The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken is yet another delightful installment in the Vish Puri Mystery series. This time the indomitable Vish takes on not one, but two cases.
Satya Pal Bhalla, a Grade II bureaucrat employed in the Central Secretariat Stenographer's Service and owner of the world's longest moustache is missing one half of his famous facial feature. Drugged after eating channa bhatura, Bhalla went to bed ill, awaking much later than usual to a half shaved upper lip. The thief, who was witnessed by a guard leaving the home, made off with the half moustache and Bhalla is certain it's his moustache rival, Gopal Ragi who's the culprit. But weeks later, when Ragi's entire moustache is removed, Puri knows this isn't a case of competitive one upmanship.
Before Vish can really begin investigating this case, he finds himself caught up in another, one which eventually has a personal connection to his family. Vish Puri and his wife Rumpi and mother-in-law attend a cricket match which is part of a month long tournament in the capital. The Kolkata Colts featuring Pakistani star Kamran Khan are playing the Delhi Cowboys. Puri and his family have come to watch Rumpi's nephew, Rohan Mattu, play. The game is interrupted by a stray dog who wanders onto the field and is shot. After the game, Vish's mother, Mummy-ji joins the family for dinner at the Delhi Durbar Hotel.There Rohan introduces Kamran to his family. Puri's family are somewhat reserved since they are Indian and Kamran and his family are Pakistani. The dinner comes to a sudden halt when Kamran's father, Faheem Khan collapses and dies after eating some butter chicken. Since Vish Puri also ate some of the chicken and was not poisoned, it seems Faheem Khan was targeted, but by whom?
Soon after Vish is approached by James Scott, former Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London and also formerly of the International Cricket Federation's anti-corruption unit. Scott wants Puri to investigate who murdered Faheem Khan.Scott believes that Khan may have been part of an illegal sports betting syndicate that operates in both India and Pakistan. From what he has learned so far, the British detective believes that believes the Syndicate is run by a man named Aga in Pakistan and that it engages in spot betting - a type of betting where bookies place a bet on individual balls and overs. Puri agrees to take on this case, despite the risk, and despite the possibility that he will most likely have to travel to Pakistan, a country he deeply dislikes.
While Puri begins by running through the guest list at the dinner and eliminating people one by one, his mother has ideas of her own as to who might be the killer. And that's because the events at the Durbar Hotel were shocking not only due to witnessing a gruesome murder but also because of a connection to her past - a past that she has tried to put aside but never quite succeeded.
While Vish Puri's investigation into the Syndicate leads him into Pakistan, Mummy-ji takes "a trip to the holy city of Hardiwar on the Ganges, to consult with the Pandas, the Brahmin genealogical record keepers." This will help her establish the identity of the murderer. The two threads of the investigation eventually link together and Vish and Mummy-ji must work together to put all the pieces of the puzzle in place.
The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken is Hall's best effort to date. Engaging, funny and deliciously rich in the history and culture of India, readers will enjoy this latest book. Hall has said that he doesn't write chilling mysteries about serial killers. Instead, his readers get to read a good story while learning about India. What is unique about this book, the third in the series, is that readers get to explore the relationship between India and Pakistan, as well as their troubled past. The novel tells a little about the partition of India in 1947, which created a Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu India. The Partition was one of the greatest human tragedies in the 20th century. As is often the case, the most vulnerable, the women and children, suffered grieviously. Hall's novel incorporates this tragedy, giving us a o
Hall has stated that he focused more on the plot and it definitely shows. But I also felt that the characterization was the best in this novel, compared with his first two books. Puri is a wonderful character, pompous, intelligent but very capable. His relationship with his wife Rumpi is endearing and there's no doubt he loves her, as he openly admits in this novel. Puri thinks he is in control of his family but it's really the women in his life who "manage" him! The interactions between Puri and his mother are often humourous, yet he quite respects his mother. Hall effectively returned to the humour he captured in the first book, The Case of the Missing Servant, but which was mostly missing in the the second book, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing.
Back are all of Puri's usual operatives: Handbrake, his skilled driver, Tubecream his beautiful Indian companion, Flash his talented IT expert, and a host of others each with their unique talents. It is through these characters, that Hall juxtaposes the many faces of India, and allows his readers to learn about Indian society. Even descriptions of the food (and Puri's love of eating) allow those of us who have never traveled to India, to gain an insight into this fascinating country.
I highly recommend The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken to fans of light mysteries and stories about India.
For those readers who would like to know more about the partition of India you can check out the BBC website's, History - British History in depth: The Hidden story of Partition and it's Legacies.
The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken by Tarquin Hall
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart 2012