Cover image for Jack, the lady killer
Jack, the lady killer
Keating, H. R. F. (Henry Reymond Fitzwalter), 1926-2011.
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
Scottsdale, AZ : Poisened Pen Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
158 pages ; 22 cm
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The Punjab in India. 1935. The sub-continent under the Raj. Fresh from his English boarding school, Jack Steele is a new recruit to the Indian Imperial Police and soon begins to acquire the attitudes of old India hands towards the people under their rule. Only a few months into his posting, Jack has to conduct a murder investigation when one of the British community at his Station, the sexually rapacious widow Milly Marchbanks, is found strangled. To Jack's consternation, the only clue implicates a member of the Briton's Club. But which one? While Jack goes round and round in circles, his self-effacing Indian sergeant, Bulaki Ram, discreetly nudges him along the way he needs to go.
H. R. F. Keating is best known for his long series of Inspector Ghote mysteries set in India, but Jack, the Lady Killer is something completely different as well as completely unexpected. It is one of the rarest forms known to literature, a detective novel in verse. Inspired by Vikram Seth's brilliantly successful revival of the verse novel in The Golden Gate, Keating develops his rhyme-crime in nearly 300 fourteen-line stanzas. During a writing career spanning forty years, Keating has won many honours, most notably the award of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger in 1996 for a lifetime's achievement. Since 1985 he has been President of the Detection Club in succession to some of the greats of British crime fiction, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Julian Symons.

Author Notes

H. R. F. Keating (Henry Reymond Fitzwalter "Harry" Keating) was born in St. Leonards-on-Sea on October 31, 1926. He attended Merchant Taylor's School in London, England and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. He worked for The Times (London) as the crime books reviewer from 1967 to 1983. His first novel, Death and the Visiting Firemen, was published in 1959. He wrote about 50 fiction and nonfiction works during his lifetime, but is best known for the Inspector Ghote series. His other works include the Harriet Martens Mysteries series and Sherlock Holmes: The Man and His World.

Keating received the CWA Gold Dagger Award in 1964 for The Perfect Murder and in 1980 for The Murder of the Maharajah, the Edgar Alan Poe award in 1988, the George N. Dove Award in 1995, and the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for outstanding service to crime fiction in 1996. He died of cardiac failure on March 27, 2011 at the age of 84.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The place? Punjab, its dusty plains. The time our story comes alive? A time gone by, a day's remains, India, 1935. Our hero? He's a lad called Jack. Just that. Not John. Alas, alack, that single name will be a weight around his neck, a heavy fate. Before we reach our final word he'll curse this name that is his own. A name, he thinks, not his alone but a killer's, though unheard. A killer Jack -- it's much to ask -- will find his duty to unmask. But there's another boy who'll play a major part in this our tale. A very different lad. Let's say a pole apart. Yes, he's male, but that is all that links the two. Our Jack is one who's going to rule the land where he's arrived. The other's one who hasn't thrived in any way, not half Jack's age, an orphan kid with just one gift, one talent, one, that just will lift the little boy on to our page. But there he'll have a major part. You'll find him at the story's heart. `Little Brown Gramophone', that's what he's called by one and all. All hangs on him, on him alone, upon his gift, however small. It is a trick he's always had, the mimic's gift for good or bad. Yes, bad or good, the fact remains: words heard just once he then retains, whether in English or Punjabi, or even both together blended. Quite often scarcely comprehended (the sahib's shout `Bring whisky pani '), whatever words this chhokra heard he'd parrot back, the boy a bird. And that is all the worldly wealth the boy, aged eight, or nine, or seven, has to his name. Not cash, nor health (already a cough's predicting heaven, or, as a Hindu, one more life). His gift, then, perched upon a knife-edge. But his gift's the single clue to the black puzzle shortly due to confront our hero, Jack. And Jack, be sure, is still unskilled (it's not enough just to have willed) in sahibdom, still to learn the knack of ruling a whole sub-continent by guile, by force, by sentiment. For these three strains in far-off days combined in India to uphold a master race. The steady gaze of just one man, unbending, bold, would quail a thousand, kind yet stern. This gaze Jack Steele has still to learn, just six months here. A mere nineteen, he must not think what he has been, a boy immured at boarding school. Oh yes, he was a leader then, yet those he led were scarcely men. But now he's being trained to rule, to act the sahib, to be a god, nor fear, nor favour. Wield the rod. And who's he got as trainer