Decaying Imperialist Idylls and the ‘Great Detective’ in H. R. F. Keating’s The Body in the Billiard Room (1987)

The Body in the Billiard Room

From the very title of this book, readers can already see the evident nod towards Golden Age crime fiction, Agatha Christie in particular, the title possibly being a parody of Christie’s Miss Marple novel, The Body in the Library (1942). The referencing of Christie novels continues throughout the novel, along with allusions to the works of Sayers, Doyle and Innes. Furthermore, conventions of Golden Age detective fiction are not only referenced by the eager detective fiction fan Surinder Mehth, but are overtly and subtlety interwoven into the novel.

 
The novel begins with Inspector Ghote being requested by the Assistant Commissioner to look into a murder, in a private capacity, at Ooctacamund (Ooty for short), having being asked for by Mr Surinder Mehth, who doesn’t believe the killing was a robbery gone wrong. The billiard room marker has been found stabbed in the billiard room and for a significant amount of pages is referred to as ‘the body in the billiard room’. This lack of individuality in the victim arguably ties in to Plain’s idea that murder was sanitised in Golden Age detective fiction, leaving the victim as a ‘corpse-as-signifier,’ (Plain, 2001: 32) an item to be examined for clues which will solve a puzzle. The emphasis in the novel is placed most strongly on Ghote’s investigation and the suspects, rather than the victim, which perhaps corroborates Plain’s argument. Moreover, the unusual crime scene corresponds with the concept W. H. Auden raises in his essay, ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ (1948). In this essay he suggests that the setting for a detective novel should preferably be idyllic because ‘the more Eden-like… [the setting], the greater the contradiction of murder’ (Auden, 1948: 408). The ‘contradiction’ is important because it provides the shock factor for the reader.

 
Despite India claiming independence around 40 years previously, Ooty can be regarded as an attempt to recreate Imperialist India, which its inhabitants nostalgically hold on to. The place is likened to the Garden of Eden, a paradise, but Ghote mentally notes that there is a snake within this idyll, in the form of the murderer. With Ghote arriving at Ooty, there is a clash of cultures, which at times is humorous such as Ghote’s funny misunderstanding of a road sign: Sleep while driving is prohibited, but can also be very serious and difficult for Ghote, who feels as though he does not belong. One of the reasons why this book is enjoyable to read is that as readers we are able to see some of what Ghote is thinking, through the use of free indirect discourse and it is evident early on that Ghote has a vivid imagination and is sensitive to his surroundings. Like a Golden Age detective story, Ghote seemingly has a closed set of suspects and on whom Mr Surinder wishes Ghote to use Poirot’s conversation technique to whittle out the guilty party, much to Ghote’s horror. The suspects are, Professor Godbole, Mr Ali Akbar Habibullah who appears to eat only desserts, Mrs Trayling and the Maharajah of Pratapgadh and his wife.

 
A particular trial for Ghote during this investigation is that the label of ‘The Great Detective’ is foisted upon him by the likes of Mr Surinder and others at the club. Moreover, Mr Surinder continually expects Ghote to solve the crime using the methods of Poirot (a detective character Ghote has never heard of), rather than conventional police methods, which if followed, probably would have solved the case much quicker. He adds further labels to Ghote calling him ‘India’s answer to Hercule Poirot’. Mr Surinder’s obsession with Agatha Christie novels extends to a longing for a return to the past (and possibly therefore British rule of India) where apparently life was good and ordered:

‘Light reading? Agatha Christie and the others are much more than that. Those books, you know, show you the world as it ought to be. My dear fellow, when I read them first in England, I felt as if I was seeing things straight for the first time in my life. A world where the evil man, or the evil woman, by Jove, is always brought to justice in the end. That’s as things should be, you know. as things should be. Not like our wretched India today…’

