The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Feb 21, 2008

Criminally Poetic

Those of us whose jaws had sagged in disbelief at the brilliance of Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate will very likely suffer the same dislocation of the temporomandibular joints upon encountering H. R. F. Keating's Jack the Lady Killer. And why is that? Because the bearded and hirsute writer of the Inspector Ghote series of mysteries, encouraged by Seth's sonnets about the hippies of California, has written a murder mystery - in verse.

I have not yet started to read the novel yet: am awaiting a suitable moment of calm to concentrate on the clever internal rhymes and scansion of Keating's work. His foreword, though, is entertaining enough to publicise. The book was published in 1999, more than two years since it was written. For much the same reason that Seth gave, Keating found it difficult to find a publisher willing to print his book:
An editor - at a plush party
...seized my arm: 'Dear fellow,
What's your next work?' 'A novel...' 'Great!
We hope that you, dear Mr Seth - '
'In verse,' I added. He turned yellow.
'How marvellously quaint,' he said,
And subsequently cut me dead.
Otherwise avid readers of fiction might find themselves awed into submission, or indeed put off, by poetical novels. This lack of readership is probably what causes the dearth of exemplars of the genre. Keating points out that an erotic murder mystery called The Monkey's Mask was available from the Australian poet Dorothy Porter, who had also written a historical novel in verse. The relative obscurity (in my eyes, at least) of these works lends credence to his assertion that readers as well as publishers are repelled by the genre.

And where did Keating get the title of his work? Why, from Mr Seth, of course. In The Golden Gate, Seth writes:
'The old folks settle down with books:
He with Tom Jones, she with a thriller
Entitled Jack the Lady-Killer.'
Keating acknowledges his debt in the

Jack, the Lady Killer, there's
my title, chosen for this tale.
A tribute, bold, from one who dares
follow a poet (will I fail?)
of sparkling wit and dazzling rhyme.
But, as for me, I'll stick to crime.
Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate,
my quote's from that. If not quite straight,
it holds my plot in embryo.
But where to set my nascent verse?
Answer: yes, I can't do worse
than India. So, there I'll go,
back to my old stamping ground.
But with a yesteryear sleuthhound.


Anonymous said...

Virtuoso performances no doubt by Seth and Keating. But is there a better verse novel than Nabakov's Pale Fire?

Fëanor said...

Superduffer: thank you for your comment. I haven't read Pale Fire, but have heard that it is a highly nonlinear structure. If so, that makes it doubly clever! My only exposure to similar text and hypertext was, again, in the crime genre: Jose Carlos Somoza's The Athenian Murders

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