan had pointed out so indelicately, he did need to lose about thirty pounds.

    Puri insisted on being called Boss by his employees, which helped remind them who was in charge. In India, it was important to keep a strong chain of command; people were used to hierarchy and they responded to authority. As he was fond of saying, “You can’t have every Johnny thinking he’s a Nelson, no?”

    The detective reached for his walkie-talkie and spoke into it.

    “What’s that Charlie up to? Over,” he said.

    “Still doing timepass, Boss,” replied Flush. There was a pause before he remembered to add the requisite “Over.”

    Flush, who was thirty-two, skinny and wore thick, milk-bottle-bottom glasses, was sitting in the back of Puri’s Hindustan Ambassador monitoring the bugs the team had planted inside the target’s home earlier, as well as all incoming and outgoing phone calls. Meanwhile, Tubelight, who was middle aged with henna-dyed hair and blind in one eye, was disguised as an autorickshaw-wallah in oily clothes and rubber chappals. Crouched on his haunches on the side of the street among a group of bidi-smoking local drivers, he was gambling at cards.

    Puri, a self-confessed master of disguise, had not changed into anything unusual for today’s operation, though seeing him for the first time, you might have been forgiven for thinking this was not the case. His military moustache, first grown when he was a recruit in the army, was waxed and curled at the ends. He was wearing one of his trademark tweed Sandown caps, imported from Bates of Jermyn Street in Piccadilly, and a pair of prescription aviator sunglasses.

    Now that it was November and the intense heat of summer had subsided, he had also opted for his new grey safari suit. It had been made for him, as all his shirts and suits were, by Mr. M. A. Pathan of Connaught Place, whose grandfather had often dressed Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan.

    “A pukka Savile Row finish if ever I saw one,” said the detective to himself, admiring the cut in a mirror in the empty room. “Really tip-top.”

    The suit was indeed perfectly tailored for his short, tubby frame. The silver buttons with the stag emblems were especially fetching.

    Puri sat down in his canvas chair and waited. It was only a matter of time before Ramesh Goel made his move. Everything the detective had learned about the young man suggested that he would not be able to resist temptation.

    The two had come face-to-face on Day One of the operation, when Puri had entered number 76, the Goel family residence, disguised as a telephone repairman. That encounter, however brief, had told the detective all he needed to know. Ramesh Goel, who had spiky hair and walked with a swagger, lacked moral fiber. It was the same with so many young middle-class people these days. Infidelity was rife, divorce rates were on the up, elderly parents were being abused and abandoned in old people’s homes, sons no longer understood their responsibilities to their parents or society as a whole.

    “Many thousands of males and females are working in call centers and IT sector side by side and they are becoming attached and going in for one-night stands,” Puri had written in his latest letter to the Times of India, which the honorable editor had seen fit to publish. “In this environment, in which males and females are thrust together without proper family supervision or moral code, peer group pressure is at the highest level. Even young females are going in for premarital affairs, extramarital affairs—even extra extramarital affairs. So much infidelity is there that many marriages are getting over.”

    American influence was to blame with its emphasis on materialism, individuality and lack of family values.

    “A fellow is no longer happy serving society. Dharma, duty, has been ejected out the window. Now the average male wants five-star living: Omega watch, Italian hotel food, Dubai holiday, luxury apartment, a fancy girl on the side,” Puri had written. “All of a sudden, young Indians are adopting the habits of goras, white people.”

    Sixty years after Gandhi-ji sent them packing, Mother India was, being conquered by outsiders again.

    “Boss, Flush this side, over.” The voice broke into the detective’s private lament.

    “Boss this side, over,” replied the detective.

    “Mouse made contact, Boss. Leaving shortly, over.”

    “Mouse” was code for Goel.

    The detective made his way as quickly as he could down into the street and, a little short of breath after his exertion on the stairs, joined Flush in the back of the waiting Ambassador.

    Tubelight folded his hand of cards, made a hasty apology to the other drivers, collected up his winnings (nearly sixty rupees; not bad for an hour’s work) and revved up the three-wheeler he had rented for the day from his cousin Bhagat.

