Zen there was Murder – H R F Keating


Having recently read on Calmgrove’s blog a review of Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly I was reminded of another author whose work I used to enjoy around that time. A little investigation proved that he had actually attended the same school (Merchant Taylors) as Bruce Montgomery (alias Edmund Crispin) albeit five years later. But not for H R F Keating the tongue in cheek elegance of murder at Oxford. His first novel was Death and the Visiting Fireman; murder at a conference. His second was even more outre, murder at a Buddhist retreat. With a publication date of 1960, this was very unfamiliar territory for most English readers at the time. Later he went on to write the highly popular fiction set in India with Inspector Ganesh Ghote as his detective.

When we meet Mr Utamaro, the Zen monk who is running the retreat where the story is located, he is being challenged by Alasdair Stuart, a guest and self-important teacher

 ‘Mr – er – Utamaro, could you begin by telling us in your own words just exactly what Zen is?’

Mr Utamaro rose to his feet. In a single movement. He walked round the table towards Alasdair Stuart. Power and dignity in the unhurried stride.

‘This is Zen,’ he said.

His hand went to Alasdair Stuart’s prominent nose and tweaked it hard. The sudden smooth movement. An uncoiled spring.

Mr Utamaro stepped back and laughed. A long guttural peal.

Alasdair Stuart took out a white handkerchief and dabbed his nose.

Keating uses a strange style for this book, perhaps in an attempt to get a ‘zen’ effect. But the short descriptive phrases have an odd tone and sound like stage directions.

The wide staircase. A dignified sweep. Shallow steps. Still uncarpeted.

As well as Mr Utamaro, we have a small cast, all fairly unlikable. A warring couple whose disputes and grievances are aired, a young cute girl called Flaveen, the teacher, a clergyman, aa conventional middle-aged woman, a Northern Irish farmer and two young women, foreign students working as household helps. A samurai sword disappears. Who has taken it out of a sealed case? Who is going to be murdered?

It is not until half-way through the book that the murder happens and Flaveen is found with the sword plunged into her body. Who has killed her and why?

H R F Keating has said that this book is about lies. All the characters lie and that leads to murder. There is a lot about the sound of one hand clapping and in their interviews with Mr Utamaro many of the characters let down their defences, but how much of the time are they lying?

A strange little book. Very tricky to work out who has done what. I was intrigued by the writing style. Sometimes it works

A painting. The mellow walls of the house, the deep green of the cedar, the blue sky with a large whitish cloud drifting almost imperceptibly across it, the level turf of the lawn a lighter green than the tree, a few splashes of purple where the irises were in bloom along the wall of the house. …

And in the tree, Honor. Her long legs in fawn trousers askew, the vivid orange of her blouse.

At others, where comments on the picture created are made, it doesn’t work so well

Miss Rohan sat down. The right hand smoothing the worn tweed skirt as she sat, an unconscious gesture. Taught and never forgotten.

This is an engaging story and his take on Zen is fun. When I read it for the first time as a green Penguin I was most impressed. Now perhaps it is a little less enjoyable, but I will still read another H RF Keating which was also an old favourite The Dog it was That Died, which I seem to recall, has a beautiful Irish wolfhound as a character.



14 thoughts on “Zen there was Murder – H R F Keating

    1. Everything is grist to the writer’s mill (as you would know yourself) I’m more into fragments at the moments. My daughter just sent me a great trove of emails I sent to her in 2004. So much material there

  1. I think I might like this, given my penchant for vintage crime. Keating’s name definitely rings a bell, so I’ll take a closer look. The focus on ‘lies’ makes it sound quite psychological in focus, a whydunnit as well as a whodunnit.

    1. A strange little book. Would love to hear your view if you do get to it. He came out in Gollanz first and then a couple of years later in green Penguin which is where i encountered him. I used to read everything they issued.

  2. I wonder how many mid-century male authors of crime fiction were ex public school, ex Oxbridge as well? After Oxford Montgomery even went on to teach for a while at Shrewsbury School, another independent school like Merchant Taylors’ School which he’d attended as a pupil. Apart from Dorothy Sayers are there many female crime writers with a similar background?

    1. I wonder if this is always the case. Life makes us cynical and less receptive? Or perhaps we’ve read so much we realise the original book is not quite as extraordinary as we first thought?

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