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Interview: Tarquin Hall, Author of The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken

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I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken but I quite liked it. I received the book unsolicited but was intrigued by the idea of a book series about a private eye in India and so agreed to interview the author about his book and career.

Tarquin Hall, a British author and journalist, has crafted an engaging, fascinating novel, easily mixing a plot involving cut mustaches and corruption in cricket games with cultural information and slang. There is even a helpful glossary in the back of the book along with recipes for Indian dishes mentioned in the novel.

If you enjoy being educated and entertained at the same time–and who doesn’t?–than be sure to check out this novel.

Author Alexander McCall Smith summed it up well with this quote on the front book cover: “These books are little gems. They are beautifully written, amusing and intensely readable.”

Hall, who lives in Delhi, has a blog as does his protagonist, Vish Puri. Hall’s past books include The Case of the Missing Servant, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing and Salaam Brick, a memoir about a year spent living above a Bangladeshi sweatshop in London’s notorious East End.

Where did the storyline for this particular book come from?

I thought it would be interesting to have a plot with a Pakistani killed on Indian soil. And I thought it would be especially interesting if the motivation for the murder was rooted in the events surrounding the partition of India in 1947. There was a lot of inter-communal and inter-religious violence when Pakistan was created, something like a million people died. So the murder was always going to be about revenge. At any rate, those were the bare bones of the plot. But when I started writing it became immediately obvious that for the whole thing to work, Puri was going to have to travel to Pakistan. And of course he hates the place. Pakistan’s his number one enemy, the country from where his mother’s family came and numerous relatives died.

Can you summarize what this book is about for those who haven’t read it?

I guess the description above probably makes the book sound pretty dark. And there’s some serious stuff in there. The back story is tragic–no two ways about it. But I don’t write terrifying thrillers set in deepest, darkest Bombay. What goes on in the minds of, say, serial killers just doesn’t interest me. The idea is that you get to learn about India as well as reading a good mystery. And there’s a healthy dose of humour as well. You have Puri’s Mummy off on her own, secretly investigating the murder of the Pakistani. Typically, she’s convinced she’s the only one who can solve the case. Plus Puri is chasing a thief whose been breaking into the houses of men with long moustaches and shaving them off.

Puri’s undercover team is also off in Surat in western India, which is where 90 per cent of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished. So there’s no shortage of new sights and sounds along the way. But, overall, the book tells you a lot about the relationship between India and Pakistan and how futile all the hostility and resentment is.

I confess this is the first book of yours I’ve read so can you tell me how it’s similar and different from others in the series?

You haven’t read the others? That’s shocking! The interview’s over! But OK, seriously…it’s similar in that this is about India so there’s an awful lot going on. Everyone in India always seems to be doing four things at once so it only follows that a detective is working on multiple cases at the same time. And it’s similar in that there’s this constant juxtaposition between the old and the new, the rich and the impoverished. One minute Puri and his team are in the homes of the super rich, and the next they’re trying to find a dead dog that’s been taken away by a so-called ‘ragpicker.’ My motivation for writing these books is to show India as it is today. It’s just the most extraordinary, complex culture and now it’s beginning to modernize which is creating a lot of interesting contrast.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Indrani Ganguly

    I was introduced to Tarquin Hall and Vish Puri by my 19-year old son who loves hunting through Delhi bookshops for Indian authors. Afraid we both found the books a bit disappointing though I persevered and read this one and the previous two. The most irritating bit was the exaggeratedly idiosyncratic English: my son who was born and brought up in Australia and my husband who is a white Australian, say they have never met any Indian who speaks like that or has the silly nicknames.

    All of us find linguistically-challenged Anglo-Saxons whining about people who don’t speak English and have the temerity to have names and accents that are different from their own equally irritating.

    The social commentary was OK: I had no problems with that as I work in areas focusing on social inequities in Australia.

    However, we all agreed that the books failed to capture two essential elements of Indian culture and society: the colour and the warmth and spontaneous hospitality of people at an individual level.

    Overall, we would say that Alexander McCall Smith does a far better job with Madame Precious Ramotswe. We’re going to keep reading his books and recommending them to friends (who become instantly hooked) but not I’m afraid Mr Tarquin Hall’s offering. The only white (Anglo-Saxon) friend I offered The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken said she couldn’t get beyond the first few pages!