Mystery Series' Portly P.I. Peels Back The Layers Of Delhi Society Tarquin Hall's mystery novels, starring the Punjabi detective Vish Puri, are a merry introduction to India's cultural and culinary delights.
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Mystery Series' Portly P.I. Peels Back The Layers Of Delhi Society

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Mystery Series' Portly P.I. Peels Back The Layers Of Delhi Society

Mystery Series' Portly P.I. Peels Back The Layers Of Delhi Society

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For an introduction to the cultural and culinary delights that are India, here's a suggestion: Curl up with the crime novels of author Tarquin Hall. Hall's super sleuth, Vish Puri, is a 50-something Punjabi who exposes the country's underbelly with a caseload that delves into forbidden love, corruption in Indian cricket, and the deadly clash between science and superstition.

NPR's Julie McCarthy met up with Hall in New Delhi for this morning's installment of our summer series Crime in the City.


JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: I rendezvous with Tarquin Hall in the Khan Market near the posh residential compounds for senior government officials, a relic of the British Raj. Khan Market is also where Hall's slightly nostalgic Private Investigator Vish Puri hangs his shingle

Tarquin, here we are. We are in Khan Market which is Vish Puri's home in the sense that this is where he works, this is his office.

TARQUIN HALL: It's a great place to describe because you've seen so much change here. It was a very sleepy little market in the mid '90s when I first lived in India. You've now got this amazing bling. You've got shampoos from Provence. You've got cookies that sell for twice what the average Indian laborer makes per day. And yet, you've still got all these little stores squeezed into the nooks and crannies. You've got all these wires hanging everywhere. You've got street dogs. So to me, it's kind of really the perfect place to describe India today.

MCCARTHY: If Vish Puri inhabits a world of unsavory characters, his creator has a taste for adventure too. In l989, at the tender age of 19, Hall left home in North London to report on Afghanistan. With a journalist's eye, he sweeps his readers along as Vish Puri speeds to Rajasthan in his chauffeur-driven ambassador car - a symbol of Old India - to solve "The Case of the Missing Servant." It's Hall's first book and he vividly sets the scene in the capital city.

HALL: This is one of the bazaars in Jaipur.

(Reading) The driver honked his way through the light traffic as they neared Ajmeri Gate, watching the faces that passed by the window: skinny bicycle rickshaw drivers straining against the weight of fat aunties; wild eyed Rajasthani men with long handlebar mustaches and sun baked faces, almost as bright as their turbans.

One of the great joys as a writer here is you really don't have to look far for color, you just come across it at every turn.

MCCARTHY: Hall is a white Englishman trying to get under the skin of India. He peels back the chaotic complexities of the Indian culture and reveals the intricate systems that actually govern the country. "The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken," Hall's third book, provides a glimpse into the hidden world of couriers; who transport most of the world's diamonds in and out of the Indian State of Gujarat.

HALL: Diamonds arrive in uncut, unpolished raw stones in Mumbai or Bombay, and they're taken to Gujarat in western India mostly to the city of Surat. There they're cut, polished and they're sent back. DHL, Federal Express, UPS doesn't get a look in. The entire supply is carried by little men and women, children - God knows who - up their trouser legs, in the bottom of their Nivea cream pots. None of it goes missing. And they're kind of the envy of the world really. I mean nothing else works like that.

MCCARTHY: The savory smell of Indian delicacies wafts from the pages of Hall's books. Not one to miss a meal, Puri grazes at the buffet of Delhi's fabled Gymkhana Club and devours spicy street snack during stake-outs. Fastidious to a fault, he leaves no incriminating evidence, lest wife Rumpi discovers he's off his diet again.

HALL: He's a foodie. He's a Punjabi guy. I mean Punjabis love their food.


HALL: Turmeric is the, you know, turmeric stains. You don't want to get any turmeric on you. It's a dead give-away. You get it on your fingertips. You get it on your shirt. So yeah, he eats with almost sort of forensic precision.

MCCARTHY: Hall fixed on a detective to tell the story of modern India, after trailing real life private investigators. Struck at how deftly they read their complex society, Vish Puri was born. Hall uses Puri ,who usually outwits the police, to weave into his work the deep suspicion many Indians have for the police.

You mentioned that the police make you angry.

HALL: If you don't have any standing in Indian society, if you don't have contacts, if you don't have wealth, you're essentially at the mercy of a system whereby there is a very, very tentative rule of law. Trying to get justice is very, very hard. Now, I love India. I love the culture. I love being here. It's where I met my wife. It's where I'm raising my children. But you need justice, it's fundamental to any society.


MCCARTHY: Hall's mystery, "The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing," unfolds here in Rajpath, the ceremonial mall of Delhi.

And this is where you set your murder.

HALL: Yeah. I mean we're standing almost on the spot where I envisaged the murder happening - this big lawn in the middle of British New Delhi. The character who's murdered is a rationalist, is a scientist, who's dedicated his life to trying to eradicate superstitious thinking.

MCCARTHY: The fiction became fact last week when a renowned rationalist thinker, who crusaded for science over superstition, was gunned down in his hometown of Pune. In a land of gurus and god-men, reformers, like the slain doctor, provoke their enemies by unmasking their so-called miraculous powers. By disproving their miracles, Hall says...

HALL: They beat them at their own game, essentially. So they've studied their so-called miracles. They've found that most of these miracles can be performance, like magic tricks.

MCCARTHY: Tarquin Hall has hurled himself into the maw of India with the same gumption that drove him to Afghanistan in his teens. The measure of his literary success here could be the Indian woman who overheard us discussing his whodunits. She couldn't wait to tell him how he nailed the life and lingo of Northern India.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.

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