- By Jean Scholey
- First published: UK: Heinemann, 1961; US: Macmillan, 1963
Murder in East Africa! Jean Scholey’s first (and only?) detective novel takes place in Tanganyika, the former British territory that is now Tanzania. Scholey, one presumes, was the wife of a colonist.
Barzun and Taylor included this in their 100 Classics of Crime series. “This first mystery by an unknown Englishwoman is more enjoyable than most of what comes nowadays from well-known hands,” they wrote in A Catalogue of Crime. “District Comm. Geoffrey Hallden does a good job of clue-hunting and meditating and finally gets his man.”
But the American Saturday Review thought that while the “setting is beautifully authentic … story is rather weak”.
Unfortunately, that last remark is true; The Dead Past is disappointing.
Africa is largely confined to the District Commissioner’s home / office and a country club. There are references to pombe shops, shambas, and dukas; there are an African jumbe (headman), policemen, and a ‘housekeeper’; a few phrases in Swahili; and crickets and frogs chirp in the night. There is no political interest: Tanganyika gained independence the year the book was published, but one would never guess that from this book. There is not even a safari for African colour.
Nor is it a good detective story. The crime is uninteresting: a man is found dead in a Land-Rover, the victim of an apparent robbery. Cut off by rains from police in Dar-es-Salaam, the District Commissioner must be “the law, the medical profession, and the rest of the official hierarchy rolled into one”.
The investigation moves terribly slowly – not helped by the blurb, which summarises almost the first half of the book. We don’t get any interesting clues or alibis until very late. I suspected the murderer early on, if only as the least likely (and psychologically most probable) person. X confesses at the end; it’s only then that the D.C. spots his guilt; otherwise, there’s really only a single, slender clue. And the murder is unpremeditated. Even better, the last scene is inspired by my favourite crime novel, The Maltese Falcon: lots of lying and passing the buck by a femme fatale and her menfriends.
If you want a better African detective story, read Elspeth Huxley or M.M. Kaye’s Murder in Kenya. If you want a more entertaining look at the British in Africa, read Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief or Gerald Durrell’s “A Question of Promotion” (in Fillets of Plaice).
Returning to Kilimani from safari, Geoffrey Hallden, the young District Commissioner, is faced with murder. Shane-Hamilton, a philandering adventurer from Dar-es-Salaam, is found dead in his Land-Rover, his body gruesomely slashed by a negative panga. A simple case of murder for money, or for diamonds? All obvious trails lead to an Indian shopkeeper, who admits to inflicting the panga wounds…
Hallden is not satisfied. Death had been caused by a bullet wound and he is convinced that the killer is a European. Suspects are plentiful: Willi Schmidt, the urbane trader who is the obvious reference if diamonds were the keystone; his beautiful, African concubine, Fatima; Pauline Chambers, the gay, faithless wife of a mango farmer; Tom Griffith, the surly veterinary officer. There is another suspect Hallden remains in the dark about: the person who last saw Shane-Hamilton alive, who had been his lover many years ago – Hallden’s own wife, Mary.
Jean Scholey makes her début as a thriller-writer with a story which is both exciting and disturbing; its climax on the wharves of Kilimani as the Halldens swoop down on murderer and diamond traffickers is brilliantly executed. The Dead Past is a colourful, swift-moving suspense-story with characters and background to match an ingenious plot.