The Murder of the Maharajah (Keating)

  • By H.R.F. Keating
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1980; US: Doubleday, 1980

For the fiftieth anniversary of the Collins Crime Club, Keating wrote a detective story of the type published in the period, transported to India: The Murder of the Maharajah at his country estate (a palace), by one of the assembled relatives and guests, including a rakish heir, his flapper mistress, a half-witted solider or two, and a dyspeptic American millionaire.  Unfortunately, many of the characters—two ghastly Americans, who believe that “if it ain’t done the way it is back in the States, then it’s done wrong,” and a pompous British official who ought never to have had children, let alone his Kipling-spouting child, a nauseating concession to sentiment—are annoying.  In fact, there is a singular dearth of sympathetic characters: only DSP Howard and his Watson-Schoolmaster are at all likeable.  India is seen from the outside, and hence as “India the exotic,” rather than the everyday India of the Ghote novels.  Thankfully, the plot is one of the author’s best, although the detection is rather wishy-washy, with more psychology than cast-iron facts.  In short, a detective story like Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman, in which annoying characterisation is at odds with an excellent plot.

Interestingly enough, the theme of the novel seems to be whether progress, as represented by Henry Morton III, is any good if we are unable to appreciate beauty and painstaking craftsmanship rather than mass-produced “efficient” goods, a parable of the detective story itself in these benighted days.


Reviews

Times Literary Supplement (T.J. Binyon, 18th April 1980): Like all the Inspector Ghote stories, H.R.F. Keating’s latest book is set in India.  Not, however, the modern India of Ghote, but the India of 1930.  The period is that of the classical detective story, and the plot punctiliously follows the conventions of the genre.  A small group of people congregate in the Summer Palace of Bhopore; one becomes a victim, the others suspects; a detective—District Superintendent of Police Howard, a figure reminiscent of Kipling’s Strickland—is called in to unravel the mystery.  The presence of Agatha Christie (a name invoked by several of the characters) broods over the book, which cries out to be put on celluloid, in as luscious a production as that of her Death on the Nile.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Set in 1930, in the state of Bhopore, whose Rajah is very fond of practical jokes.  One of these (stuffing bark up the exhaust pipe of a visitor’s Rolls Royce) leads to his own murder at a shooting party.  Det. Supt. Howard interviews suspects and hangers-on and finally tumbles to the trick.  On the last page we learn that the admiring Watson would like his son—should he ever have one—to join the police, and that his name is Ghote!