Mr Surinder frequently frustrates Ghote, acting as though he is in a Christie novel and wanting to take on the role of Watson, although as Ghote notes Mr Surinder is rather a ‘domineering Watson’ who conversely holds the power in the relationship as he has the influence to affect Ghote’s police career. Whilst being forced to solve the crime in the intuitive style of Poirot, Ghote is faced with playing a game almost, of whose rules he is not familiar or seem outlandish such as the fictional principle that the least likely suspect is the one who did it or the suspect with an unbreakable alibi is the guilty one. To Ghote these two categories suggest innocent people, whereas for Mr Surinder these imply guilt and Ghote’s attitude towards Mr Surinder’s views progress from confusion to irritation at such illogicalness. Despite these many trials Ghote does unearth several reasons why Pichu, the dead man might have been murdered, centring around the likely idea of him being a blackmailer.

 
A key theme of the novel is the idea of the Great Detective, a term conjuring up visions of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, detectives whose powers to solve crimes seem unsurpassable and according to one of the characters, Professor Godbole, have mythical heroic status. However, I think that his enthusiasm along with Mr Surinder’s for the Great Detective and all it represents, is a way for these two characters to impose their ideas of English culture, literature and detection upon Ghote and Indian culture. Ghote is not allowed for example, to be an Indian police detective, he has to be referred to as ‘India’s Poirot,’ a version of a Western ideal. This ties into the place of Ooty itself, which is another form of imposing a “British” way of life on another culture with its place names (including Charing Cross), its food, ‘Dundee Marmalade’ and social activities. In a way both Surinder and Godbole are being ethnocentric, ‘look[ing] at the world primarily from the perspective of… [their] own culture’ (Boundless, 2015). They can only see their version of detection and react negatively towards Ghote’s alternative viewpoint. For example, when Professor Godbole has been eulogising extensively the strengths of the Great Detective figure and the way they solve crimes, Ghote finally cracks:

‘But no,’ he broke in with abrupt rebellion, ‘that is not the way offences under Section 302 of Indian Penal Code are dealt with. I myself have never acted like any Great Detective’

The word ‘rebellion’ portrays Ghote as turning away from and undermining the Western concept of the Great Detective. Moreover, he refuses to be identified with such a figure. However, Godbole does not respond to this well, saying that ‘it seems as if I have been casting such pearls as I have before-’. The only word missing is swine. For Godbole, anyone who undervalues the Great Detective cannot be intelligent or cultured enough to appreciate such crime solving figures in the first place. Ghote’s rejection of the Great Detective concept continues when he ‘felt…infuriated at having Hercule Poirot and his methods thrust in his face once more’.

 
However, the continual bombardment against Ghote to fit the mould of his so called predecessors, Holmes and Poirot, do take their toll on Ghote, who strives to meet their high standards and unconventional methods; even trying pipe smoking like Sherlock Holmes to solve the case. Arguably this is an example of cultural hegemony which is where ‘the success of the dominant classes in presenting their definition of reality, their view of the world, in such a way that it is accepted by other classes as “common sense”’ (Goldberg, 2001). This is seen in the novel when Ghote stops trying to counter argue Surinder’s ideas on detection and instead tries to follow them up, even finishing reading the Christie novel Surinder loans him, Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952). It takes many attempts for Ghote to see the absurdity of ignoring his own detective style and instincts and to realise that the Great Detectives are not infallible. This latter point is illustrated during the talk Professor Godbole conveniently gives on the theme of the Great Detective and this realisation that Great Detectives are not always successful leads to Ghote’s first breakthrough on the case. Moreover, this breakthrough is also contributed to by Ghote’s appropriation of a Western concept of the ‘trances’ Great Detectives go into to solve crimes and incorporates it with his own ideas, namely Yoga and the mediation works of Dr. Joshi:

‘It must have been dharana, not sleep, that had overcome him. It might even have been dhyana. But, whichever it was, somewhere inside him it had linked together things he had seen but not observed… He had done just what Professor Godbole had said Mr Sherlock Holmes did: he had fused into a new whole the products of reasoning and the jumping lightning strokes of intuition.’