guide? A sahib of sahibs, a gentleman, an India hand in wool deep-dyed, the sahibest sahib in all the clan. Yes, though young Jack is quite at sea, he is not left to wander free. No, India's Imperial Police, keeper of King-Emperor's peace, provides as shepherd, ward and watch, one Mr Guthrie, `F.H.R.' or `R.H.F.' or `H.F.R.' By those initials (placed hotch-potch as often as the right way round) he's called by all. And he is sound. So watch Jack as he bells the cat. Let's eavesdrop on the master's teaching, which Guthrie Sahib describes as `chat'. Teaching? Well, perhaps it's preaching. So, see him there spoonfeeding Jack, pipe in mouth, chair tilted back. A man of forty, not much more, blue-eyed, lean, hard to the core, red-armed, red-legged, in shorts and shirt, thick yellow hair on both, a pelt. Across his chest his Sam Browne belt. And nowhere any spot of dirt. That's Guthrie Sahib, called F.H.R., who prides himself on seeing far. We've found them in the police daftar , Jack newly here, no lessons read, now learning not from his Papa but from this quasi-Dad instead. Guthrie's now parentis loco , saying what's `done' and what is no go. `You've been out riding? Excellent, lad. Keep fit, keep fit. Or you'll go bad. By saying bad don't think I mean you'll lose your tone, or lose your zest. I mean that soon -- don't think I jest -- you'll take to drink, or find you've been eyeing black bints with evil thoughts. Worse, letting John T. escape your shorts. Talking of that, of, you know, sex, don't think that every lady here -- just as well to clear the decks -- always wears, well, her underwear. Most, of course, are pukka mems, jewels in the Crown, just perfect gems. But, listen, lad, yet don't repeat it, if Milly beckons, smile -- and beat it. Milly Marchbanks, widow lady, should have gone Home when old Mike died. But you be warned: she's pretty shady, a shady lady, now untied from marriage bonds, if ever heeded. Ask me, lad, a spanking's needed.' Guthrie stops short. He's said too much. He coughs, looks down, picks up a file. `Excuse me, lad, if like a Dutch uncle I go on.' A smile. `But I'll be frank. There was last year a boy like you and stationed here, not in the Police, but Forestry. And into Milly's claws, well, he fell. Or jumped. I don't know which. Milly the Man-eater, her claws are hid, but eat that boy was what she did. A suicide. Hushed up. The bitch still lives, with no regrets. That's her. I could say more, but -- but, well, -- er ... Word to the wise, eh, my son John? 'nough said. Now, first things first. Your topee. Out-of-doors without that on -- and sunstroke. Yes, with that we're cursed. Of course, the natives never wear them, or just a cloth. But the sun don't scare 'em. They're different from us. Remember, Jack: we are White and they are Black.' `Yes, sir. But -- Well ...' `Come, spit it out.' `Well, back Home some that I met seemed decent sorts.' `Oh, yes, I bet that's what they seemed. But, make no doubt, there underneath they, every one, of your kind heart were making fun.' Jack Steele feels now it's time to go. He's on the point of leaving, but -- `Just one thing more you need to know: bowels open, lad, and mouth kept shut. Remember: natives everywhere. Watch p's and q's, and be aware. You're on show, lad, from dawn till dusk. Yes. Look at that, that mounted tusk. I shot that beast. Do you know why? A crowd of natives waited there to see if I would funk the dare. They waited just to see if I lacked the guts to kneel and shoot. No other course: I killed the brute.' Outside, Jack stands, topee askew. He needs some time for solid thought. What Guthrie's told him's hardly new -- it's new in detail, not import, From his earliest days at school he knew that Britain's there to rule. He knew, as true, that ones like one are there to say what's to be done. The Empire, let no foe defile. The Union Jack, the red-marked map, a task God gave to every chap born within the sacred isle. But till this moment he had not wholly realised where he'd got. To India. Where the schoolboy Jack is all at once more than a man. The Empire's weight is on my back. Now I am my country's spokesman. Yes, all of that and even more. (Jack shifts, as if his shoulder's sore.) Prestige is what I must uphold. Without that life's just `bought and sold'. Now every day -- it's Empire's gift -- I must live life up to that mark whether in sun or in night's dark. Never to know the burden lift. He feels oppressed, a pinning weight. Lifts hands to put his topee straight. And what has placed the burden there? Fifteen years of reading stories. Tales and texts in classrooms where they spoke of all the Empire's glories. Kipling, held up as fixed in marble, then Henty's With Roberts to Kabul , a hundred yarns of derring-do, Ballantyne, Stevenson, the whole crew. And music, Elgar's martial thumping (plus England's countryside evoked. `None of your Germans,' Dad had joked.) Accounts of loyal natives humping in some brave explorer's wake, striding out for Britain's sake. Move on. Move on some months or more. And we now see a tennis court where Jack's in play, not quite so raw. The Club is where this battle's fought. The Club, the hub of British life. For every Briton, man and wife, it is their centre, safe, secure, where