The Body in the Billiard Room (Keating)

  • By H.R.F. Keating
  • First published: UK: Hutchinson, 1987; US: Viking, 1987

Keating’s spoof of the detective story. Ghote is sent to Ootacamund, an Indian hill station where time hasn’t changed since the 1930s, to investigate the murder of a billiards marker on the table where snooker was invented by Neville Chamberlain (his claim to fame, rather than letting the Germans invade Czechoslovakia). The characters are Indian versions of stock figures, e.g. the mysterious widow, the rich squire and his unfaithful younger wife, and the wealthy man of mystery who may be a criminal. The plotting is stronger than normal for Keating: the murderer is the least likely person (who commits suicide because Ghote turns a blind eye) and the method is fairly clued.

Although the book is an homage to the trad detective story, it also points out its lack of reality (the bit where Ghote reads Mrs McGinty’s Dead and Keating contrasts Christie with real life – the thuggish local cop, a corrupt bully). Note also the clearing of all the suspects, a (very brief) false solution, then the real one; and that the characters read Into the Valley of Death by Evelyn Hervey (a.k.a. HRF Keating).


1987 Hutchinson (UK)

Is Inspector Ghote the new Hercule Poirot?  To Ghote it seemed an odd notion, but Surinder Mehta MC would accept no denial and expressly summons Bombay’s favourite detective to the famed hill station of Ootacamund to solve the mysterious murder of the Club’s billiard marker, found stabbed through the heart on the billiard table of Ooty’s most historic club.

Ghote finds himself cast in the role of the new ‘Great Detective’, spiritual heir to Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, required to perform magical acts of analysis and deduction.  Secretly cursing his luck, he dutifully sets about investigating a true detective-story list of suspects: the efficient secretary, Iyer; the voluptuous Maharani and faithless Maharajah; the mysterious Lucy Trayling; the puzzling Professor Godbole; the elusive retired railway official, Mr. Habibullah.  And with Surinder Mehta as his tireless present-day Watson—or Captain Hastings—Ghote find that his investigations are more hindered than he has experienced in his career to date. But one by one he strikes off suspects from his list, and by the book’s end the world of the classical story has been turned on its head, in a dénouement that is as unexpected as it is ingenious.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (T.J. Binyon, 9th October 1987): Inspector Ghote is summoned to the famous hill station of Ootacamund by the influential Surinder Mehta M.C., former ambassador to Yuroglavia.  Having read an account of one of Ghote’s earlier cases, Mehta believes him to be India’s answer to Hercule Poirot, and just the man, therefore, to find out who murdered the billiard marker at the Ootacamund Club and laid him out neatly on the billiard table.  Is it just a simple dacoity, as the local policeman, Inspector Meenakshisunderam, believes, or is it a case worthy of the pen of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers?  As well as being an exceedingly neat and witty entertainment, The Body on the Billiard Table is also a kind of meta-detective story, an ingenious commentary on its own nature.