Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. H.R.F. Keating made outstanding contributions to the crime fiction genre; little wonder he won the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for those contributions and for his service to the genre. His death last year left a hole and this feature can only be improved by a look at some of his work. Today let’s do that and turn the spotlight on the prequel to Keating’s popular and highly-regarded Inspector Ghote series, Inspector Ghote’s First Case.
Ganesh Ghote has just been promoted from Assistant Inspector to Inspector in the Bombay police force. He’s not only joyful about it from a professional point of view but he is also excited because his wife Protima is about to give birth to their first child. Ghote’s promotion will mean they can move to a better place with more room. He has little time to celebrate though. No sooner does Ghote receive word of his promotion than he is summoned to the office of Sir Rustom Engineer, Head of the Crime Branch for Bombay’s police force.
Sir Rustom tells Ghote that he’s had a letter from a former friend Robert Dawkins, who now lives several hours away in Mahableshwar. It seems that Dawkins’ wife Iris has recently committed suicide and Dawkins wants to know the reason. As a favour to a former friend, Sir Rustom sends Ghote to Mahableshwar to find out what happened to make Iris Dawkins so distraught that she would kill herself. Ghote isn’t happy about leaving Protima when she’s so near to giving birth, but he doesn’t see how he can turn down Sir Rustom’s request. So, without even remembering to pack anything or exchange his Assistant Inspector’s uniform for an Inspector’s uniform, Ghote sets out for Mahableshwar.
When he arrives, he meets the various members of the Dawkins household. There’s of course Robert Dawkins. There’s also Dawkins’ khansamah (house steward) Kuldip Mudholkar and his houseboy Chintu. Each in a different way, all three tell Ghote about the day Iris Dawkins shot herself and he slowly begins to get a picture of the people involved and of the shooting. In the process of doing so he learns of some of the people in Iris Dawkins’ past. From them he discovers that Iris Dawkins had a very tragic history.
Bit by bit Ghote begins to believe that Iris Dawkins was murdered. At first he’s not happy about that possibility because it’s certainly not what Sir Rustom is going to want to hear. Besides, there turn out to be some reasons Iris Dawkins might have committed suicide. But the clues don’t add up to that and each bit of evidence he gets convinces Ghote more and more that this is a case of murder. So he returns to the original murder scene and puts the evidence together. In the end Ghote discovers the truth about Iris Dawkins’ death.
This novel has several elements of the classic detective novel in it. Ghote finds out what happened to Iris Dawkins through looking at evidence, talking to witnesses and suspects, following leads and so on. Ghote is a police officer and his status gives him access to witnesses and facts that an amateur wouldn’t have. But you couldn’t really put this squarely in the category of a police procedural. Very little action happens at the police station and although there’s a touch of police politics involved, the focus is much more on the murder mystery than on life as a cop.
The action takes place in Mumbai (Bombay) and Mahableshwar in the early 1960’s, and Keating places the reader there in several ways. First, there’s the physical setting. Here, for instance, are some of Ghote’s thoughts on his first sight of Dawkins’ home:
“Oh, yes, of course, he said to himself, that roof covering must be just only kulum grass. Although I have never before been in Mahableshwar, I was once somehow learning that, because of the violence of the monsoons here, many houses are protected by having kulum grass spread thickly on their roofs…
But now, in the joyous month of Chiatra, the grass in the garden here is green and delightfully fresh, and in that long flowerbed beside the path bright red cannas are just breaking into bloom.”
This little snippet also shows that Keating places the reader in Bombay and Mahableshwar through the use of dialect and speech patterns. Readers who prefer dialect-free use of language will be disappointed. That said though, the use of English in the way it was used in the early 1960’s in that part of India adds to the sense of place.
Indian independence was less than twenty years old at the time this novel takes place, so the element of Anglo/Indian relations runs through this book. Dawkins for instance is a traditional English sahib who doesn’t think much of Indians. But Keating doesn’t paint all of the English characters as bad, nor are all of the Indians depicted in a positive way. It’s not quite that simple and Keating doesn’t pretend that it is.
This novel also has a strong element of characterisation in it. Ganesh Ghote, for instance, is a dutiful and dedicated police detective. He’s also intuitive and bright. To Ghote, finding out the truth is more important than anyone’s title or rank as he is not much of a respecter of privilege. He is also a loving husband and excited father-to-be. But that doesn’t mean he’s perfect. For instance, he goes back and forth about most of his decisions; even Protima, who loves him very much, comments about the fact that he can’t make up his mind. He’s also concerned enough about rank and his job that he’s willing to leave his wife just before she’s due to give birth and travel several hours away. Some people would say that’s not exactly a loving thing to do, especially since he and Protima don’t have a telephone. Still, the fact that Ghote’s not perfect adds to the depth of his character. After all, people don’t tend to be really engaged with a character who has no faults.
Then there’s Protima herself. She’s bright, interesting and actually gives Ghote an extremely important perspective on this case. She’s shrewd, too. For instance, although she understands her husband’s sense of duty about the Dawkins case, she is not at all happy that he has to leave her right before she gives birth. So she thinks of a very clever way to bring him back to Bombay. Some might call her decision manipulative, but it also shows a little of her depth of character.
Characterisation plays another role in this novel too. The explanation for what happened to Iris Dawkins is all about character and as Ghote leans more about the case, we see how all of the characters’ personalities play roles in the solution to it.
There’s a thread of humour too. For instance, Ghote discovers to his chagrin that an old nemesis from the Nasik Police Training School named Pathan Barrani is the local police authority in Mahableshwar and is officially in charge of the Dawkins case. Ghote’s nickname for Barrani is Bully Barrani, or Bullybhoy and the name suits. The interactions between these two police officers aren’t funny in a “comic-caper” way, but it is funny to see how Ghote does all he can to solve the case without having to deal with his old rival. It’s also funny, and quite human, to see how satisfied Ghote is when he discovers the solution to the case and presents it to Barrani.
Inspector Ghote’s First Case is in many ways a classic detective story with an element of psychology and a hint of humour, set in a distinctive location. Although it’s actually the 25th Inspector Ghote story, it sets the stage for the rest of the series and gives the reader a look at life in Mumbai and Mahableshwar in the early 1960’s. But what’s your view? Have you read Inspector Ghote’s First Case? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 6 August/Tuesday 7 August – Traces of Red – Paddy Richardson
Monday 13 August/Tuesday 14 August – White Sky, Black Ice – Stan Jones
Monday 20 August/Tuesday 21 August – Edwin of the Iron Shoes – Marcia Muller