Monday, March 3, 2014

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing

I like Peter Ustinov's portrayal of Hercule Poirot.  It's not quite accurate, but it's how I picture him.  The  real Poirot (and Poirot as played by David Suchet) is a bit too unreal and mannered to solve crimes.  Ustinov gave the impression that Poirot's fussiness was at least partially an act so that witnesses - and criminals - would underestimate him, say too much, and allow him to solve the mystery.

Vish Puri, the Delhi-based private detective who solves The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing reminds me a bit of Poirot.  He's a bit younger than Poirot, a happily married family man, and less mannered, but there's a sense that he lets people underestimate him and then turns to his advantage.  Plus, he never misses a meal - or a snack, even when trying to solve the apparently supernatural death of India's #1 debunker.  Dr. Jha is the Guru Buster, part Uri Geller, part MythBuster, exposing both New Age twaddle and Indian televangelists preaching a Hindi version of the Prosperity Gospel.  One day, during his weekly Laughing Club meeting, he and the rest of the group are overcome with uncontrollable laughter.  They're paralyzed by humor, and unable to act when a god appears and fatally stabs Dr. Jha.

Vish Puri reads about the Guru Buster's death and decides to investigate.  Looking both at the Laughing Club members and the charlatans Dr. Jha had exposed, Puri solves both Dr. Jha's murder and the apparently unrelated death of a young woman at a Swami's compound.  Hall does something interesting here, writing parallel plots which may or may not be related.  He also allows Puri's operatives, particularly Facecream, the young woman who infiltrates the Swami's compound, to be competent and interesting, not just flunkies following the boss's orders.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing isn't just a satisfying mystery, it's also an enjoyable domestic novel.  Puri's wife Rumpi is preparing for their daughter's baby shower, Puri's brother-in-law shows up with yet another get-rich-quick scheme, and when armed robbers disrupt the kitty party (a party where Ladies Who Lunch pool money for a monthly drawing) attended by Rumpi and Puri's mother, Mummy-ji decides to solve the crime.  Hall weaves these domestic scenes (and a lot of food - this probably isn't a book to read while hungry) around the main mystery, creating a truly enjoyable book.

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