1 May 2011

And Then There Were Two: a review of Ibne Safi's The Laughing Corpse & HRF Keating's Inspector Ghote Trusts the Heart

The recent reissue of two detective fiction series reminds you of all that is wonderful about the genre

TWO EXTREMELY popular detective fiction series have been reissued recently: the Inspector Ghote mysteries and four Urdu novels in English translation from Ibne Safi’s Jasoosi Duniya series. The mild-mannered Inspector Ghote of the Bombay CID was perhaps crime writer HRF Keating’s most loved character. Keating, who died on 27 March 2011 at the age of 84, had famously never been to Mumbai (or India) when he wrote his first Ghote book in 1961. The decision to set his new detective series in Mumbai was apparently taken while browsing through an atlas, with an eye on the American market, which he believed would warm to an international locale more than it had to his British settings. (They did.)

The Jasoosi Duniya novels, too, are clearly gunning for an international feel. But here it is not the detective — the dapper aristocrat-turned-policeman, Inspector (later Colonel) Faridi — who is foreign. It is the various villains — monkey- faced Finch, of Goan Portuguese descent, once a circus performer in the US; notorious American arch-criminal Dr Dread, known for his knowledge of poisons; half-Chinese, half-Mongolian Sing Hee, who likes to squeeze his victims to death. Then there are other things that create an ‘international’ ambience — like characters dining at a restaurant called the Arlecchino, or flirting with girls at an ice skating rink. All of these glamourous touches, however, seem added — as in generations of popular Hindi films — to try and create a larger-than-life aura around a cultural universe otherwise perfectly recognisable to Safi’s subcontinental Urdu readership. This is a universe in which it is not seen as surprising that an intelligent “small-boned” 18-year-old girl should have been married off to her large cousin with speech defects “to keep the riches in the family” — and yet the incongruity of the match is remarked upon, with Ibne Safi’s gentle humour.

This interest in unpeeling the social world around the crime, the clear-eyed understanding of how class and power operate, influencing even the most intimate relationships, is perhaps the only thing common to these very different styles of fiction. If Inspector Ghote Trusts the Heart unpacks the precarious circumstances created by a rich man being asked to pay a ransom for the tailor’s son who has been kidnapped instead of his own, The Laughing Corpse centres around the kidnapping of a “lowly typist” whose unexpected inheritance had suddenly made her the town’s most eligible girl. The staunchly middle class Ghote, who worries about taxi fares, dreams of cold buttermilk when he watches his rich complainant pour himself a Scotch and must muster all the courage at his command to exert a semblance of authority in the face of social superiors, could not be more unlike Faridi, a man with a private income who comes to detection out of a passion for criminology, has a degree from Oxford and owns a palatial house with its own laboratory and library. But in both Keating and Safi, there is that deepdown stock-in-trade of the best crime fiction — an abiding interest in how the world works.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 18, Dated 07 May 2011

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