H.R.F. Keating: The crime novel as fable

  • Based on Masters thesis, University of Sydney, 2010

The Puzzle Doctor was unamused by Inspector Ghote Plays a Joker. “Is there a great Inspector Ghote book that I must read?” he wondered. Probably, but not if he expects a detective story…

Keating, a gentle, whimsical writer, was less concerned with plot and detection than with philosophy and ethics. For him, the crime novel was primarily entertainment, but could also say something about life.

“The mystery story can work at a deep level, as deep as all but the greatest novels.  But it does so by stealth.  Where with a serious novel the reader is ever alert for what it is going to tell him, with a detective novel that aims at any depth the reader ought to be simply engrossed in the story, in finding the answer to the ever-intriguing question ‘Who did it?’  But, underneath, what the writer has put into the book, whether consciously or even unconsciously, will be having its effect.  And, I venture to claim, that effect will be all the more telling for being put over in that secret manner.” (The Bedside Companion to Crime, 1989)

Keating’s strength was less in detective plots and problems (sometimes slight or arbitrary), than in fables, strong, simple situations that reveal a character and explore a theme.  The Ghote stories are, as Meera Tamaya (H.R.F. Keating: Post-Colonial Detection: A Critical Study, 1993) argues, the personalisation of a philosophical debate as an ethical dilemma, in the manner of Allingham, Greene, and Simenon, rather than clue-heavy puzzles in deduction. Tellingly, Keating saw himself as a moralist, while Tamaya considers him a nineteenth century liberal humanist. (In this, he stands apart from the absurdism of Julian Symons, the Tory Anglicanism of P.D. James, or the bleakness of Ruth Rendell.)

Inspector Ghote’s great strength, Tamaya argues, is his humanity: Ghote is as much the story as its protagonist, because everything is experienced through him; the reader becomes Ghote and identifies with him to a degree uncommon in the detective story. The detective tries to do the decent thing — what is ethically (rather than legally) right — under difficult circumstances.  For Keating, the particular considerations of each case outweigh principles.  His books are, as Tamaya argues, unusually subjective, rather than emphasising objectivity and reason.  Indeed, Keating, like Symons, is suspicious of pure reason, which he unfavourably contrasts, Tamaya argues, with intuition and the relativism of Hindu philosophy.

There are three main types of Ghote stories: detective problems; problem novels; and inverted stories.  The strongest detective novels include Inspector Ghote Draws a Line (1979) and The Body in the Billiard Room (1987).   Often, though, Keating’s detective stories are weak or minimalist compared to the formal puzzle plots of the Golden Age. He solves his cases by empathy and what Mike Ripley called “a combination of integrity, perseverance and an overwhelmingly benevolent interest in people”. The solution is less important than the choices Ghote makes and what he learns. 

Take, for instance, Inspector Ghote’s Good Crusade (1966).  The moral is the same as Chesterton’s ‘Miracle of Moon Crescent’: philanthropy can be arrogance masquerading as sympathy; many do good not to help others, but to make themselves feel good (committing the sin of charity); and there is a difference between being ‘kind’ (sentiment) and ‘useful’ (practical good).  Ghote cannot discover who murdered the American millionaire philanthropist Masters (a foolish idealist) until he realises the truth, by committing Masters’s ‘crime’ himself: giving his hard-earned wages to a poor family, who blow the money on a Holi celebration, and daub Ghote with paint, making him “the multi-coloured fool”.

Keating’s best books are often the problem novels that focus on Ghote’s character and moral dilemma — Under a Monsoon Cloud (1986), The Iciest Sin (1990) — or his efforts to arrest a villain known from the start—Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg (1970), Inspector Ghote Goes by Train (1971), Doing Wrong (1994).

Inspector Ghote Goes by Train involves a battle of wits between Ghote and  the criminal A.K. Bhattacharya, on the Bombay–Calcutta train and back again. It is also about the train view of life (slow but steady, what cannot be cured must be endured) versus the plane view of life (Icarus–like hubris, crime and corruption).  In Under a Monsoon Cloud, Ghote’s hero ‘Tiger’ Kelkar murders Sergeant Desai in a fit of rage, and Ghote helps Kelkar to cover up the crime.  Keating examines the conflict between Ghote’s professional duty to the truth versus his duty to his family and himself as a policeman, and the destructive force of anger.

Doing Wrong, one of Keating’s most thematically complex books, asks: Can a good person’s goodness be obliterated by a single evil action?  Can ‘good’ (Mrs. Popatkar’s truth) be evil or destructive?  Can an ‘evil’ act be justifiable or even good?  Do ideas of good and evil vary from person to person?  Can someone ‘bad’ (e.g., a prostitute) still have moral standards?  Can a person truly repent if they have not atoned, and if they profit by their crime?  Is a ‘disinterested’ act truly free from self-interest?  The fable is an inverted crime story set in the holy city of Varanasi, “city of light, city of the right way, city of the wrong way”. H.K. Verma, a ‘good’ (idealist) person, has killed another ‘good’ person, morally upright ex-freedom fighter Mrs. Popatkar, to cover up a secret and become Minister for Social Benefit (self-interest), but wants the position to improve the lot of the unfortunate (idealism).  Our sympathies are mostly with him; as in Freeman’s Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight, the murder is not premeditated but the result of a loss of control.  Keating makes a majestic use of Hindu themes of guilt and expiation, particularly the concepts of vajratepa (crimes committed in Benares are “hard as rock”) and moksha (if someone dies in Varanasi, they are released from their sins and the cycle of rebirth), to examine the moral issue from all angles.  In a scene that recalls Claudius’s prayer in Hamlet, the murderer tries to wash away his sins in the Ganges; he may seek release from sin, but his act still has consequences.

One thought on “H.R.F. Keating: The crime novel as fable

  1. Many thanks for this, Nick, very informative. I’m surprised, given that I own a copy of Keating’s “Writing Crime Fiction”, where he talks, for example, about how to hide a clue, that he was less interested in the mystery itself. And while I can understand someone murdering the (in this book) deeply annoying Desai, I don’t think a book where the hero covers up a murder is really my thing. Ah well…

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