Murder on Safari (Huxley)

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.jpg

There’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.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Mrs. C.F. Battiscombe, 26th February 1938):

Buffaloes to prove an alibi, elephants revealing a guilty secret, hippos who give the lie to an over-confident criminal—these are strange characters to find in a detective story.  But Mrs. Huxley does not rely for her effect simply on the unusual nature of her setting in the Kenya bush.  She has woven a complicated web of clue and counter-clue, clever enough to entrance and entangle even the most experienced detective fan.  As a background for adventure, there are the sights and sounds of Kenya, wide skies above the miles of plain, green acacias and leafless thorns, splash of hippos in the pool below the camp, and at night the croaking of frogs beneath the enormous stars.

Observer (Torquemada, 13th March 1938):

Readers of Elspeth Huxley’s first detective story, Murder at Government House, will remember that a witch doctor spills the mealies, as who should say, much too early, without either the detective or his creator seeming aware of the fact.  In Murder on Safari, a fine, nostalgic tale, it is the author herself who, by unnecessarily describing the reactions of someone to a certain remark half way through the book, reveals the guilty party to her reader, though not to her policeman, who is absent at the time.  This is a great pity, because the setting of the story is as novel as it is pleasant.  We move among natives and big game, displayed by an expert; we are alibied by a buffalo, caught out in a lie by a hippo, buffaloed in our attempts at secrecy by a herd of elephants, and more or less convicted by a lion.  Elspeth Huxley writes with a bright distinction, and her gift for crisply introducing her characters should tempt her towards the drama.  Sir Gordon Catchpole, an interior decorator, seems to me her only failure; she gets the easy Bloomsbury underlining of words, but she makes him speak more Heartease Novelette than genuine modern Pansy.

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

The author’s second book, begun on board ship while returning from Africa.  The safari, organised for the benefit of Lord and Lady Baradale and their hangers-on, offers a rich opportunity to satirise the iniquities of such organised offensives against unoffending animals, while the theft of Lady B.’s jewels gives Supt. Vachell another chance to uphold the honour of the Chania Police.  Lots of intrigue, risky attempts on Vachell’s part to set mantraps, and some clever detection by the use of movies.  The old dodge of least likely person is fairly well brought to life, and the book as a whole is first-class.