The Merry Hippo (Huxley)

  • By Elspeth Huxley
  • First published: UK, Chatto & Windus, 1963; US, as The Incident at the Merry Hippo

The 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)

Blurb (UK)

An oddly assorted Royal Commission—eight men and one women—flies from London to Hapana to frame a new constitution for this central African state.  Under the chairmanship of a suave Q.C. and ex-Colonial Governor, Sir Christopher Connor, the Commissioners and their staff settle in at the Merry Hippo, the de luxe guest-house run by Hapana’s rich and powerful copper company, to hear evidence, enjoy African hospitality, cope with leakages of information via the independent republic of Bonga, evade the blood-hounds of the press and reconcile their own conflicting ideas and personalities.  Then one of their number mysteriously dies—has he been poisoned?—and they have another problem on their hands.  Further disasters follow, and the tale works up to a thrilling climax amid the retorts and furnaces of the giant copper smelter in the Hapanan mining town of Shooting Star.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Stephen Haskell, 5th April 1963):

Mrs. Huxley’s novel is by Black Mischief out of Ten Little Niggers: that is to say, it starts out as pure satire on a Government commission sent out to investigate the imaginary African protectorate of Hapana, and rapidly turns into an exceedingly competent murder story in which all the interest is focused on the characters, and there is none of the tedious messing about with clues that mars the conventional novel of this sort.  In fact it is a delight to read, because the satire is so lightly done, the narrative so well sustained, while waiting round each corner is a shock which will certainly satisfy the most avid detective-story reader, giving him far more actuality than he normally obtains.

The novel opens with the commission’s introductory meeting; the members are cleverly and economically depicted.  They are then whisked off to Africa, where all the fun starts.  It would be unfair to reveal more than a fraction of what Mrs. Huxley has in store, but one by one the members of the commission and their wives start dropping off, and there is a variety of motives to account for each death.

The most enjoyable part of the book is undoubtedly the characterisation, and here Mrs. Huxley scores with her evident knowledge of the people she is writing about.  Dr. Horatio Rumble, the American with a wealth of chatter on any except the relevant subject, the Earl of Bagpuse, appointed by mistake because his name happens to resemble that of a distinguished constitutional lawyer, and whose only interest lies in pigs (of which the Hapanans have none)—these are as good of their kind as one will find anywhere, and over the whole book hangs an air of quiet reality which holds the satire well in place.  It should please both those who swear by mystery stories and those who resent them as a tiresome bar to the investigation of character.

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

After too long an absence from the mystery lists, this competent author returns with another that affords as much pleasure as any in her output. The vice-chairman of an English commission sent to Africa to frame a new constitution for the protectorate of Hapana is murdered with a poisoned sandwich.  Such detecting as is done is carried out by Alexander Burton, D.Litt., another member of the commission.  The Merry Hippo is the guesthouse where the rather ill-assorted group are put up.  Entertaining local colour and clever takeoffs on colonial sensibilities and committee procedure.