The Murder of the Maharaja – H.R.F. Keating

HRF Keating’s The Murder of the Maharajah has been enthusiastically described on its cover blurbs (Mysterious Press, 1980) as ‘Pluperfect Entertainment’,  ‘A Truly Classic  detective story’  and ‘a lovely picture of a world that has disappeared.’  Further endorsements of its success comes from the fact that it won the  Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger award in the year of its publication   and was cited in 1990 as one of the top hundred crime novels of the world in a catalogue published by the Crime Writers’ association, sharing honours with Christie, Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers, PDJames, Ruth Rendell and Raymond Chandler to name a few. As a whodunit,  the puzzle element in the book  is played out to perfection till the last sentence and indeed continues till the last word,  the twist is pleasurable and establishes  a continuity  with his other famous Inspector Ghote books. More importantly the events adhere to the dictates of the classic detective novel, with its emphasis on a closed circle of suspects, a search for clues, a series of false leads and the all-knowing detective who solves the crime with his superior observation, intelligence and deduction.

But beyond this is something more,  a purer kind of wisdom which  attempts to understand the world in which we live in. It transcends its entertainment motif and becomes one with other great crime novels of the world  that use crime as a critique of social and cultural criticisms, something that frees the crime novel from its perennial taint of  being cheap entertainment , populist and low brow.  Like the hardboiled detective stories of Hammett, Chandler and  Ross MacDonald, Keating has a vision of a vile world where treachery, poverty and slavery exist at many levels.  Within  the softer contours of a Sayers or Margery Allingham novel, Keating’s book uses  the codes and conventions of Golden Age crime novels- indeed uses the Golden Age itself-that age between the interwar years of the last century when the detective cosy as a form flourished- as a medium for deeper introspection about the problems of  race, class, sex and  Empire through an imaginative reordering of character and setting .  In this sense,  the book can be re-read as having a heavily layered  thematic structure and a multiplicity of meanings that  offers tantalizing glimpses of the truth of life, the truth of Empire distilled.

The Maharajah of Bhopore, a fictional kingdom modelled upon one of the Princely states –  apparently independent but monitored by the British Resident Sir Arthur Pendeverel – is an arrogant,  sensual and pleasure loving prankster whose lavish lifestyle continually drains the Royal Treasury.  As the story begins it is the 1st of April and he has laid out a web of pranks to celebrate April Fool.  Meanwhile ten people make their way to the palace of Bhopore on various duties. Mrs. Alcott and her daughter Judy  are on the train for Bhopore from distant Wisconsin,  guests of the Maharajah because their brother Joe Alcott who has constructed the largest dam in India on the Maharajah’s territory wishes them to witness the grand inauguration by the Viceroy. At the same time the Maharajkumar Porgy, so named after King George the V is on his way back home from London with his lover Dolly Brattle to plead for his father’s permission in marriage. He is soon to be joined by Henry Morton III, soft metals King of the American Midwest who is out to do business in Bhopore to mine zinc using the abundance of  mineral resources and cheap labour that the villagers of Bhopore provide. Captain Ram Singh, ADC to the Maharajah is also returning from an unsuccessful  expedition to persuade his father the Thakur of Panna to meet payments of tribute that he has stopped paying citing patriotic concerns.  At the Maharaja’s palace itself Lieutenant James Frere, guest of the Maharajah, whiles away his time playing chess under the sharp eyes of the Dewan Akhtar Ali who manipulates his actions as the Maharajah childishly cheats. And Little Michael, nine year old son of the Resident prepares to go to tea with the Maharajah in an apprehension of gloom. By the time the Maharajah is murdered in the middle of the book    he has riled just about everyone he has met.

If Keating was using the plot as a faithful homage to the classic detective story he was never more successful. With twelve  immediate suspects, including the villager  who supplies the sapura bark and the Eldest Mama- who has journeyed to the village on a mysterious and deadly errand- and the victim who has murderously angered everyone of these ten, the plot focuses on not why or how as much as who.  Part of the pleasure of the novel lies in following District Superintendent of Police Howard immerse himself in palace ritual as he is given three days to solve the murder if Bhopore can receive security clearance, to use modern police jargon, for the Viceroy of India to grace the state and inaugurate the dam.  And so, fulfilling the S.S.Van Dine principle of  allowing the readers into all the facts, Howard moves from character to character perusing motive, opportunity  and fact as he pins down who could have jammed the shooting guns so that it explodes and kills the Maharajah during the shikar.  With him  is the  faithful reader, matching fact for fact, matching his intellect with Howards, following the unmasking of the murderer and restoring the posh and stylized milieu to its state of pre-lapsarian innocence where the Viceroy can perform his duties to the Crown.

