H.R.F. Keating: His Life and Crimes
Last Saturday, March 27, 2011, the mystery community was saddened to learn that H.R.F. Keating, author of over fifty detective novels and former president of The Detection Club, had started sleeping the big sleep. He will be missed by many, but, with the immense body of work he leaves behind, he will never stray far from our thoughts.
Keating was one of only a handful of contemporary mystery writers who managed to catch my attention, and perhaps the only one who was at his best when he wasn't attempting to write a formal detective story. The more traditionally crafted stories, from his hand, often suffer from transparent plotting and easily perceptible culprits, but excelled when he solely concentrated on the battle-of-wits between Ghote, a downtrodden Bombay detective, and his opponent – usually a person who, in one way or another, wields much power.
But he was also a noted reviewer, critiquing crime books for The Times for fifteen years, served as president on the board of several literary societies, such as the Crime Writers Association and The Detection Club, and won several prestigious prices – among them an Edgar for his first Inspector Ghote novel, The Perfect Murder (1964), and a Cartier Diamond Dagger for outstanding services to crime literature.
From the Casebook of Inspector Ghote
The best example I can give of the intellectual dueling is the very entertaining novel Inspector Ghote Goes by Train (1971), in which the long-suffering inspector finally seems to have landed himself an easy assignment: escorting an infamous confidence trickster back to Bombay, while he enjoys the air-conditioned comforts of the Calcutta Mail train, however, his traveling companion has his own ideas of a fun train ride. The result is a delightful battle-of-wits between Ghote and the legendary conman. Briefly put, a nifty and unusual crime story that lacks any detection and crimes, but just shows two men constantly trying to top one another in a struggle of wits and wills.
Inspector Ghote Draws a Line (1979) and Under a Monsoon Cloud (1986) take a more earnest approach to the intellectual duel between the inspector and his adversary, but I have yet to read either of these books – which make it impossible for me to comment on them.
Nevertheless, he wasn't completely inept with the conventional detective story, as he demonstrated in The Body in the Billiard Room (1987) – a spoof on Agatha Christie, in which Ghote is packed off to a mountain district, unaffected by the ravages of time, to investigate the murder of a billiard marker at a well-to-do gentlemen's club. The poor inspector not only has to find a murderer in unfamiliar territory, but also has to deal with an exasperating mystery buff, who sees in him the image of "The Great Story Book Detective," and constantly tries to make him read Christie's Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. It's a diverting mystery and better plotted than most of his other orthodox detective stories I've read. Definitely recommended!
As you can see, I really enjoyed reading most of his stories. So when I heard of his passing, I decided to pull one of his novels from my stock of unread books, and actually had a hard time choosing between Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote (1976) and The Murder of the Maharajah (1980), but ended up picking the former - because it featured Ghote.
Foul Play in Tinsel Town
Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote opens with the inspector being dispatched to Talkiestan Studios, where Dhartiraj, India's favorite on-screen villain, was found crushed under a Five-K Light, and the ropes bore the tell-tale marks of being cut. It's not as ritzy as a sabotaged crystal chandelier, but hey, it got the job done. And despite that the fact that the film rogue was very popular among his peers, there's a surfeit of potential murderers with a motive to kill the beloved movie star. The list of suspects range from the fading star of Jagdish Rana, who was kicked from his comfy spot as the definitive big screen bad boy, to the popular hero Ravi Kumar, who had seemed to have a deep seethed hatred for Dhartiraj.
But the hustle and bustle of tinsel town overwhelms the timid policeman, and when he's swooned off his feet by a famous actress it really starts to affect his thinking – dreaming of the spotlight and glory that could befall him as the man who avenged Dhartiraj's death by bringing his killer to justice. The thing is, that's easier said than done, because murderers have a habit of taking a shot at getting away with their dirty deeds, and this one is helped by the unwillingness of his fellow suspects to cooperate with Ghote.
The book is a perfect showcase of Keating's strength and weaknesses as a detective writer. He vividly paints a picture of a part of modern Indian pop-culture, the world of filmi, and the story barely has a dull moment – in spite of mainly consisting of interviews conducted one after another. The suspects being questioned, like a disillusioned director and a pushy producer, are interesting enough to hold the readers attention, as well Ghote's fascinating discovery of the glitter and glamour world known as Bollywood and how tries to deal with it.
That's all great and fun, but this makes the book more a story about a detective than a detective story, since the plot is threadbare and the few clues, that actually indicate the killers guilt, are too thinly spread around – and while that doesn't make the book a prime candidate for best mystery ever written, it still has plenty to offer for fans of the series or someone who's just looking for a diverting read.
Keating was someone who tried to do something new with the detective story format, without betraying it, and while not every attempt was a howling success he should be commended for trying and staying true to the heart and soul of the genre.
We truly lost a remarkable man and writer, but for us, his readers, his lives on in his work, and Penguin Modern Classics has announced four reprints of his books: The Perfect Murder (1964), Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg (1970), Inspector Ghote Trusts the Heart (1972) and Under a Monsoon Cloud (1986).
So grab this opportunity and read one of them in Keating's honor (or any of his other books currently residing on your to-be-read pile or local bookshop/library).
In Memoriam: H.R.F. Keating