Castes con­found In­dian de­tec­tive

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - By John Sul­li­van

FOR­EIGN climes have long pro­vided fod­der for mem­o­rable crime fighters and ex­otic mys­ter­ies, and the quirky ex­ploits of New Delhi’s “most pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor,” Vish Puri, can safely be added to that roll. Not that “Chubby,” as he’s af­fec­tion­ately called by his end­lessly fore­bear­ing wife, is ex­actly In­dia’s Sam Spade. Canny and tena­cious, he’s also a dith­ery, su­per­sti­tious fud­dy­duddy whose self-im­por­tance is only ex­ceeded by his prodi­gious ap­petite — so much so that au­thor Tar­quin Hall pro­vides sev­eral favoured recipes and a glos­sary of In­dian terms pep­pered with foodie fare. Pro­tec­tive of his own priv­i­leges un­der In­dia’s an­cient caste sys­tem and du­bi­ous of the wealth hi­er­ar­chy grad­u­ally sup­plant­ing it, Puri’s ex­ploits rou­tinely con­front him with the vast in­equities and po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion of both. So, in his fourth out­ing, The Case of the Love Com­man­dos (Simon & Schus­ter, 320 pages, $26), he re­luc­tantly helps op­po­nents of ar­ranged caste mar­riages when a low-born would-be groom is kid­napped, and his girl­friend’s rich fa­ther is charged with his mother’s mur­der. Still, our con­flicted In­dian every­man solves the con­vo­luted case, one that Hall, a Bri­tish jour­nal­ist liv­ing in Delhi, again im­bues with great good hu­mour and keen so­cial ob­ser­va­tion. Alen Mat­tich’s de­but, 2012’s Za­greb Cow­boy, in­tro­duced a novel char­ac­ter in a uniquely ex­plo­sive set­ting — Yu­goslav se­cret po­lice­man Mark della Torre, a lawyer who in­ves­ti­gates ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings by his own agency on the eve of Croa­tia’s 1991-95 war of in­de­pen­dence. Della Torre is back in a stel­lar se­quel, Killing Pil­grim (Spi­der­line, 336 pages, $20), caught up in a CIA bid to take out a fa­bled and pro­lific Yu­goslav as­sas­sin re­spon­si­ble for the mur­der of Swedish prime min­is­ter Olof Palme.

It’s po­lit­i­cal in­trigue of the de­li­ciously murky sort as Della Torre dodges an Amer­i­can Mata Hari, Ser­bian mili­tia and Croa­t­ian na­tion­al­ists (in­clud­ing a Croat-Cana­dian pizza mag­nate) with a blend of hap­less re­solve and quirky, fa­tal­is­tic hu­mour. Highly rec­om­mended. Let’s give credit where it’s due: Jef­fery Deaver didn’t have to do this one. A peren­nial best­seller with his Lin­coln Rhyme foren­sic series and su­pe­rior stand­alone mys­ter­ies, he didn’t need to stretch. So, all props to the inspiration be­hind The Oc­to­ber List (Grand Cen­tral, 320 pages, $29), a 30-hour tale of kid­nap­ping and ex­tor­tion told in re­verse, from its murky cli­max to its “ah-hah” be­gin­ning. It’s a clever premise, painstak­ingly ex­e­cuted with all of Deaver’s sig­na­ture cluerid­den twists and feints.

It’s just that it doesn’t work, forc­ing even the most as­sid­u­ous reader to flip back and forth to grasp a mod­icum of co­her­ence. Ul­ti­mately, it man­i­fests as a ma­nip­u­la­tive and con­trived ex­per­i­ment that frus­trates rather than en­ter­tains or en­light­ens.

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