"Clean up your act, Joker."- Batman: The Animated Series (The Last Laugh)
I'm familiar with the term "hobby deformation" and the symptoms that escort this twist of the mind that makes us, devoted mystery enthusiasts, associate Gaston Leroux and A.A. Milne with Le Mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) and The Red House Mystery (1922) instead of La Fantôme de l'opéra (The Phantom of the Opera, 1910) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), but never expected that a simple news item about a zoo, who're expecting their first baby flamingos in over a decade, would direct me to my shelves to pull out my unread copy of H.R.F. Keating's Inspector Ghote Plays a Joker (1969).
|Not at all how I imagine Ghote!|
The much-plagued inspector of the Bombay police, Ganesh Ghote, is summoned to his superiors and asked to play the fool in an almost impossible task: protect the last remaining flamingo left in the Bombay Zoological Gardens. The birds were a gift from the American Consulate and a sniper has been picking them off, one by one, and, sure enough, Ghote arrives just in time for his assignments swan song. But worst of all, the epitome of incompetence, Sergeant Desai, will lend him an "assisting" hand in his inquiries, however, it's this same incompetent fool who puts Ghote on the trail of the joker. Desai knows that three months previously a popular racing horse was substituted for a donkey and uncover that a malicious prankster is picking on the proud and prominent members of society.
Among the victims who involuntarily played the fool are a scientist and the owner of the racehorse, Anil Bedekar, all of whom prefer to forget their embarrassments, but with his superiors breathing down his neck for results, Ghote pushes through and finds an unexpected ally in the Rajah of Bhedwar, known to his friends as "Bunny" Baindur, who fancies himself an amateur detective. He drags Ghote along to watch the yogi Lal Dass perform a miracle in public, walking across the surface of a brimful water reservoir, exactly the kind of place where the joker would strike, which he does, and Dass is saved thanks to the rapid intervention from Ghote. I have to point out that, before this happened, Dass walked on water and Keating provides the most simple and logical explanation for this miracle and thus qualifies as an impossible crime novel – even if it’s only a tiny fraction of the plot and immediately supplies a solution.
The joker is pulled from the pack halfway through the game, but most of the readers will have picked up on that punch-line before its delivered, because this person is exactly the kind of opponent Keating likes to pit against Ghote: affluent, influential, powerful, smart and charismatic. Pretty much the exact opposite of the timid detective and this series is at its best when Ghote is barking like an underdog at a towering tidal wave. It seems futile, but, somehow, he manages to come out on top and prefer the cat-and-mouse games of Inspector Ghote Goes by Train (1971) and Inspector Ghote Draws a Line (1979) to the "solved-by-inspection" novels like Inspector Ghote’s Good Crusade (1966) and Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote (1976). I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Keating was at his best, as a mystery writer, when he wasn't writing mysteries. As Wakko Warner once famously observed, "the mind boggles."
Anyway, back to the review, where the book, incomprehensibly, contorts itself into a regular police procedural when Ghote's opponent is murdered just when an interesting development had presented itself: how can he stop the prankster now that he knows this persons identity? They even had a confrontation, in which the joker wondered out loud how Ghote was planning to put a stop to all the tom foolery. It would've made for a classic Keating novel! This book is a good demonstration of Keating's strength and weaknesses (a wonderful and promising first half vs. duller second half), but I prefer to watch Ghote overcome seemingly insurmountable odds when he takes on influential town bosses, stubborn ex-judges and cunning master criminals. They tend to be more fun, but walking the beat of Bombay alongside Ghote never feels like a chore.