Supping full with horrors: Crime, corruption, with sex and music

This round of reviews begins with three detective stories in East Africa; visits a WWII military camp, and small-town opera productions; and finishes with a hardcore porn film.

I’ve always wanted to go to Africa – to see the pyramids of Egypt and Kush, the mosque at Djenné and the rock churches of Lalibela, and the cities of Ifé and Great Zimbabwe; to explore the souqs of the Maghreb and the voodoo markets of Benin; to soar in a balloon over the Great Rift Valley, and cross the Sahara on a camel; and to see gorillas in the Rwandan mist, wildebeest migrating across the Serengeti, and lemurs in Madagascar.  One day!

(I’ve discovered a travel company called Undiscovered Destinations, which takes you well off the beaten track, to places like Chad, the Cameroon, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and the Congo.  You can even take a Punt on Somaliland.)

Elspeth Huxley gives us a Murder on Safari (1938) in “Chania” (Kenya), when well-heeled Westerners came to Africa to blaze away at the wildlife.

To her credit, Huxley doesn’t think much of it.

Tintin au Congo
Forget bullets made of platinum – Hergé’s Adventures of TNTin.

Peppery peer Lord Baradale dismisses the notion that big game hunting pits man’s skill and ingenuity against the animal’s (“Why is it more unsporting to bomb a herd of elephants or turn a machine-gun on to a pride of lions than to drive up to them in a motor-car and shoot them with a high-powered rifle?”) –

or that it allows man to show his courage (“There’s no danger at all in going after some wretched animal, whose only aim is to escape, armed with a battery of expensive high-velocity rifles and flanked by a couple of professional shooters”).

“It isn’t sport; it’s murder,” Lord B concludes.

Huxley Murder on Safari.jpgThere’s human murder, too, of course.  The victim is the unpleasant Lady Baradale, a wealthy American with a taste for younger men.  Her jewels are pinched – rifled, one might almost say – and she’s rifled, too: drilled neatly through the head, and eaten by vultures.

A case for Superintendent Vachell.

This is a model detective story, with an unusual setting, good handling of a large cast, and a fine balance between plot and story.

I read this a dozen years ago – and I couldn’t remember who did it.  My main suspect got killed, and my second was a red herring.

Rather a nice surprise, that!  I’ve reached the point where I can reread books afresh.

(Unfortunately, I still remember whodunnit in every Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.  Can someone recommend a good hypnotist?  “You will forget the plot of Murder on the Orient Express…  You will forget everything…  You have no will of your own.  You are now my zombie…  Go, and assassinate the Pope!”)

The killer is well concealed.  It’s not a gaping surprise –  not a “There lies the murderer, but God forbid we should judge him now!”, a Roger Ackroyd, or “Yes, he shot at the same man again, but not in a…”  – but you probably won’t guess whodunnit.

Huxley’s technique is beautiful.  She builds a proper ladder of clues, many of which seem to be saying something else (background info about big game shooting, or proving that another character couldn’t have done it) – and they’re all FOOTNOTED, to boot!  (Something not enough detective writers do: Carr, Knox, King – who else?)

In its unsensational way, a triumph.

Kaye Death in Kenya.jpgM.M. Kaye’s Death in Kenya (1958) takes place in a politically troubled time.

It’s set in the late ’50s, halfway through the Mau Mau uprising (1952-64), “the Emergency”.

The Mau Mau – a militant nationalist group – tortured, mutilated, or murdered nearly 2,000 (1,819) Kenyan natives, 32 Europeans, and 26 Asians.  (See Wikipedia article.)

The British, it is estimated, killed more than 20,000 Mau Mau militants in response.

Historian David Anderson called it “a story of atrocity and excess on both sides, a dirty war from which no one emerged with much pride, and certainly no glory”.

Kaye (whose husband’s regiment was called in to help quell the uprising) writes from a colonial perspective.  She does not mention that the white administration – one of the most racist and oppressive in Africa – arrested thousands of suspected Mau Mau supporters, many of whom were tortured (including castration) or executed; or the forced resettlement of nearly half a million (320,000 to 450,000) Kikuyu into labour camps.

30 years later, however, she wrote: “The opinions voiced by my characters were taken from life and at first hand.  For though the Wind of Change was rising fast, very few of the Kenya-born settlers would believe that it could possibly blow strongly enough to uproot them from a country that every single one of them looked upon, and loved, as a ‘Land where my fathers died, Land of the pilgrim’s pride…’

The Mau Mau uprising is, though, a backdrop to the detective story – which is an excellent one.

Poltergeist activity in post-Mau Mau Kenya turns even nastier.  I’m not saying who the victim is; it’s a nice surprise.

