cover image Jack, the Lady Killer

Jack, the Lady Killer

H. R. F. Keating. Poisoned Pen Press, $14.95 (164pp) ISBN 978-1-890208-24-0

Prolific British mystery-maker Keating returns to the India of his well-received Inspector Ghote novels, but this time with new characters and a new form: a detective novel in rhyming verse, the first in recent memory. Set in the Punjab in the last days of the British Raj, Keating's story follows young Jack Steele, an idealistic policeman new to imperial ways. Keating's picture of colonial life can look all too familiar: the first 30 pages include ""a tennis court/ where Jack's in play""; a sahib who says, ""I never shirk/ when duty calls""; and the entire situation and argument of George Orwell's famed essay ""Shooting an Elephant."" Then the mystery plot begins, and Keating displays his real gifts. An English woman of loose morals is dead: the sahibs assume a ""native"" did it, but the only clue casts blame on an Englishman... named Jack. Can our hero clear his name by finding the genuine culprit? The answers involve a secretly gay English planter; the evasive, hedonistic ""Plum Duff,"" proud of his Angl0-Indian background; and ""Little Brown Gramophone,"" an Indian lad who can remember, and imitate, every sound he has ever heard. Keating takes his poetic methods from Vikram Seth's novel-in-verse, The Golden Gate: like Seth, Keating uses the 14-line stanza of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, which can produce a padded, or corny, English (""there he'll have a major part./ You'll find him at the story's heart""). But if he's no Byron, Keating does manage to make his strings of stanzas fit his story; after a few dozen tetrameter couplets, readers will find the verse transparent, even entertaining. (Dec.)