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.
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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.
The bustling city of Bombay serves as the backdrop for the story, with its bustling bazaars, diverse communities, and strict social hierarchies. Keating masterfully weaves in details about Indian customs, traditions, and religious beliefs, immersing the reader in the unique cultural atmosphere. The investigation delves into the lives of characters from different social strata, showcasing the complexities of Indian society, from the wealthy elite to the struggling working class.
Keating, never having visited India, paints a surprisingly accurate picture of Bombay. The bustling streets, the diverse communities, and the social hierarchies come alive through his descriptions. He captures the essence of a nation undergoing rapid modernization, where tradition and progress collide.
The characters of “The Perfect Murder” are as Indian as the landscape they inhabit. From the dedicated Inspector Ghote, navigating the complexities of the police force, to the enigmatic Mrs. Gupta and her family, each character embodies various aspects of Indian society. Their struggles, aspirations, and secrets reflect the realities of life in a country grappling with its changing identity. Keating’s narrative, while written by a Westerner, invites us to see the world through Indian eyes. We experience the frustrations of bureaucracy, the weight of familial obligations, and the nuances of social interaction. This insider perspective allows for a deeper understanding of the motives and actions of the characters, enriching the reading experience.
“The Perfect Murder” is not just a crime novel; it’s a snapshot of India in a specific historical moment. The postcolonial era, with its political and social upheavals, forms the backdrop of the story. This adds another layer of depth to the narrative, allowing us to appreciate how societal dynamics influence the characters’ actions. Despite its specific setting, “The Perfect Murder” explores themes that are universal to the human experience. Greed, ambition, betrayal, and the pursuit of justice resonate with readers across cultures. This universality ensures that the novel remains relevant and engaging even decades after its publication.
For Indian readers, “The Perfect Murder” offers a glimpse into a bygone era. It provides a window into the values, customs, and challenges faced by a society undergoing significant change. It’s a nostalgic journey that evokes memories and emotions, reminding us of who we are and how far we have come.While the novel might delve into the darker aspects of society, “The Perfect Murder” ultimately celebrates the richness and diversity of Indian culture. The vibrant tapestry of traditions, languages, and religions comes alive in the characters and their interactions. This celebration reminds us of the inherent strength and beauty of Indian society.
The protagonist, Inspector Ghote, embodies the essence of India. He is a man of integrity and intelligence, navigating the often-turbulent waters of his profession with a blend of pragmatism and idealism. Ghote’s internal conflicts, caught between upholding his duty and facing societal pressures, offer a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by individuals within a changing social landscape.
The novel doesn’t shy away from depicting the darker aspects of Indian society, including corruption, poverty, and social injustice. The investigation into Mrs. Gupta’s murder reveals hidden secrets and exposes the underbelly of Bombay’s elite. However, Keating also portrays the resilience and humanity of ordinary Indians, showcasing their strength, humor, and compassion in the face of adversity.
“The Perfect Murder” remains relevant even today, offering insights into the enduring social and cultural fabric of India. The themes of ambition, greed, and the pursuit of justice resonate universally, while the portrayal of Indian society provides a valuable window into a complex and fascinating nation.While the mystery at the heart of the novel keeps the reader engaged, it’s the exploration of Indian culture and society that makes “The Perfect Murder” truly remarkable. It transcends the confines of a detective story, offering a poignant and thought-provoking reflection on India’s past, present, and future.
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.
Some critics also say that as he has not visited Bombay before writing the novel, the novel seems to be very British in manner. They claim that the linguistic element is not perfect. Smith defends him saying that Keating has used that tone in order to grab larger audience but not only the Indians. He wanted people to know the culture of India and know more about Indian people. Lala uses silly rhymes such as secretary merketary, locking-shocking which replicates the novel’s true Indian nature. The very description of houses and windows seem to be very Indian and one won’t feel the fact that Keating has never visited India before. There lies the artistry of an artist.
While “The Perfect Murder” may not be a completely authentic portrayal of India, it remains a valuable contribution to the literary landscape. It serves as a reminder that even the most seemingly perfect murder can be unraveled through keen observation, cultural understanding, and a relentless pursuit of justice. It’s a story that continues to intrigue and inspire readers across generations, offering a glimpse into a fascinating world and the timeless human spirit.