For those who have read all of Christianna Brand, this might be just what you need – and in an unusual setting, too!

It’s a tight, character-focused detective story where the murderer must be one of seven suspects, all friends, and all equally likely starters.

Kaye pulls off the least-likely person with aplomb.  X is cunningly concealed, and not someone I suspected.  It’s inevitable in hindsight, and even the heroine’s romance is crucial.  There’s also a decidedly ingenious subsequent killing, and a clever twist on an old device.

More than O-Kaye.  All of a sudden, I like detective fiction again.

(See also Beneath the Stains of Time and crossexaminingcrime)

Huxley Merry Hippo.jpgThe Merry Hippo (1963), Elspeth Huxley‘s fourth detective story, deals with decolonization.

France and the UK had started granting their African territories in the 1950s.

A Royal Commission visits the British Protectorate of Hapana to determine whether it’s ready for independence.  It’s an uphill process.

The British are well-meaning, but inefficient; the chairman’s previous success led to a dictatorship.  The UN representative is an earnest windbag, full of high-principled speeches.  And the Africans quarrel over tribalism, religion, and politics.

It’s an entertaining, good-natured satire in the line of Waugh’s Black Mischief and Scoop (journalists misinterpret and exaggerate to create news), with some lively characters.

It’s not quite as good a mystery as I remembered; it’s fairly-clued, but the murderer does come somewhat out of left-field.

(See also Beneath the Stains of Time and Past Offences)


Back in Blighty, Christopher Bush’s Case of the Murdered Major (1941) is acase-murdered-major.jpgn entertaining look at a POW camp, written with shrewdness and humour.  An incompetent officer is sandbagged in the snow; no footprints in sight.  The murderer is very easy to spot (they have a cast-iron alibi, can’t have done it, so obviously must have), but there’s a clever murder method that Carr would have enjoyed.

(See also The Passing TrampBeneath the Stains of Time, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Classic Mysteries,

In Robert Barnard’s Death on the High C’s (1977), an obnoxious Australian is murdered during a small-town production of Rigoletto.

In Death and the Chaste Apprentice (1989), an obnoxious Australian is murdered during a small-town production of a Restoration comedy and a lost Donizetti.

Both books are amusing; neither is a great mystery.

I enjoyed Apprentice more.  The pastiche Restoration comedy is full of the riper bits of Beaumont, Middleton, and Massinger.  (“It was generally agreed that two hands were discernible in it, though only half a brain.”)

DonizettiAnd Barnard certainly knows his Donizetti.

Prolific and versatile, the bel canto composer from Bergamo turned out around 70 operas (depending on how you count them) in comedy, tragedy, and genres in between.

A short list of his most popular operas would include Lucia di Lammermoor, with its famous mad scene (soprano stabs husband on wedding night); Lucrezia Borgia (soprano poisons son); Anna Bolena (soprano is beheaded by Henry VIII); Maria Stuarda (soprano Elizabeth I beheads another soprano – “Figlia impura di Bolena! … Vil bastarda!”); Roberto Devereux (soprano Elizabeth I beheads the Earl of Essex); and La favorite (the king’s mistress – mezzo, actually – dies of an unhappy love affair).

Plus three comedies in which, surprisingly, no soprani are harmed at all: L’elisir d’amoreDon Pasquale; and La fille du régiment.

Donizetti is part of mainstream repertoire in opera houses around the world, but fell into neglect in the mid-19th century.  His operas were rediscovered in the post-WWII bel canto boom after years of neglect, thanks to singers like Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé.  Opera Rara in Britain has devoted itself to recording his works, using critical editions.

Adelaide di Birkenstock, the long-lost opera semiseria in Barnard’s novel, was composed in 1825, for the castrato Velluti, revised in 1838, and then lost – part of the MS in London, the rest discovered only the year before as a door-stop in the Conservatory of Music in Naples.

The soprano “hacks her husband’s head off, and then stabs herself after some fearsome coloratura”.  Here, Birkenhead is somewhere North of the Border.  “Indeed, to him or his librettist all England seemed to be an appendage of Scotland, which at least righted a balance, some might think.”

It’s a nod to:

  • the unfinished Adelaide, which became the unfinished L’ange de Nisida (performed for the first time this year), and which became La favorite
  • the early Emilia di Liverpool.  Emilia is the daughter of Claudio, Count of Liverpool; Liverpool is, Charles Osborne says, “a village in mountainous country somewhere just outside London”; and the opera is full of “dreadful jokes in Neapolitan dialect”.
  • Gabriella di Vergy, a long-lost Donizetti opera, which Donizetti composed in the 1820s for his own pleasure, revised in 1838, but was never staged.  The husband presents his wife (soprano) with her lover’s still-beating heart in an urn.  Donizetti liked bloody plots.  “Give me love – but let it be violent love!”

