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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Jack, the Lady Killer

H.R.F. Keating

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To purchase Jack, the Lady Killer

Title: Jack, the Lady Killer
Author: H.R.F. Keating
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 158 pages
Availability: Jack, the Lady Killer - US
Jack, the Lady Killer - UK
Jack, the Lady Killer - Canada

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Our Assessment:

C+ : sure, 'A' for effort, but only middling mystery and falls well short in its poetic ambitions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 3/1/2000 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)f 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." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As he explains in a brief Preface, H.R.F. Keating was inspired by Vikram Seth's famous novel in verse, The Golden Gate -- and even took the title of his work from that one, a scene (in 10.24) where:

The old folks settle down with books:
He with Tom Jones, she with a thriller
Entitled Jack the Lady-Killer.
       Like The Golden Gate, Keating's Jack, the Lady Killer is a novel in verse, and follows the same 'Onegin stanza'-scheme as Seth's work does, presenting the novel in the form of sonnets in tetrameter with an ABABCCDDEFFEGG rhyme scheme (if not quite as strictly, in not also consistently adhering to the alternating masculine/feminine (stressed on the ultimate/penultimate syllable) rhyme scheme).
       A mystery writer best-known for his Inspector Ghote series of novels, Keating also sets Jack, the Lady Killer, like those, in India, but this is a stand-alone -- and also set in a different era, 1935, still the time of 'the Raj' (i.e. British colonial rule). The locale is a dusty Punjab town, to which Jack Steele, a nineteen-year-old new recruit to the Imperial Police Service has recently been posted, serving under District Superintendent of Police F.H.R. Guthrie. The opening stanza already notes that the green novice is in for quite the challenge, as it's nothing less than:
A killer Jack -- it's much to ask --
will find his duty to unmask.
       Among the advice Guthrie gives the youngster is that he should take care around widow Milly Marchbanks, a maneater who has already been the downfall of one of Jack's predecessors -- "eat that boy was what she did". As it turns out, Jack's Milly-problems will be of a different nature, because before she can even get her claws into him she gets herself strangled dead. And Jack is left leading the investigation, because Guthrie has been hospitalized with sunstroke, and remains in physically poor condition during the following days -- just well enough to give the occasional advice, but little more.
       There's only a single real clue: there's a young Indian boy with an incredible talent for mimicry who overheard what appear to have been her dying words; the boy can parrot words and tone perfectly, and it would seem to point in the direction of her killer -- "she shouted No, Jack, no" -- as well as roughly pinpoint the time of the crime.
       The apparent dying declaration is a problematic clue; as Jack observes:
    So, who it is I've got
to find -- you know there is not
a single Jack, except for me --
is someone who's a Jack, you see,
but not a Jack by given name.
       The time of the utterance at least narrows down the list of suspects -- but this too is less than ideal, as it would mean that the murderer is one of seven people who were at the Club at the time -- all English ..... (An outsider and native would make for a much more convenient guilty party, of course.) The small English community is, of course, fairly tight-knit -- and centered around: "The Club, the hub of British life".
       Jack tries his best, interviewing the seven likely suspects -- helped and prodded by his Indian sergeant, Bulaki Ram, who is more adroit at navigating many of these situations (but limited in what he can do, especially vis-à-vis the white folk). Jack isn't exactly a forceful interrogator, and most of the suspects pretty much have their way with the youth -- but he still manages to learn quite a few of their secrets. Among his discoveries: surprisingly many also turn out to have, at least at one time or another, been called or referred to as 'Jack'.
       As if there isn't enough pressure to solve the crime, an M.P. is expected in a few days' time, and it wouldn't do to have any suspicion lingering over the British crowd at that point .....
       From his hospital bed, Guthrie also tries to make clear to Jack that when the time comes things must be handled appropriately -- i.e. wildly inappropriately. He tells Jack that once he's determined who the killer is:
    no waiting for
the dregs of proof. No one must ever
come to court. Remember, never.
So what it is you've got to do
is see that it's the decent thing
they do, for England and the King.
       Jack does uncover quite a lot along the way, but little that helps settle which of the suspects might be guilty (or innocent). One acknowledges:
     Like Wilde and Co.,
my sexual urge is not at all
female directed. I'm what they call

a homo, pansy, nancy boy.
I'm one of those.
       The suggestion being that he couldn't have been one of maneater Milly's victims -- though as Jack notes, predilection does not preclude the other kind of sexual involvement: "Wilde, after all, too had a wife". (And, yes, quite a bit of the language and attitudes here are rather cringe-worthy; Keating makes a few apologies for some of these, especially those of a racial nature, but the overall level of discomfort for contemporary readers remains high.)
       Among the others with something to hide is Club domestic supervisor Jacqueline Brown, whose name proves more than suggestive: not only can a 'Jack' be read into her first name, but her family name actually tells her dark secret as: "However pale, however well / she's learnt her English", she's not the real thing -- which, if widely known, would be dreadfully compromising; certainly, then: "though ladylike / no sahib will dare to ask her hand". If Milly had stumbled onto her secret, that might have been worth killing over .....
       Eventually, the M.P. shows up, conveniently with an attractive young niece in tow -- a Jessica who wants Jack to loosen up:
'Oh, really, Jack, how you do fuss.
You sound to me like some old maid.
Or, worse, you're acting the White Man.
You're acting, acting hard as you can.'
       Readers likely won't agree with Jack's assessment of his handling of the case after he has done the round of all the suspects and considered the initial evidence:
Have I neglected any task
that fell to me ? Not thought quite
as hard as I ought ? Failed to ask
the single question, put it when
I should ? My score ? Nine out of ten.
Or at worst, say, eight I could
award myself. That fair ?
       True, he does go on considering and calculating, and suggests: "Reduce that score. / Six out of ten ?" Still, as far as police procedural goes, Jack, the Lady Killer is fairly weak on the procedural parts -- half-excused by its protagonist, who is of course in way over his head, but still.
       It's Bulaki Ram who then finds the overlooked clue that cracks the case, and this is an admittedly clever little turn: after all that harping on who Milly could have meant when she cried out: "No, Jack, no" they had it all wrong. With that, the pieces fall more clearly into place -- and so also the (not entirely surprising) perpetrator is unmasked, making for a reasonably satisfying mystery-resolution.
       There's no question that Jack, the Lady Killer is an impressive technical achievement -- Keating really works that verse -- but unfortunately a lot of it really feels forced, workmanlike (at best) rather than anything resembling poetic. It's a tough meter he chose -- a tetrameter is damn tight, with little room to maneuver, and with that rhyme-scheme to go with it, a lot of this feels like hammer-blow verse, pounding and pounding and pounding. Keating forges ahead with abandon, but as far as poetry goes ... oof, a lot of this is pretty cloddish.
       The 1935 setting has some exotic appeal, but again Keating's form-constraints hem him in: there simply not enough room in his verse to make some of the time-specific color more palatable, or for him to distance himself from it; as is, it reads all too convincingly like a work from rather than merely of those times, and a lot of that simply doesn't sit right any longer.
       Jack, the Lady Killer is of some interest, and at least in its big reveal offers solid mystery-satisfaction, but overall this experiment can't be judged as much of a success.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 December 2020

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Jack, the Lady Killer: Reviews: H.R.F. Keating: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author H.R.F. Keating lived 1926 to 2011.

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