As a rule, a comically hapless hero is a contradiction in terms that no detective novel can sustain. A sleuth like Inspector Ghote of the Bombay C.I.D., whose every investigative thrust goes awry or gets rebuffed, threatens to deprive such a tale of its moral and dramatic core. Who can take seriously a detective who is afraid of his superiors, afraid of his wife, afraid of his sidekick (the broadly but cannily drawn Axel Svensson, a visitor from UNESCO who fails repeatedly to wrap his big Swedish arms around what he calls “the mysterious East”), and afraid of suspects (including the delightful pig-eyed patriarch Lala Arun Varde, who teases or bullies the “inspector detector” at every turn)? Yet Keating, in a marvel of writerly brio and far-reaching imagination—he wrote this fantasy-like but somehow true-seeming novel of India without having ever gone there—renders the matter of seriousness almost moot. Even the “perfect murder” of the title is a joke: The attempted killing of a Parsi secretary named Perfect merely leaves the victim comotose, putting Ghote in the risible position of seeking to avenge a death that may never happen. Then comes the monsoon, a cooling balm that washes away the hero’s fear and blindness. For a moment, at least, Ghote peers through the rain and arrives at enlightenment, and it’s just possible that he will gain vindication of a sort as well.
H.R.F KEATING. The Perfect Murder (1964).