talk's unbuttoned, sport is pure. The tournament, the year's highlight, is taking place as it has done year after year since 1901. The winner's Cup is shining bright. `Guthrie', its last two shields proclaim. Victory today will seal his fame. But Jack's the one who now is playing his Burra Sahib . The semi-final. And to him it's most dismaying (he'd love to hide in the urinal). Because, thanks to his well-honed skill, he's ended here, against his will, on pretty sharp dilemma horns. To lose on purpose? Or tread corns by playing well and, most like, winning? Knock out his boss? He thinks he could (the fact is that he's very good) but Guthrie Sahib, he knows, is pinning all his hopes on this last chance. At his back the years advance. The Cup, or `pot' as Guthrie dubs it, -- but Jack has glimpsed, a daunting sight, Guthrie yearning as he rubs it -- means for him Time's speeding flight. So (Jack thinks) should I now quit? Lose, though make a fight of it? Then the man who is my chief can feel, yes, still, he is Time's thief. But if I play as I was taught, play up, play up and play the game, I'll put my boss to inner shame. No, though I know well what I ought to do, I won't. I'll let him win. Losing, is it such a sin? First set, Guthrie. Score: 6-4. The second's Jack's, a quick 6-2. Now the decider. Ten games more, Jack thinks. Lose six, win four. Then who tomorrow? Yes, just Edward Carter. He'll play the Final. I'll be a martyr. Carter's quite good but much too flash, the sort that F.H.R. could thrash with one hand tied behind his back. But Guthrie seems to lose his fire. Several of his serves are dire. So is he tiring, wonders Jack. And if he is, how can I lose? He racks his brains for some excuse. Then Guthrie serves a double fault, and misses next an easy hit. But now the Umpire calls a halt. A servant has brought out a chit. The Umpire -- it is Dr Prosser -- reads, then calls across a puzzled Guthrie, who in turn reads and frowns. `No, don't adjourn,' he's heard to say, and back he comes to face Jack's serve, which he gets back. He seems in better form, thinks Jack. But, no. Again he soon succumbs to Jack's assault. Now, here's the catch. Ten minutes more, he's lost the match. Yet Guthrie takes defeat with grace, an Englishman seen at his best. `Can't win 'em all, old chap. The race to the strong. Now, be my guest. A burra peg ? You've earned a drink.' Jack does not know quite what to think. He has a sort of under-sense that this is false. The man's too tense. How did he come to lose the match? And now without another word he's gone. Off like a shot. Absurd. Absurd. Yet where's the catch? I thought he'd stay a bit and chat. Why has he just gone off like that? And then a thought: at just past noon when at the Club all were asleep (and those at home, this is a boon, the midday snooze, oblivion deep) Jack with his boss was hard at work. `Lad,' Guthrie'd said, `I never shirk when duty calls, and you should not.' (Yet Jack once saw him rub that `pot'.) Report came in at the daftar an elephant had snapped its chain (a beast in musth one must restrain), a rumour rumbling from afar. And Guthrie'd said, `I hate to kill, but if I must, well then, I will.' Jack thought it all was bazaar gup . But say it's true? Had Guthrie heard? The chit that servant boy brought up? A beast to shoot? And he deterred? Yes, only earlier today I learnt that killing's not his way. That's something I can feel for, too. It's not a thing I'd like to do. All right, when once a beast's gone wild you have to stop it. That's the rule. But -- this I even learnt at school, I'd read it even as a child -- not every elephant stays mad. The musth goes off, however bad. A single shot, if it's done right, four tons of life just blown out. And -- let the thought peep out to light -- it's dangerous, too. Have any doubt of when to fire or where to aim and then you learn: big game's no game. A wounded beast will tread you down, shake you to death, a sawdust clown. No wonder Guthrie went off form thinking of that, and how before he'd faced that task, obeyed the law of British grit, the White Man's norm. While on the court, as shots were clapped, he'd think: once more they've got me trapped. They've got me trapped . But who those they ? The natives watching for a fall? Or Britons braying `British way'? Jack shakes his head. That's not at all what he should think. Back Home perhaps thinking that would be no lapse, but here beneath the Indian sun it's one for all, and all for one. Another drink? No. Whisky's out. That way, he warned me, trouble lies. A nimbu pani will suffice. Soda and lime, and damn all doubt. Jack sips, accepts congratulations, and smiles away felicitations. An hour goes by. The drink flows free. `Another one?' `Well, down the hatch.' `Will Steele J beat Carter E?' The talk is of tomorrow's match. No word that Guthrie's not a sport, but Jack wonders if the thought is here and there allowed to rise. His disappearance caused surprise. But all the while a crisis hides. Do not forget young Gramophone. He's waiting there, as yet unknown. Laugh, Jack, and joke. Your fate abides. That other chhokra's time is near. His hour will come. Its footfalls hear. Copyright © 1999 H.R.F. Keating. All rights reserved.