BY NICO VREELAND

Author: Tarquin Hall

2010, Simon & Schuster

Filed under: Mystery

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing has the foundation to be a phenomenal mystery. India, with its unique culture, makes a fascinating backdrop. The case itself is intricate and compelling, and Tarquin Hall has a terrific knack for plotting. The characters, from a distance, seem interesting, likeable, and fun.

That last part is where the foundation begins to crack. The more you see of Hall’s characters, the clearer it becomes that he doesn’t like them. Vish Puri—the detective sorting out the case—is a soft, arrogant hypocrite, who complains about India’s treatment of its poor from under the parasol his servant must forever hold above him. He’s incapable of speaking without mentioning how brilliant and insightful he is, and incapable of moving without complaining about the heat.

He’s insufferable, in other words, and Hall seems to delight in making him so, along with the rest of his cast; you’ll be hard-pressed to find a loving, or even amiable, description of anybody in this novel. Hall also takes great pleasure in keeping the culture at arm’s length: his interpretations of Indian customs are awkward and piecemeal, he seems to barely tolerate the country itself.

In short, Hall’s narration is oddly detached from the characters, setting, and action of the novel. There’s a good mystery in the heart of this book, but Hall does everything in his power to curb your enjoyment of it.

The case of the man who died laughing concerns a science-minded doctor whose mission in life is debunking India’s con-artist gurus and their outrageous claims of magical power. When the doctor thoroughly debunks a very well-connected guru, the guru promises a public display of his powers. Later, the doctor receives an anonymous but specific threat: that he’ll die the next day.

Indeed, early the next morning the goddess Kali appears floating in the midst of the doctor’s “Laughing Club.” She calls him “unbeliever” and kills him with a giant sword, which then disintegrates.

The mystery starts off as a simple how-was-the-trick-done, but it escalates and twists around nicely, and generally provides a very workable spine for a detective novel. But Hall sours the mix with his narrative distance from the story. It’s most easily visible in the odd half-translating of the culture and language of India. For instance, this line, from Puri:

“Most kind of you. Then challo. Lead the way.”

“Challo” means “let’s go” in Hindi. But Puri speaks all three sentences in Hindi and Hall translates them into English. So why doesn’t he translate that one word? I honestly do not know. He successfully connotes the rest of his translation with tweaked dialogue syntax, such as “’Why no one else saw it happen?’” or “’You saw who hit you, sir?’” I could understand leaving in cultural terms like “baksheesh” or “tandoor,” but simple, easily translatable words like “challo” and “chowkidar” (security guard) feel like they’re included only to justify the 13-page glossary.

Furthermore, Hall often takes pains to translate certain words and acronyms in the narrative, so it’s often unclear whether an unfamiliar word will be in the glossary or not, regardless of its importance to the story. “Crore,” for instance, is evidently a large round number, but isn’t in the glossary, though it’s used many times in the narrative.

Then, Hall’s narrator has the annoying habit of quoting each of the characters. For instance, when Puri is thinking about Delhiites:

Part of him admired their resilience, their surprising good humor in the face of such grinding adversity; but he also mourned humanity’s capacity to adjust to any conditions and perceive them as normal.

“The survival instinct is both blessing and curse, also,” was how he put it.

The narrator implies that this isn’t how you or I would say it, it’s how this odd Puri fellow says it. In this way, you can sense the narrator’s indifference for the characters—indifference that sometimes descends into outright contempt, like this paragraph, in which a woman discusses her trip to the Great Lakes:

“They really are great in every sense,” she said, showing the other women some of the dozens of photographs her husband had taken of her obscuring a series of dramatic landscapes.

This is not really very funny or amusing, it’s just mean. The narrator’s one step from writing, “she said, stupidly, showing the other morons some of her ineptly composed pictures.”

And this points toward not just an uncomfortable tone, but a significant failure on the part of the author. Hall brings up some quite strong thematic material—science v. religion; rich people’s treatment of the poor—but refuses to deal with it properly. That is, he’s incapable of creating ways for characters to address these issues in scenes; instead, he has the narrator comment on it in description.

For instance, no one confronts Vish Puri on his attitude toward India’s poor—no one except the narrator, who repeatedly points out his hypocrisy through descriptions of his actions and thoughts. This criticism is in the vein of that old workshop chestnut, “show don’t tell”; I don’t want a quandary to be described or outlined in fiction, I want it explored and dealt with by characters. This is, after all, why it’s fiction.

To make matters worse, there’s the issue that the main case is too thin to fill a book, so Hall includes a subplot. It’s about the robbery of a “kitty party”—a women’s chatting group where tens of thousands of rupees pointlessly change hands—and it’s entirely unrelated to anything involving the guru or Puri. Also serving as filler: a great number of very old jokes, including a page-long bit about how annoying telemarketers are, apropos of nothing. There’s even a second subplot just to edge this book right up to 300 pages.

So, in sum, there’s a compelling case here, but since Hall himself criticizes the world he creates, it’s tough to identify with it or sympathize or enjoy it in his stead. And so it feels like there’s not much to like about this book except the secret of that one magic trick in the Laughing Club. Which simply isn’t enough.

Similar books: John Burdett‘s Bangkok series, including The Godfather of Kathmandu. Ilustrado, by Miguel Syjuco, for another novel about place. It’s also pretty similar to the grand tradition of straightforward detective stories (as you can tell from the title).

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