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inspector ghote's first case

13 may 2013

Inspector Ghote's First Case sounds like a good place to begin reading a famous series of crime novels. But as often happens, the "first case" of a fictional detective is a late addition to the series. It was thus with Maigret, with Salvo Montalbano, and with Kurt Wallander. Callow young detectives who mature with the years are not a good bet for series writers; even those detectives who start young seem to age glacially. Far better to start the series with a middle-aged sleuth of accomplishment, and only when s/he's very safely established, move on to show us how it all started.

Inspector Ghote takes one aback at first, because First Case, at least, is written in free indirect style that catches the thoughts of the detective in a distinctive, highly stylized Indian dialect of English. As he moves among the communities of multicultural Bombay and its environs in the year 1960, Ghote actually does seem to speak English most of the time, and he is answered in registers that range from Oxbridge to Anglo-Indian middle class to upper-echelon Parsi to the speech of rural servants and laborers.

And you're not really sure if Ghote's language is dead-on descriptively accurate, or just canned stereotype. (Knowing that the author had no Indian background, and created Ghote long before visiting India, isn't much help; it only tends to dismay.) Here's the Inspector on his own thoroughness:

What I must do … after one hour here only, is to go all the way back to Mahableshwar. There I must check and recheck everything that has come into my mind about what truly was happening there. (231)
There's nothing wrong with Ghote's mind – he's the Sherlock Holmes of Mumbai – but he talks like Apu on The Simpsons, and that's hard to get past.

British people in the book are monsters, murderers, or worse, and their Indian henchmen are vilely subaltern, so there's no question of (the late) H.R.F. Keating siding with the oppressor. Independence has brought political self-sufficiency to India, but left stray "British rocks" scattered across the country in the form of hangers-on who can't go Home, and who aren't very rocklike when prodded. Ghote must weave a course around their prejudices, and those of his countrymen toward British and Indians alike.

It's not a hard mystery to figure (suicide? could it be murder?) and the central conflict is as old as Holmes himself: scientific detective meets stonewall stupid, blustering local policeman. Older than Holmes; that's the formula of "The Purloined Letter," and it's given some fresh treatment here by making the master sleuth and the bullying blocking character ex-classmates at the police academy.

Keating, H.R.F. Inspector Ghote's First Case. London: Allison & Busby, 2008.