H. R. F. Keating: Zen There Was Murder


‘Very well, then,’ said the superintendent, ‘since we both know what’s in my mind, let’s say it out loud.’
He leant forward and looked at Mr Utamaro. The piggy eyes blazing with determination. ‘Is there some trickery going on here?’ he said. ‘All this Zen business, what black mischief can you make it perform?’

Zen there was Murder was the second mystery published by H. R. F. Keating, who went on to secure himself a place in the crime pantheon with the invention of Indian policeman Inspector Ghote, and who also wrote one of the CWA’s top 100 crime novels, The Murder of the Maharajah.

The setting is an English country house, Mulcheaten Manor, but as this is 1960 it has been turned into a residential adult-education centre and is the setting for a week-long course on Zen Buddhism led by one Mr Utamaro, a real-life black-robed bushy-haired Japanese priest.

The course gets off to a bad start, with the students perplexed by the koans of Zen philosophy, taking instant dislikes to each other, and resorting to drink in a hurry.

‘There does seem to be an element of horseplay in Zen,’ said Miss Rohan. She sighed. ‘That’s what I don’t understand. Some of it is so poetic. But then you tell us that a thing like Mr Manvers’s squirt would be useful to you.’

Keep an eye on Mr Manvers’s squirt, is my advice.

Oh come on, she means one of those things you blow at parties.

Any-how, amidst all the bickering, a valuable Japanese sword goes missing. The students, who of course are also the potential thieves, are the standard set of mystery types. The aggressive Honor Brentt is an investigative journalist with one eye on a muck-raking story and the other on her straying husband, the smarmy Gerry Manvers. The Reverend Cyprian Applecheek has a guilty secret which he hides in plain sight. Miss Rohan is a tweedy English rose with a tragic past. Flaveen Mills is a younger woman with an eye for the chaps. Alasdair Stuart is a pedantic schoolteacher set upon improving himself, and Jim Henderson is a Northern Irish troublemaker looking for socialist agitation in Zen philosophy. Two nameless German students working as maids act as a chorus.

When the stolen sword turns up, inside a dead body of course, Mr Utamaro sets out to solve the crime using Zen techniques, much to the perplexity of Superintendent Padbourne. In the end it is Mr Utamaro’s willingness to accept an impossible crime and just get on with it which reveals the killer.

‘Reasonable,’ said Mr Utamaro. ‘That is what you should suspect, superintendent. Reason, there is your criminal.’

There’s something deliberately thin and surrealistic about this book – stock characters, a stock setting, the occasional hyper-vivid descriptive passage – which I think is supposed to say something about Zen philosophy and hint at something going on under the illusory surface (although I’m damned if I could work out what it was). The prose is staccato and designed to show signs of Japanese influence:

The sun came out from behind a cloud and the fitful April breeze quietened. The scene was suddenly still. 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. An undistinguished but pleasantly colourful water-colour. And in the tree, Honor. Her long legs in fawn trousers askew, the vivid orange of her blouse.

However, Keating famously wrote his first Inspector Ghote book without visiting India, and I suspect something similar about Zen. I base this almost entirely on this exchange:

She opened the bag, peered into it, took out a packet of cigarettes and a black holder.
‘You don’t smoke, Mr Utamaro, do you?’ she said.
‘I tried one when I first came to Europe,’ Mr Utamaro said. ‘I thought it would Europeanize me, but it made me sick.’

Wikipedia tells me Japan is one of the largest markets for tobacco and has been since World War Two.

I am reading Zen for Crimes of the Century, this month looking at 1960, and the book feels very 60s. The caddish but charming Gerry was clearly meant to played by Terry-Thomas. The two German maids are strictly Carry On. Being Jewish was apparently still something of a problem (‘Hooked nose, or what they call aquiline’), as was a couple sleeping together early in a relationship – but guess who was to blame? (‘I suppose you could say she seduced me’). And a real sign of the times is this throwaway scene of two men managing to turn down an oven with no woman to help.

‘I wonder is that pudding cooking too fast?’ he said.
‘Do you know how to turn the heat down?’ said Mr Utamaro.
‘There ought to be a control of some sort.’ Jim examined the oven. ‘This should be it,’ he said.

I’ll leave you with this little story. Whilst on the whole I found Mr Utamaro’s little parables as aggravating as did his students, I quite liked this one:

‘There were once two monks who were under a vow not even to look at women,’ Mr Utamaro said. The dreamy sing-song story-telling voice. ‘One day they came to a stream and at the edge there was a pretty girl unable to get over. The first monk went up to her and without a word picked her up and forded the stream with her on his shoulders. At the far side he put her down and went on with his journey. The second monk at first would have nothing to do with him, but after a while he caught him up and asked him why, in spite of his vow, he had helped the girl across the stream. “What,” said the first monk, “are you still carrying that girl?”.’

Zen there was Murder
H. R. F. Keating
First published by Gollancz in the UK, 1960
This edition Bloomsbury Reader, 2011
224 pages in print
Source: Amazon

See also:

Beneath the Stains of Timeimpressed me as a farewell to a previous, by-gone era. The setting is an old-fashioned, English country mansion converted into a school for adult educational courses (e.g. philosophy) conveniently occupied with a closed circle of suspects and a Japanese artifact that ends up being swiped from the premise – presented to the reader in the guise of a locked room mystery. However, don’t expect too much from its explanation, because that’s the only part of the solution in which contemporary attitudes rears it ugly head.

Books Please: [quoting Keating] When writing the second book, I thought I could say something about telling lies. At that time, too, Zen Buddhism was a fad over here, and so for the background of the book, I took Zen, which does reflect very much on lies. I found I could say things about lies by giving each of the characters a different viewpoint on telling lies – ranging from one of those people who absolutely objects to lying in any way to the sort of pathological liar. And I made the whole book turn on that.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in Classic mystery book review, Crime fiction of the year challenge, Crimes of the Century, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to H. R. F. Keating: Zen There Was Murder

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Hmmm…interesting. I must admit I’ve only read Keating’s Ghote books, so am not familiar with this one. but those country manor mysteries do have a certain appeal. Still, it sounds a bit forced (is that the word? Not sure). Hmmm….


  2. realthog says:

    Hm. I remember not enjoying this one, but it was likely around 1970 that I read it, so memory and literary appreciation may both be dodgy. I have to confess that I’ve never really got on with Keating’s work.


  3. I have no spirituality all: I don’t understand the monks parable…


  4. Pingback: ‘The 60s didn’t really know what to do with hats’: #1960book round up | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

  5. Pingback: And Zen There Were None | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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