But the book is of course more than that. Reading The Murder of the Maharajah  one gets the feeling that though   the characters are too fanciful to offer a real sense of  moral evil, they certainly exude a historical sense  of   the wrongness of Empire. The English Country House is replaced by the Palace of Pleasure “all domes and arches like a snowy mountain range”. Within rules the Maharajah,  given over only to self aggrandizement and self gratification. A pack of unruly children born out of his multiple concubines are taught by the weary schoolmaster who finds that the old maharajah shows ” few signs, despite his sixty odd years of bringing to an end newcomers to the schoolroom. ” The Number One Highness keeps a catalogue of all the women her husband beds, together with actual date and time so that an illegitimate child cannot claim dynasty rights and her son can never be accused of  being the improper heir. The palace is filled with an assortment of objects amassed by the whimsical Maharajah, from pinball machines to a skating dome and a dozen roller skates supplied by a gleeful Harrods. The ms chessboard is specially constructed for him where each of the ivory statues resembled a real man from the palace. The king dines at the table separately from an enormous gold tureen padlocked by a gold lock and key while his guests feed on caviar and roast saddle of buck.  The highpoint of the dining table is a silver train which chugs around the table carrying wine and sweets and nuts and a hundred other delicacies; the diner lifts whatever he wants off the train as it comes round to him. An Arabian Nights phantasm fills the pages as DSP Howard tours the palace from the hathikhana to the motimahal to   the gardens within. Within the palace, all around is impossible opulence and luxury. Without -a baked desert  where the sand grouse are kept thirsty  for three days so that they come in thousands to the jheel to drink where the Maharajah shoots hundreds down in a shikar.  Keating recreates a world where deprivation exits easily alongside wanton luxury. The murder turns the Palace of Pleasure into a Palace of Intrigue. Peasants exist only as servants or, like the tribesman who runs to gift the precious Sapura bark, to supply commodities to the Maharajah.  Though the fairy tale element  in the text creates a careful distancing from an actual sense of outrage at the plight of the poor people, the realities of  an impoverished India seething under the double tribulations of colonial masters and their Princely counterparts cannot be overlooked.

In every way the outward reconstruction of Bhopore conforms to the Western notion of India. The complex of images about the Orient found in art and literature creates a careful distancing between the exciting exotic but so different East and the ordered familiar west. Keating’s Resident Sir Arthur quotes Kipling to his son Lille Michael whose life is conducted along the lines of Duty, Order, Obedience and the Right Thing all which are missing in non-British India. Mrs. Alcott worries about finding a snake in her bed because she has remembered a Holmes story “the one about…India”. Lodged perhaps in her subconscious is the knowledge that the thrust of the villainous characters in The Sign of Four are inherently malignant because they are of India and all things Indian are of strange criminality. This prevents Mrs. Alcott from enjoying the elephant ride or a bath or even the sights of the palace- ” Well it is a damned country and if I want to use bad language about the damned place I damn well will”. Henry Morton the American tycoon sees India only as a place producing enormous quantities of cheap and uninformed labour who will not end up forming trade unions as in American industry. The Maharajah and his large family of two wives, two legitimate sons, countless illegitimate ones and a harem are idle, lascivious, effete and ineffective.

Yet Keating’s attitude is ambivalent. Is Bhopore an exotic locale  because, as in the stories of Collins and Doyle  India is a highly contrived world of great evil or is it a writing back on the conventions of Empire. In a gallery of hypocrites, brutes and gulls there is no selectivity based on race- rather the white characters surrounding the Maharajah are as contemptible as he is. Sir Arthur’s pomposity is described as something ridiculous- his motto is “Now      Obey” and he feels that “Remember, we’re here to see that things are done in this country in the right way”. Little Michael, brought up in the stern old school sits ramrod straight as a British grenadier even atop an elephant. Chilled by his father’s discipline he remains a cold lonely figure, except when we see him the last time, bursting into tears. The jostling for power between the old Maharajah and the new one over the latter’s decision to marry a chorus girl signifies the delink between the old and the modern. But Porgy ascends the throne and takes the same decisions as his father- refusal to allow mining, refusing to marry Dolly Brattle, even asserting that he loved his father for all that he opposed him.  Perhaps Keating suggests that there is no real difference between the long established and the modern- modernity absorbs and  continues the old way of life.  Porgy is torn between his need to live up to his Eton education and introduce new forms of thinking into Bhopore and his desire to keep to tradition. Keating appreciates  and is perhaps sympathetic to Porgy’s dilemma. To  Henry Morton’s aggressive and grandiose plans for the modernisation of Bhopore  by building  zinc mines  The King’s Dewan makes a dignified rebuttal when he says that it is nothing but yet another attempt to foist another mad scheme of colonial exploitation on India.

Representations of the Indian or the British settled in India  in many 19th and early 20th century writings show us a latent bias. Emphasized is the criminality inherent in a certain racial type. From the time of arrival the British emphasized on this distance as a nervous reaction to the fact of colonial repression and while pre-1857 Britain took on a guarded approach to liberal outlook and social reform, the war of 1857 was replaced by a rigorous manner of authority seen in their administrative policies as well as a rigid kind of difference as seen in their way of life. Keating’s Resident Sir Arthur emphasizes this repeatedly- he is filled with foreboding as to why Little Michael is the subject of the Maharajah’s attention because the Maharajah, his ilk and all Indians are despicable. The only time he acknowledges the possibility of equality is in the shikar and even there Kipling is quoted to allay his inherent mistrust.

In this sense, the murder of the Maharajah is the one final act of revenge by a wronged person. But the pranks that the Maharajah play on his western guests is an act of defiance, even subversion of his puppet -like rule in the hands of the British. They are at his mercy as he fools them and punctures their dignity-the Maharajah’s persecution of his guests is a mirror of the British persecution of India- the last evening he plays April Fool he is running his kingdom like a Lord of Misrule so that even the Resident, whose job was to  impose order and British gravity  is stilled into silence.

Keating establishes a heroic lineage for his hero by drawing freely from Indian history and establishing the Maharajah’s ancestors as the warriors who resisted Mughal role. When the Maharajah dies he does so in a moment of glory and exultation. Judy Alcott watches mesmerized as he shoots down the sand grouse with the grace and abandon of an artist, before the rifle bursts and he is felled. Like his ancestors of yore he dies with a gun in his hands.  Looking back, we realise that it is this dying image that fixes itself on our minds. As with all great crime novels, Keating turns a puzzle story into a deeper comment on Empire and colonialism.


Picture courtesy: Amazon.com

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