    A few minutes later, the gates to the Goel residence swung open and a red Indica hatchback pulled out. The vehicle turned right. Tubelight waited five seconds and then followed. Puri’s Ambassador, with Handbrake at the wheel, was not far behind.

    The team kept a safe distance as Goel sped along the old Ring Road. There was little doubt in the detective’s mind where his mark was heading.

    “This Charlie might be having Angrezi education, but he is like a moth to Vish Puri’s flame,” he said with a grin.

    Flush, who held his employer in high regard and had learned to tolerate his boastfulness, replied, “Yes, Boss.”

    The Ambassador and the auto took turns tailing the Indica through the streets of south Delhi, the rush hour traffic helping the team remain inconspicuous. Cars, motorcycles, scooters, cyclists, bicycle rickshaws, trucks, hand-pushed carts, bullock carts, sacred cows and the occasional unroadworthy hybrid vehicle that defied description vied for space on the road. Like bumper cars at a fairground, vehicles cut across one another, drivers inching into any space that presented itself, making four and a half lanes out of three. Horns blared constantly, a clamor as jarring as a primary school brass brand. Loudest of all were the Blueline buses. Driven by charas-smoking maniacs who were given financial incentives for picking up the most passengers, even if they ended up killing or maiming some of them. “Bloody goondas,” Puri called them. But he knew that the harshest penalty these men would ever face was a few hours in a police station drinking chai. Politicians and babus owned all the buses and had the police in their pockets. The going rate for expunging the record of a “manslaughter” charge was about three thousand rupees.

    The detective watched one of these battered Blueline buses lumbering through the traffic like an old wounded war elephant, its sides scarred by previous battles. Faces peered down from the scratched windows—some with curiosity, others with envy and perhaps contempt—into the plush interiors of the many thousands of new luxury sedans on Delhi’s roads. For the have-nots, here was a glimpse of the lifestyle that hundreds of thousands of the nouveaux riches had adopted. For Puri, the scene was a reminder of the widening economic disparity in Indian society.

    “Mouse is turning right, Boss,” said Handbrake.

    Puri nodded. “Tubelight, keep ahead of him,” he said into his walkie-talkie. “We’ll keep back, over.”

    Goel’s Indica passed over the new spaghetti junction of “overbridges” in front of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and continued in the direction of Sarojini Nagar. Had it not been for the occasional ancient tomb or monument—echoes of Delhi’s previous incarnations, now jammed between all the concrete and reflective glass—Puri would not have recognized the place.

    In his childhood, Delhi had been slow moving and provincial. But in the past ten years, Puri had watched the city race off in all directions, spreading east and south, with more roads, cars, malls and apartment blocks springing up each day. The dizzying prosperity attracted millions of uneducated and unskilled villagers into the capital from impoverished states across north India. With the population explosion—now 16 million and rising—came a dramatic increase in crime. The vast conglomeration of Old Delhi, New Delhi and its many suburbs had been officially renamed the National Capital Region—or the “National Crime Region,” as most newspapers wrote mockingly.

    For Puri, this meant more work. Most Private Investigators Ltd. had never been busier. But the business was not all welcome. There were days when the detective found his natural optimism waning. Sometimes he would battle home through the honking gridlock wondering if perhaps he should turn his hand to social work.

    His dear wife, Rumpi, always reminded Puri that India was making great progress and talked him out of throwing in the towel. She would point out that he was already doing the public a service. His current investigation was but one example. He was on the brink of saving a young woman from a terrible fate and bringing an unscrupulous individual to account.

    Yes, it would not be long now before Ramesh Goel was brought to book. Puri would have him in another ten minutes or so.

    The detective made sure Handbrake remained three cars behind the Indica on the last leg of his journey down Africa Avenue to Safdarjung Enclave. Predictably, the young man turned into A Block.

    Unbeknownst to Goel, as he pulled up outside A 2/12—“Boss, he’s at A-two-oblique-twelve, over”—he was being filmed with a long lens from a nearby vantage point. It made no difference that he was wearing a baseball cap, sunglasses and a dark raincoat in an effort to disguise himself. Nor that he was using the alias Romey Butter.

    Vish Puri had got his man.

