Keating was one of the more notable members of the generation of British post-GA writers, born after the First World War and before the Second (many of whom have, like Keating, now passed away: P. D. James, 1920-2014, Margraret Yorke, 1924-2012, Ruth Rendell, 1930-2015, Reginald Hill, 1936-2012, Robert Barnard, 1936-2013). Like James, Rendell, Hill and Yorke, Keating over his long writing career grew restive with the puzzle, though in many of his mysteries he adhered to the “rules” of classic detective fiction, constructing clued problems for readers to try to work through themselves.
Keating published his first detective novel in 1959, but it was not until 1964, with the appearance of The Perfect Murder, that he introduced the series character for whom he would become best known: the Indian police investigator Inspector Ganesh Ghote (“Go-tay”). The Perfect Murder became one of those books which every neophyte mystery author hopes to write. It won the Gold Dagger from the UK’s Crime Writers’ Association and was nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America.
The plot revolves around the murder of, or rather the attack on Mr.Perfect, a Parsi personal secretary to big shot businessman, Mr. Arun Varde. The attack on Mr. Perfect takes place inside the personal residence of Mr.Varde himself, which makes everyone in the Varde household a suspect.Enter Inspector Ghote, from the Bombay C.I.D. and his associate Mr.Axel Svensson, ”the big Swede” from the United Nations who is preparing a report on the workings of Bombay police. Things turn interesting as none from the Varde family cooperates with the police and try as much as he, Inspector Ghote could not progress much. On the other hand, his boss DSP Samant assigns Ghote to find a missing cash note from the desk of Minister of Police Affairs and the Arts. Curiously the investigation to the missing note is rivetingly described whereas the goings on of the Perfect Murder unfolds at a pace which does not always work. In a word this track drags, and like Ghote, we too readers are also frustrated at the lack of any clues whatsover.
As we see in chapter one Lala Arun Varde has called the Bombay police reporting ‘a perfect murder’ of his secretary at his house and as a result we can see that Inspector Ghote was assigned. We can see from the very beginning of the novel, it has a frustratred tone as from the description of Lala Arun Varde as well. The very first irony we can see in this novel is in the name of “The Perfect Murder”. Although it is not perfect murder but Perfect is the name of Lala Varde’s Parsi secretary Mr. Perfect. Arun Varde has reported the murder case only for two reasons- his business will be affected and his name has been tarnished. But he has no such actual remorse for his secretary.
The story begins with Ghote trying to get to grips with the reported murder of Arun Varde’s secretary. Varde who is wealthy and knows how to throw his weight about is a difficult man for Ghote to deal with. Ghote’s irritation reaches its’ peak when it turns out the secretary is not murdered but only badly injured. Nevertheless the case is stuck with the name the Perfect Murder, which sounds daunting to say the least, as Varde claims a business rival must have sent a man to kill his secretary, but this is impossible due to the high security of his home.
Again in chapter two we see that Ghote goes to investigate the site of the murder. He goes there and finds no dead body and this made him furious. The second irony that prevails in the text is seen here. Actually there is no mudrer at all. Varde’s secretary was only attached but he has not murder. Ghote became very angry for Varde’s silly call. He hired Ghote just because it was intended to be a murder. When Ghote met Mr. Perfect he found him to be unconscious, lean, weak and shallow breathing as well.
Ghote’s focus turns to the inmates of the house but Varde amongst other family members are incredibly difficult with him, refusing to answer questions, insulting and lying to him. Yet this is not all that Ghote has on his plate. Not only does he have to deal with the seemingly impossible theft of a rupee from the Minister of Police Affairs and Arts’ office, but he also has to help and escort Axel Svensson, an irrepressible Swede who is from UNESCO and is writing a book on police methods in different countries. As Ghote goes on to do in later books, he carefully walks the line of not offending his superiors too much, but also sticking to his guns to ensure justice is achieved.
On the night of the attack, he found out from his father about his wife’s affair- he was furious that his father was still doing business with him, and even inviting him on that day (for business regarding some land)- Mr. Perfect was asked by Lala to keep Gautamji away from Kamath(because he hates him, given the history; hence the whispering, and locking away the servants)- Mr Perfect was told that “Secrecy is best”- when he is in a darkly-lit room, Dilip comes and thinks it is Minister Kamath, and in a fit of rage he hits him with the candlestick on his head. Ghote says that the biggest irony is that this was the most imperfect murder ever.
At the root of this immobility of the narrative is the fact that it is more of a writer’s book than a reader’s. At many a times deep down somewhere it seemed as if Keating was deconstructing the form of the detective novel itself, where the story had become secondary and the structure became the focus. Yes, The Perfect Murder is a perfect work of art as Keating wrote about Bombay and India without ever visiting the country around till 1970, and like all perfect things it leaves you dissatisfied or asking for more. This may explain the fact why the book won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger and an Edgar Allen Poe Special Award. It is a book which draws on the tradition of English detective fiction which is its plus point as well as its weak point; Ghote is a pleasent other just like Agatha Christie’s Belgian hero Hercule Poirot was.
In terms of its language and descriptions there is an unmistakable literariness about it which is unique in crime fiction in general. The impending Bombay monsoons are brought alive with masterly narration towards the climax.Indeed the monsoons have a cathartic effect as the intriguing mystery is finally decoded by Ghote. It also adds to the humour and brings out the warmth of the characters of Inspector Ghote and Axel Svenssonn, and Ghote’s sweet marital life with wife Protima.
From the get go Keating is good at establishing an interesting setting in a culture which readers can identify with but also find difference in. Set in Bombay, the book also has in the background the legacy of Britain’s rule there and it is interesting to see how different characters refer to this, with some even appropriating attitudes or poses they align with British imperialism in India. For example, one of Varde’s sons explains to Axel why he thinks Ghote should not bother to try and investigate the attack on his father’s secretary, saying :
‘our policeman as he is today may be a good chap and all that, but he’s simply had no experience of how civilised people live. He’d be totally out of his depth in a house like this.’
And interestingly Ghote notices this appropriation of language by telling him to not ‘be more English than the English.’ Ghote is definitely a character you quickly sympathise with as both his superiors and his witnesses often use their status, position and wealth to dominate and bully him. On the whole this was an okay mystery and an easy read, but I think what let things down for me was that there needed to be more tangible clues and readers felt that Ghote’s lightning bolts of inspiration in solving his cases were a bit rushed and clumsily done. Equally readers felt the final solutions were bit a basic and could have been more creatively done. Title of the text is however ironical because there is no murder at all but the story revolves around the attempted murder.