Furthermore, in order to identify the killer, Ghote goes on a walk, having first purchased a pipe to smoke to emulate Holmes. Yet this ends in Ghote feeling sick and in anger, he throws the pipe into a stream. He likens the pipe to an ‘angry snake-demon,’ which is a reminder of the “evil” lurking in Ooty, yet by this point in the novel, elements of decay and neglect are revealed undermining the paradise quality. Ghote feels upset once he has recovered, thinking ‘it was he himself who had been defeated… defeated in his struggle to become a true, pipe-smoking Great Detective’. Yet it is on his return walk, unencumbered with a pipe, that the answer reveals itself to him, which could suggest that Ghote can only succeed as a detective when he uses his own skills and not those from another culture’s, namely British crime fiction. In addition, in moving away from the Great Detective persona and asserting his own independence and confidence, Ghote is able to reverse the power balance between himself and Mr Surinder. This is exemplified when Mr Surinder resigns from the role of Watson, leaving Ghote to confront the killer. Throughout the novel Mr Surinder’s acts as though solving the murder was a game or a puzzle, devised by Christie herself and is therefore unable to deal with the very real consequences which occur at the end of a criminal investigation.

 
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, with its Golden Age detective fiction motif and its humorous meta-fictional comments; with Ghote emphasising they cannot follow the rules of a Christie novel as they themselves are not in a detective novel. Moreover, Ghote is an engaging character and his confrontation with imperialist values and the figure of the Great Detective shadowing over him is thought provoking. It is hardly surprising at the end of the novel that he can’t wait to leave Ooty, a paradise which has been exposed as rotten and decaying but whose inhabitants cannot accept this. Ghote is eager to go home to Bombay, with its sweltering heat and high crime rates, as he sees this as a return to a dynamic and ever changing reality.

 

Rating: 4/5

 

Sources:
Auden, W. (1948). The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the Detective Story by an Addict. Harper Magazine. May, pp. 406-412.

Boundless. (2015). Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism. Available: https://www.boundless.com/sociology/textbooks/boundless-sociology-textbook/culture-3/culture-and-society-29/ethnocentrism-and-cultural-relativism-186-4770/. Last accessed 17/07/2015.

Goldberg, M. (2001). Hegemony. Available: https://faculty.washington.edu/mlg/courses/definitions/hegemony.html. Last accessed 17/07/2015

Plain, G. (2002). Twentieth Century Crime Fiction: Gender, Sexuality and the Body. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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6 Responses to Decaying Imperialist Idylls and the ‘Great Detective’ in H. R. F. Keating’s The Body in the Billiard Room (1987)

  1. Pingback: ‘Answering machines feature hugely’ – #1987book round-up | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  2. tracybham says:

    Very interesting review. I still haven’t read any mystery fiction by Keating, although I have read his guide to crime fiction, Whodunit?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks. I’ve also read Keating’s guide too. This is only my first Keating novel, but I think I would definitely read others from the series. Doesn’t seem like you need to read them in sequential order. What crime fiction do you tend to read?

    Like

    • tracybham says:

      I like to read a mix of crime fiction, but favorites are: Golden Age mysteries, police procedurals, espionage fiction (which some think doesn’t count as crime fiction). Rex Stout is my favorite author of mysteries.

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      • Yeah espionage does have an ambivalent place in the literary field. Crimes do occur in espionage novels so can definitely be counted as crime fiction, but I think people have reservations in including it as detective fiction, because the main characters are often thinking on their feet and responding to things in their immediate surroundings, rather than following a well thought out investigation with clues and interviewing. Think Manning Coles is probably one of my favourite espionage writers. Also read a couple of Rex Stout’s as well: The League of Frightened Men and Fer-de-lance. The relationship between Nero Wolfe and Archie is quite entertaining.

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  4. Pingback: The Perfect Murder (1964) by H R F Keating | crossexaminingcrime

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