So too might the Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41) have said.

BUST-ED: My old pal, in the Louvre.  Taken by me, last year.

He’s famous for such bon mots as:

“If you had one neck, I would hack it through!”;

“Kill them all, from baldie to baldie”;

“Let them hate me, so long as they fear me”;

and “I’ve thought of a wonderful joke – but you wouldn’t find it funny.  I only have to give one nod, and both your throats will be cut on the spot!”

Caligula has, for some strange reason, gone down as one of history’s worst tyrants: a capricious, extravagant madman who declared himself a god, slept with his sisters, turned the palace into a brothel, appointed his horse consul, and declared war on the sea.

Our chief source is Suetonius’s scandal-mongering Lives of the Caesars, written a century or so later, in the reign of Hadrian.  (Tacitus wrote about Caligula in his Annals, but that section is, unfortunately, lost.)

Caligula was a young man out of his depth.  He was only 24 when he became emperor, succeeding the gloomy, taciturn Tiberius – who had exiled or executed his mother and several of his brothers.

“I am nursing a viper for the Roman people, and a Phaëthon for the whole world,” the old man said, shortly before he died.  (Smothered, rumour said, by Caligula and the guard captain Macro.)

Caligula had grown up in the east, and acquired notions of divine kingship (and, of course, incest to keep the royal bloodline pure).

The Romans weren’t having this, and Caligula was assassinated at the age of 28 – setting a precedent for the deaths of Vitellius, Domitian, Commodus, Heliogabalus, and their ilk.

Caligula, by the way, is a nickname meaning “Bootikins”; his real name was Gaius.

So much for the man, now for the monster.

I’m not convinced that Caligula (1979) tells us much about the emperor.  It has a good cast – Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, and Helen Mirren – and a script by Gore Vidal, who intended it as a study of power.

“[The Caesars] differed from us – and their contemporaries – only in the fact of power, which made it possible for each to act out his most recondite sexual fantasies.  This is the psychological fascination of Suetonius,” Vidal wrote in his essay ‘Robert Graves and the Twelve Caesars’ (1959).  “What will men so place do?  The answer, apparently, is anything and everything.

“Caligula gave the game away when he told a critic, ‘Bear in mind that I can treat anyone exactly as I please.’ And that cruelty which is innate in human beings, now give the opportunity to treat others as toys, flowered monstrously in the Caesars.”

And so, apparently, in the movie’s producer: Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione.

“Pedicabo ego vos, et irrumabo,” may well have been his motto.

MPW-32236.jpgHe took what could have been an arthouse movie in the line of Fellini’s Satyricon – and turned it into a hardcore porn.

Vidal and director Tinto Brass sued to have their names taken off, and the movie suppressed.

Caligula is, to use a Roman phrase, defiled in every orifice.  It’s 2 1/2 hours of fellatio, buggery, and bestiality – as unappetising as that sounds.

It’s also deeply boring.

Mechanical, joyless couplings; lesbians; extras jerking off in the background; and close-ups of ejaculating penii may well leave one with a Waughian distaste for these vile bodies.

It’s rather like the infamous Divine Carnage (2001), Stephen Barber and Jeremy Reed’s unhistorical, pornographic drivel.

This has orgies in the Colosseum (decades before the Flavians); giant homosexual lions; Tiberius’s depraved plan for the whole Roman Empire to die in a gang-bang; and gladiators dotting the “i” in the emperor’s name with their opponent’s severed head.

“Corruption,” Mrs Bradley once said, “is not only nauseating to the senses, but it palls upon the imagination.”

Watch, instead, Ralph Bates in the ITV’s Caesars (1968).  This may be the finest portrayal of Caligula: a rational psychopath, who’ll debate power politics over dinner while forcing a father to watch his son sawn in half.  It’s a terrifying performance in one of television’s most intelligent political dramas.  Its stance is Tacitean, via Camus.

John Hurt, in the BBC’s I, Clavdivs (1976; best TV drama ever made), brilliantly plays Caligula as a comic monster, leaving no stage-set un-nibbled.  This adaptation of Robert Graves combines Suetonian scandal-mongering with Shakespearean high camp.


If you haven’t yet supped full with horrors: a phenomenal performance by Australian actress Zoe Caldwell as EuripidesMedea.

Nothing quite like a spot of infanticide.


2 thoughts on “Supping full with horrors: Crime, corruption, with sex and music

  1. Delighted to see you speak so highly of Murder on Safari, Nick — I’ve got that lined up in the weeks ahead and shall look forward to it with increased eagerness.


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