  • What People are Saying About This

    Tahir Shah

    "Vish Puri is the most original detective in years. Tarquin Hall has captured India in a way few Western writers have managed since Kipling. The country's humor, commotion, and vibrancy bursts from every page, exposing its vast, labyrinthine underbelly. Scintillating!"--(Tahir Shah, author of The Caliph's House)

    David Davidar

    "Tubby, ingenious and hilarious, Delhi's most trusted PI, Vish Puri, is not easily forgotten. Properly disdainful of unoriginal crime-busters like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, his unique methods of detection deserve to be widely known and feted."--(David Davidar, author of The Solitude of Emperors)

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    The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri Series #1) 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 61 reviews.
    Cataloger More than 1 year ago
    Excellent writing and cultural immersion. Great work on creating a new detective for us to admire as well. Overall just a wonderful book with lots of background, history, movement, color and warmth.
    TWTaz More than 1 year ago
    I really enjoyed this book. It was a quick, easy read. The mystery wasn't very hard to figure out, but it has such wonderful characters and atmosphere that it more than makes up for it. Just enough humor and suspense. Mummy-ji is great and I hope she's featured in the other books that I'm sure will follow. Vish Puri is a great character and I really look forward to his future cases! The only (sort of) drawback to this book was that I found myself flipping to the glossary in the back so often to find out the meaning of a lot of words and phrases, which sometimes disturbed the flow of reading. But I'm glad the author included it. It was very helpful. I won't hesitate to recommend this book to anyone looking for some quick, entertaining reading.
    darwindog96 More than 1 year ago
    Different. Similar to Cotterill and McCall-Smith stories in that the descriptions of life in the country of the story is it's strong suit. Nice characters not getthe wierd names for Puri's employees though...Facecream, Handbrake and Tubelight? hmmmmm
    hamiltonshabitat More than 1 year ago
    Honestly, I wasn't sure what to expect from this novel by Tarquin Hall....But I love all things India, such a fascinating, wonderful culture, plus I love mysteries, so.... What I got was a spicy, rotund detective who hides his junk food habit from his wife, and whose Mother is as good a detective as he is(though he thinks it's not her place). Two plotlines going on...who killed a beautiful young woman who serves in the home of a powerful man, and who's trying to kill Vish Puri...really keeps your interest. I think you'll fall for Vish Puri too....
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I don't search for deep meaning or insights from novels. That said, The Case of the Missing Servant was a very good study into the culture and social structure of this Indian class. Very good character development and a good read. I would recommend it to anyone who wants an entertainng book and a look into a different world.
    LynnHarnett More than 1 year ago
    Vish Puri, founder of the Most Private Investigators Ltd., and something of an Indian Hercule Poirot, supports his comfortable lifestyle with matrimonial background checks, but every once in a while something more worthy of his talents comes along. Puri is often compared to Sherlock Holmes for the acuity of his observation, but Puri disdains the comparison, preferring to cite 2,000 year-old Indian detecting principles - Holmes' inspiration. A decade earlier, Puri and his wife moved to the rural fields outside of Delhi to escape the sprawl and pollution of the city. But the New India has caught up to them. Housing developments, factories and office buildings have gobbled the farmers' fields and roads criss-cross the land spewing smog. Every morning Puri gives his precious chili plants a bath and the next morning they are coated in grime once again. In this first appearance, Puri, dressed to the nines, munching mouth-watering hot and crunchy snacks, and bemoaning the breakdown of society, comes to the aid of a lawyer who has just been accused of raping and murdering his servant girl. The evidence is thin - even proof that the girl is dead is shaky. But the lawyer has angered some powerful people. He's a crusading type who has taken on corruption in government and refuses to be bribed or silenced. The case gives Hall a chance to explore India's vast, hilariously, stunningly complex bureaucracy and its attendant miasma of corruption. Puri has his methods of cutting the tangles of red tape, however, and help from his team of loyal and quick-witted assistants as well as his tenacious and even quicker-witted mother (looking into an attempted shooting of her son) and unflappable wife, keep things moving at home and throughout the city. Though the plot is entertaining the real fun here is the eccentric Puri; his appreciation of spicy - very spicy - food, his strong opinions, his various eccentricities and his ingenuity and resourcefulness. Hall, a British journalist (Salaam Brick Lane) captures the contradictions and hugeness of modern India with its mania for growth and its love of tradition, its new rich and ever poor, its giddy wealth and grinding, shocking poverty. Charming, witty, clever and atmospheric, Hall's foray into fiction is a winner.
