Attempted June 2021
“Watch out Alexander McCall Smith!” claims the blurb. Watch out indeed, because Hall is not doing the genre any favors. Though I picked this up due to a favorable GR review, and found myself further intrigued by comparisons to the Inspector Singh series, I’d say Hall needs further practice before he’s ready for the big time.
I originally passed it to my mom, hoping to tease her into another series and perhaps, you know, broaden her horizons just a touch. She complained it was hard to get into to and that there were “a lot of words to look up.” She tends to be more of a stickler with wanting to understand things, so I figured that I’d give it a shot as a genre reader.
Right away, I empathized with her experience. In the first paragraph, Vish Puri is “devouring a dozen green chili pakoras* from a greasy takeout box.” That asterisk refers the reader to a glossary with over one-hundred-fifty words. Still, I tried my sci-fi skills. Not terrible. Hall usually has one vocabulary word or two per paragraph. But still, the one I tried made no sense: ‘press-wallah,’ defined as a ‘journalist.’ The sentence it is used in? “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.”
So is Hall having us on?
Well, aside from that. Given the glossary is over 150 words, you can easily assume this isn’t your average mystery. And in fact, it is not. It is a slice of life tale that is told in a very meandering, wandering fashion. Thus, in the middle of a stakeout in the first chapter, Mr. Puri is recalling his latest letter to The Times of India, decrying the youth of today. I get it; Hall is trying for a chatty, accessible tone, except it isn’t accessible at all. Any forward momentum in the story is derailed with backstory. We can’t just refer to someone by nickname; no, Mr. Puri needs to think about all the other nicknames his crew has, his own nickname, and the reasons they all came about, and what his doctor’s thoughts were on his chubbiness at his latest visit. Again, this might be charming if you wanted a travelogue through semi-modern India. In a mystery? Not so much. Add in his penchant for dressing well (or at least, very Seville Row) and chubbiness, coupled with an outdated cultural view, and I wonder if we are supposed to be laughing at Mr. Puri.
I’ll note a couple of things. One, as I was recently reminded when reading a blog post from James Corey, if you wink too much at your protagonist, you risk not taking them seriously. Two, you want to write a mystery, you need some dramatic tension. Expecting your readers to frequently stop and look up words in a glossary is not how you maintain that tension.
All it took was that chapter and I concurred with the Mom. I also concurred with Richard’s last paragraph of his review where he notes “but for a mystery reader, it would be a horrible experience, and for a snootybootsy four-hankies-and-a-pistol reader it would be a horrible experience, and for the general what’s-new-this-week reader it would be a disorganized mess. If you’re in the mood for a curry, though, could do nicely. Just don’t go in with expectations too high.”
I never did go for curry.