Not a Perfect Murder
A weak link in a great crime series
By Ashok Banker
BREAKING AND ENTERING
By H.R.F. Keating
Another one of the delicious ironies of life: an English crime novelist found fame in the US with a detective novel set in India. The novel, The Perfect Murder, later made into a film of the same name by Merchant-Ivory, achieved what Henry Reymond Fitzwalter Keating's other English detective novels could not-transatlantic sales and critical acclaim. Almost 30 years and as many novels later, Keating's Inspector Ghote series occupies a permanent corner of the large, comforting, country manor of the English detective novel.
Keating's latest, Breaking and Entering, is not the best Ghote novel. But it's the best to start with if you're just discovering the series which he began without having visited India. Just as another British crime writer, James Hadley Chase, began writing thrillers set in the US without having visited the country.
The sense of contemporary Mumbai life-the housewives watching a daily soap, the city's name change, the humid October heat-remain the most endearing feature of any Ghote novel. In a city largely abandoned by Indian writers in English barring the occasional Rushdie, it's always pleasing to read familiar sights and sounds in fiction.
But despite the few instances of local detail, the Ghote novels are not realistic crime fiction. They are instead novels of manners with detective plots in the tradition of the "cozies" and "armchair mysteries" that continue to be so hugely popular in America. Instead of the English manor or country club, Ghote prowls Mumbai thoroughfares. Instead of eccentric inbred English aristocrats, he encounters eccentric inbred Parsi socialites, gossip columnists and fraudulent jewellers. Beneath the descriptions of dusty roads and ever-so-slightly tweaked "Indian" names - Ajmani, Latika, Dinkarrao - this is a very English novel. Keating's by now irritatingly familiar attempt to capture the broken English patois of Ganesh Ghote is another deterrent. This kind of patter is bad enough in the juvenile pulp of authors like Anurag Mathur and the poppish new breed of Hinglish films like Bombay Boys and Hyderabad Blues. It's painful to trudge through pages of internal monologue that try hard to amuse and entertain western readers. Thankfully, the narration quickly settles into a more readable style and the tapori bhasha is relegated to dialogue.
Breaking and Entering is about two separate criminal cases, one, a series of jewellery thefts, the other, a "locked-room" murder. And Keating pulls out old aces from a worn sleeve: the baffling murder in a high-security bungalow and the reappearance of Ghote's Swedish friend, among other clues, underline the story's resemblance to the first and best Ghote novel. But sadly, this one doesn't quite live up to the debut freshness of that novel.
Still, it's hard to dislike it. Short, pithy, immensely readable if you come to it without bias, it's a pastime romp through a westerner's notion of what contemporary Mumbai life must be like. It's a reasonably amusing detective mystery too. Don't expect too much and you'll come away mildly entertained. For better crime fiction, you'll have to pick up Keating's English mysteries, notably the Rich Detective, Bad Detective series. Mumbai still awaits a truly great detective series to explore the city's unique beauty, charm and sleaze. Ghote was just one attempt, the only commercially successful one. Surely our great brood of Indo-Anglian writers can do better?