25 October 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: The Murder of the Maharajah by H.R.F. Keating

In keeping with my India-oriented reading I chose a Top Mystery that takes place in that country, not long before the end of the Raj when Maharajahs still had some power (even if it was dependent on British support).

Year of publication: 1980
Genre: Mystery, cozy
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police officer
Setting & time: The fictitious state of Bhopore, India; 1930.

Story:
The immensely rich Maharajah of Bhopore is murdered and several people had the means, motive and opportunity (or at least two out of the three), to have done it. Due to an impending visit by the Viceroy of India, the Resident Adviser calls in District Superintendent of Police, Mr. Howard, and presses him to solve the case quickly, because if the murderer turns out later to be the heir to the throne, it isn’t good for the Viceroy to have met him. Howard sets out to methodically investigate the case, and in a reconstruction at the end makes some interesting and startling revelations.

Review:
Keating has taken the classic country house (or small village, desert island, cruise ship, etc.) mystery and set it in the exotic location of a maharajah’s palace in India, but it is in every detail still a classic “limited location - limited suspect group” whodunnit.

While the detective is a police officer, he does not have the backup of other policemen or forensics specialists, and does not interrogate people police fashion, rather using the methods of elimination and observation used by non-police detectives across the genre, so this can not be classed as a police procedural.

The writing is straightforward, with touches of humour here and there. The main characters are just barely brought out of the realm of stereotype by being given small personality quirks or distinguishing traits, but are still recognisable as reliable old types: the trusted retainer who may not be so trusty, the older woman with something to hide, the hothead, the male and female love interests, the dashing but not too bright young man, the quiet and dedicated detective, the spoilt young man suddenly forced into a position of responsibility, the mysterious woman who may have something to hide, the gold-digger, the reader stand-in, etc.

What makes this a bloody good mystery is then not the characters, but the plotting, the twists, turns, red herrings and an excellently imagined macguffin.

Now I think I will go and put the Inspector Ghote mysteries by Keating on my BookMooch wishlist. Maybe I'll be able to find some of them in India.

Rating: A very good mystery that will keep all but the most observant readers guessing until the very end. 4 stars.

Books left in challenge: 87.

Place on the list(s): CWA #97
Awards and nominations: 1980 Gold Dagger Award.

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