Death in Kenya (Kaye)

  • By M.M. Kaye
  • First published: UK, 1958

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.