    painted_devil More than 1 year ago
    I am finishing up the advance reader's copy of this book and although mystery isn't really my thing, I'm really enjoying it. It is different from what I would normally read. The characters are great - the main character, Vish, is hilarious. Not in what he says, necessarily, but how he behaves. Every character in this book is pretty well fleshed out and has a distinct personality - Mummy is one of my favorites. This is a great, light read. The only thing that can be confusing is that the characters speak english as though a person from India would truely speak english. It threw me off a little at first, but as you get into it it flows seamlessly with the story itself and it is easy to "hear" the characters as they converse. I would totally recommend this to anyone who likes light-hearted mysteries and humor.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Found this book to be engrossing! & I loved the characters and setting! Would read more by this author however they are expensive!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Love these books. It feels as though I am on a street in Delhi
    jcmMN More than 1 year ago
    This book is a great find. In a way, the intriguing mystery storyline takes a back seat to the rich and surprising descriptions of contemporary life and people in India, written by someone who has been there. Reminiscent of  Alexander McCall Smith's mysteries - and even Charlie Chan who-done-its - this book  is a wonderful intersection of culture, sleuthing, and lively very-human characters set on a colorful, happy stage. Good read. 
    Gusippe More than 1 year ago
    This is a fun and flavorful read about "the great Indian detective" Vish Puri. Memorable characters pop up throughout the book as a story of intrigue is spun around the main client, a high powered lawyer charged with the murder of a servant. As Vish works on multiple cases, it is not clear who is trying to murder Vish or why; yet, he must forge ahead to prove his client not guilty. While the book is fun and light, it gives a good insight into the complex world that is India. In a probably realistic way, topics including arranged marriage, corruption and street crime are handled as incidentals to the story. Querkey Indian English dominates much of the conversation and a sprinkling of "Indian Words" crop up here and there. As someone who has lived overseas, I felt this added an authentic flavor to the story. Get it. Read it. It will be a memorable read.
    Reading_Scribe More than 1 year ago
    I was in Delhi in 2007. Reading this book, I was struck by the way it so effectively captures all the paradoxes and complexities of life in modern India. I really felt immersed in the small, but very authentic world, Tarquin Hall creates. He weaves in references to very real problems like overbuilding, class differences, etc but there's so much more--the lives of the wealthy, the wide diversity of religions, the corruption in the government. All wrapped in a tasty, compelling and entertaining story.
    momoftwinsMM More than 1 year ago
    Vish Puri might take offense to being likened unto Sherlock Holmes (who stole his ideas from Chanakya and failed to give any credit); however, for modern readers this is an understandable comparison. He is not a bumbling or lazy detective (although very much in love with his greasy take-aways), rather an experienced and astute investigator with agents in all the right places and a rather extraordinary gift of deduction. Hall creates a story about East Indians which is not at all offensive. The stereotypes he uses are pulled from real life and the vagaries of daily life and "Indian" english are well captured. This story is not full of twists and turns, but a light hearted read that offers the reader enjoyment and a taste of both poor and wealthy Indian lives. I look forward to reading Hall's next Vish Puri novel.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Fast read, good for young teens
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Fun cultural read. Very quirky.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Loved it! More please! Thank you so much
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Enjoyed the book and learning about Indian culture. Loved the mom!
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I found this book to be quite a slog. I simply could not get into the characters. The "slang" and unique speech that apparently must be the norm for Indians was also difficult to decipher at times. I gave up halfway through and just deleted it. Much better mystery series out there. I'm a big fan of Donna Leon and Sue Grafton.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I loved reading about the Indian style of living---and Puri was a pure joy! Looking forward to the next book in this series.
    mlchal More than 1 year ago
    a well written and interesting mystery. It has some comedy also and you learn interesting things. It would be great for discussions. I would read this author again. I really enjoyed it.