Zen There Was Murder (Keating)

A group of students attend a week-long seminar on Zen; a Japanese sword is stolen; and ends up in one of the group.

I’ve wanted to read this one for 20 years – and it’s the detective story I’ve enjoyed most in ages.  It strikes a near-classic balance between characterisation and story, with a clever, well-clued plot.  There’s an ingenious (and original?) device for misleading the reader, and a hidden relationship.

Like Keating’s beloved Agatha Christie, we’re involved with the suspects, rather than watching the Scotland Yard Inspector wearyingly question bank clerks and railway porters, measure footprints, or mull over timetables.

The detective is Mr. Utamaro, a Japanese Zen version of Father Brown or Hercule Poirot – wise, shrewd, and impish.  He’s also an early example of Keating’s interest in non-Western ways of understanding; he doesn’t use logic or reason, mental constructs that get in the way of seeing things as they are.

  • “The mind tangled in the dualism of logic is capable of the utmost illogicality.”
  • “When one has stopped subjecting everything to notions of logic and comparison, whatever comes to hand comes to hand.”
  • “I am not trammeled by notions of logic and so I see facts for what they are and not for what they ought to be.”
  • “I am mad, because I do not subscribe to the conventions that govern your world. It must be difficult for you. But it cannot be changed.”
  • “I am sure of everything. Either I know a thing or I do not. It is only when you add from your mind to what is put before you that you become uncertain. you wonder whether what you have added is right or wrong.”
  • “Thought makes you blind. It is best to see.”
  • “The man who has abandoned reason is the one to see through false reasoning.”

(Or as another mischievous sage once said: “Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority!”)


Observer (Maurice Richardson, 12th June 1960): The house-party whodunnit brought up to date at a Home Counties mansion turned into an academy of adult education with a week-end course on Zen Buddhism.  Victim, a pert provocative redhead named Flaveen, is a bit stock, but suspects, including dotty clergyman, gallant battered woman journalist with toneless husband, spinster, schoolmaster, and sociologist, are all satisfyingly quirkish.  Detection by the lecturer, Mr. Utamuro, laced with familiar Zen riddles and not so metaphysical practical jokes.  Crisp elided writing with excellent dialogue especially of two German girl domestics.  Might be by a bright young quinquagenarian don out of Agatha Christie, which is not such a bad pedigree.

Times Literary Supplement (Anthony Lejeune, 24th June 1960): CATEGORIES OF KNOWLEDGE

Mr. H.R.F. Keating seems more interested in the manner than in the matter of his detective stories.  His first, Death and the Visiting Firemen, was remarkable chiefly for a style peppered with staccato verbless stage directions: in his new book, Zen There Was Murder, this affectation persists but has been blessedly toned down.  The setting is a country house at which a residential course on Zen Buddhism is being held.  When an attractive female student is run through with a Japanese sword, the instructor, Mr. Utamaro, demonstrates the superiority of Zen thought over Western logic by finding the murderer.  The suspects are none of them very real or very likeable, nor is the solution particularly convincing: but Mr. Utamaro, with his bland shrewdness and his disturbingly pointless Zen anecdotes, is an irresistible character.  He suggests that Mr. Keating is still a writer to watch.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Surprising in view of the title is the fact that this book gives us less fantasy and more detection than any other book by H.R.F.K.  The scene is a large house in which Zen doctrines are being taught to the usual bunch of miscellaneous converts.  Objects disappear, people conceal their true or previous relationships, murder is committed by the least likely person (for extraneous motives) and under great pressure of time.  The Japanese sage convinces, and one or two of the other people are good also.