British novelist and books critic H.R.F. (Henry Reymond Fitzwalter) Keating—who died last week at age 84—provided an excellent contradiction to that all-too-familiar instruction, “Write what you know.” He knew next to nothing about India when, in the early 1960s, he began penning a mystery series set on the subcontinent.
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By that point Keating had already composed five standalone whodunits (beginning with 1959’s Death and the Visiting Firemen) that appealed to lovers of whimsical, highly complex plots, but which American publishers thought were “too British” for their audiences. Determined to crack the U.S. market, Keating created a modest and married little Bombay Police inspector, Ganesh Ghote (pronounced Go-tay), who he thought was upstanding enough to appeal to Americans, but who also worked in an environment exotic enough to maintain the author’s interest.
The fact that Keating had never once set foot in Ghote’s homeland before that time, that in fact he wasn’t much of a traveler, and his only connection to India was that he’d learned as a boy to count to five in Hindustani did nothing to impede him from concocting the first Ghote novel, A Perfect Murder (1964). That book went on to win the British Crime Writers’ Association’s (CWA) prestigious Gold Dagger Award and be adapted in 1988 into a big-screen, Merchant Ivory film production of the same name. It also convinced American critics, among them mystery-fiction authority Anthony Boucher, that Keating was someone worth reading on this side of the Atlantic.
Keating—or “Harry,” as he was known by friends and just about anyone else he encountered—initially thought his oft-harassed but most able inspector might be worth following for a book or two. However, he wound up inflicting one crime after another on the gentle Ghote over the next 45 years, both in short stories and two dozen novels, all of which focused as much on how people deal with life as on the dispensation of death. Mentioned among the best entries in that series, in addition to The Perfect Murder, are Inspector Ghote Goes by Train (1971), The Body in the Billiard Room (a 1987 spoof on the tales of Agatha Christie), The Iciest Sin (1990) and Inspector Ghote’s First Case, published in 2008 but set around 1963, when Ghote’s wife, Protima, was heavy with their first child and Bombay seemed a world (and more than a few decades) away from what travelers now know as the overpopulated commercial and entertainment capital, Mumbai. The detective’s concluding appearance came in A Small Case for Inspector Ghote? (2009).
“There were two pleasures in reading an Inspector Ghote novel,” writer Vikram Doctor remarked in Time Out India magazine in 2000. “The first was the charm of abandonment to the ritual of the classic detective story, with its strict format of set-up—murder—clues and confusion—resolution; a tiny vision of order restored to contrast with a real world in which it rarely was…The second pleasure with the Ghote books was that [they were] set in Bombay…Novels set in this city, by Indian or foreign writers, are now common, but Ghote’s heyday was in the late ’60s and ’70s, when Salman Rushdie was still an advertising copywriter…Books that mentioned Bombay were either Raj-era melodramas or grim tales of Indian poverty. Yet [Keating’s] books were neither, but were just enjoyable detective novels, featuring a much put-upon, yet resolute officer of the Bombay Police Force, doing his job in recognizable places, like the zoo where, in Inspector Ghote Plays a Joker (1969), he investigates the mysterious killings of flamingos donated by the American government. It was an audacious enterprise, and part of the ritual of reading Ghote was to shake one’s head in wonder and say, ‘he did all this without ever visiting Bombay!’”
Which isn’t to say that Keating never made it to India.
As his friend and fellow novelist, Mike Ripley, related in a 2009 piece for the UK-based ezine Shots, sometime in the 1970s, Keating received a letter from the folks at Air India, offering him a round-trip ticket to Bombay. “The Ghote books were known and read in India,” Ripley wrote, “but still the prospect of confronting the ‘actuality’ of a world he had created in the safety of [London’s] Notting Hill several thousand miles away, must have been daunting if not nerve-wracking. Harry spent the entire Air India flight there calming his nerves and rehearsing an appropriate speech for that dramatic moment when he landed and stepped for the first time on to Indian soil. It went, as he recalls, ‘Something along the lines of “One small step for Inspector Ghote…’ but in reality the speech was never delivered. As the Air India jet landed and Harry stepped on to the tarmac of Bombay airport, his first historic words were: ‘My God, it’s hot!’ ”
The Sussex-born, Dublin-educated Keating has become so closely associated—in the States, as anywhere else—with his man Ghote, it’s easy to forget that the series represented only a fraction of his output. Following years as an editor with The Daily Telegraph and later the London Times (in the office of which he supposedly labored at Graham Greene’s former desk), Keating put in a decade and a half as The Times’ crime-fiction critic, beginning in 1967. It was his wife, the TV actress Sheila Mitchell, who encouraged him to try his hand at novel-writing, and he never looked back.
In addition to the Ghote books, Keating penned more than a dozen non-series novels, including The Murder of the Maharajah (1980), a superb historical work—essentially an English cozy shifted to the ostentatious setting of a maharajah’s palace—that earned him a second CWA Gold Dagger, and Jack, the Lady Killer (1999), a historical mystery told completely in verse. Under the nom de plume Evelyn Hervey, he wrote a trio of Anne Perry-like stories (beginning with 1984’s The Governess) that featured Harriet Unwin, a Victorian governess skilled at crime-solving. And in his later years, Keating developed another series, this one starring Detective Chief Inspector Harriet Martens, whose tough-on-crime approach had earned her the sobriquet “The Hard Detective” (which also served in 2000 as the title of her first novel-length outing). In 1996 the CWA gave him its Diamond Dagger award for lifetime achievement.
Keating enjoyed a second line as a crime-fiction scholar. He was considered a connoisseur of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, produced a guide called Writing Crime Fiction (1986) and in 2000, with an assist from Mike Ripley, assembled a controversial but oft-referenced list for The Times of the 100 best crime novels of the 20th century. For 15 years (1985-2000) he held forth as president of the Detection Club, a society of British crime writers founded in 1930. To demonstrate their affection for Harry Keating, and to honor him on his 80th birthday (Oct. 31, 2006), Detection Club members put together The Verdict of Us All, an anthology of new crime stories—including tales by Reginald Hill, P.D. James and Len Deighton—that memorialized both the veteran novelist and his literary creations. Who better to do the work? Those club members were, after all, writing about someone and something they knew.
H.R.F. Keating photo, above, by Ali Karim. Used with permission.