Death of an Aryan (Huxley)

  • By Elspeth Huxley
  • First published: UK, 1939; US, as The African Poison Murders

The poison used to accomplish the murders of the Nazi farmer (by a poisoned nail stuck through his shoe) and the jealous cuckold (during a bush fire) is the unusual ouabain, derived from Acocanthera schimperii or longiflora, one of many exotic notes struck in this tale of colonial Africa (Chania = Kenya?), Nazi espionage and animal mutilation—the end, where the hero, Superintendent Vachell, is trapped in a leopard cage and shot at is sheer Peter Dickinson.  Huxley’s characterisation is superb, especially strong on psychological abnormality, but there is an unpleasant streak of sadism running through the book like the great, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees and fevered imaginations.  The mystery is genuinely mysterious and mystifying, with a good number of tangles and crossed plot-strands, but the solution is slightly anti-climactic, and the murderer’s madness and motive are not wholly convincing.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 28th October 1939):

Mrs. Huxley’s new murder story, Death of an Aryan, is again set in East Africa, but has a topical touch, for the first victim is a former leader of the local Nazis.  There are many suspects, including another Nazi and a neighbouring farmer who had various grievances against the dead man.  But the farmer, too, is murdered in a forest fire, and it is left to Superintendent Vachell to fix the guilt on an unexpected person and to find hopes of future happiness in one of the widows created by the killer.  Some readers may find the local colour a little too strong, the sentiment too sugary, and the cruelty to animals too nauseating, but it is all a question of individual taste.

The Times (14th November 1939):


Death of an Aryan deals with a subtle and very deadly African poison.  Mrs. Elspeth Huxley has made a corner in East African murder; she has also created a most attractive sleuth in Superintendent Vachell.  In her new book detective and background are unchanged, while the plot deals with the mysterious death of a German settler.  Other murders follow and Vachell, hot on the criminal’s trail, has one of the narrowest escapes of his career.  Luckily for the discriminating reader, he is left at the end of this grim story ready to embark (it is to be hoped) on further adventures in Chania.

Times Literary Supplement (Patricia Craig, 18th July 1986):

First published in 1939, and set in Colonial East Africa, this is a traditional detective novel with an unpleasant first victim, odd behaviour on the part of suspects, and an investigator who gets himself into a pickle before he’s through.  Plenty of colourful motifs (like the murder committed by means of a poisoned nail inserted into a shoe), and a high level of interest throughout; the assaults on animals are rather hard to stomach, though.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):

The suspense, “night life”, and love affair involving the agreeable detective Vachell are superbly done.  A local Nazi bund is used with discretion and does not derail the story into espionage: it is pure detection.  The “happenings” are gory and puzzling enough, though the identity of the murderer is a letdown and somewhat overexplained.