MURDER ON SAFARI (1938) by Elspeth Huxley

While compiling my (still work-in-progress) Top 100 Mystery Books, one of the titles frequently suggested for inclusion was this vintage whodunit by Elspeth Huxley. Probably best known for The Flame Trees of Thika, she was a prolific writer publishing nearly 50 books in her lifetime though little fiction and only four mysteries. All her work reflects her life and work in East Africa and Murder on Safari, written just as she turned thirty, was the second novel featuring Canadian-born Superintendent Vachell of the of the Chania CID in Kenya. Does it deserve to be in the top 100?

“She’s not the sort of woman to mislay thirty thousand’s quid’s worth of jewels through carelessness.”

Vachell is brought in to find out who has stolen the family jewels under most unusual circumstances. The family in question, being enormously wealthy and spoiled, is on safari and is out in the veldt, though not exactly roughing it – this is a truly extravagant holiday in fact with an enormous retinue of servants and vehicles to pamper their wealthy clients.

“…the tents of Israel had nothing on this outfit.”

Ruling the roost is Lady Lucy Barandale, American heir to a vast fortune who is so rich she not only wears Chanel No. 5 on safari but also carries her jewels with her in a portable safe. Traveling in the convoy is her husband Lord Barandale, who likes nothing better than to tinker with his new photographic equipment; his wayward daughter Cara from a previous marriage, who has had several affairs on the trip despite (or perhaps because) she is being accompanied by he  fiancée, effete British nobleman Sir Gordon Catchpole who has a passion for interior decorating (for which read coded gay). Along for the ride is driver-cum-mechanic (with who Cara is said to have had a liaison) and a maid. The party is led by celebrated white hunter extraordinaire Danny de Mare and assisting him is aviatrix Chris Davis.

“The bwana-who-walks-like-a-baboon was too slow.”

Vachell goes undercover replacing de Mare’s departing assistant Luke Englebrecht, who has disgraced himself by sleeping around with Cara, to find out who managed to steal Lady Baradale’s jewels from her safe. He gets to know the various members of the party during dinner that evening and discovers a decidedly unhappy band of travelers, Catchpole proving to be particularly bitchy and irritating though no one is more irate than Cara, who during the night heads off with the disgruntled Luke when he leaves with his tail between his legs to go back to Malabeya. Things get a lot more dramatic in the morning when, as per the title, what’s left of Lady Baradale’s body is found with a bullet through the head and surrounded by hungry vultures, not far from where a lion was bagged at around the same time. Vachell concludes that Lady Baradale was probably killed when she discovered who stole her jewels and that the body was placed in the vicinity of the lion so that no one would question the presence of the hovering vultures. During the investigation a second death occurs when Vachell and Catchpole are attacked by a bounded buffalo – as the baronet dies, his final words seem to implicate Luke in the murder of Lady Baradale. Vachell feels responsible for this death as he apparently missed when he shot at the charging buffalo … but there is more to this apparent accident.

“The sun’s gone down, and it’s time for the shy, retiring whisky bottle to emerge.”

The book has plenty of waspish dialogue and is a cut above the norm for its slightly disdainful portrait of the otiose suspects and displays some progressive attitudes such as a properly scathing depiction of poachers who kill rhino just because some believe its horn is an aphrodisiac. More significantly it stands out for the fact that it treats the African natives as proper characters, whether it’s the trackers Japhet and Konyek, Vachell’s wily servant Kimotho or the decidedly crooked Geydi – they are all treated with seriousness and dignity, which is probably the book’s main achievement. In other respects though this is a traditional 1930s mystery, albeit in an unusual setting. The plot has several exciting elements, including close encounters with an elephant or two and a plane crash, and is fairly clued – though this proves to be one those books in which the author feels the need to really play fair by providing footnotes to where all the relevant pages earlier in the book are to be found, which is unnecessarily disruptive and is a bit annoying just when the story is wrapping up.

So, not a five star review for my top 100 then. However, it the shape of Chris Davis in has a well-drawn and quite compelling independent woman who not only would not have been out-of-place in a Karen Blixen story but could have been a great series character in her own right. Sadly it was not to be.

As the book came out before 1960, this review is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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15 Responses to MURDER ON SAFARI (1938) by Elspeth Huxley

  1. Never heard of this one, but it sounds interesting. So, is it worthy of the top 100?

  2. Hello mate – it’s definitely worth a read as a slightly unusual example of the classic pre-war whodunit. As for whether it made the top 100 … Yes, I did leave that hanging – only titles with 5 fedora tips can be included in my top 100 – that’s partly why I left it incomplete – I thought I’d leave room for 5 star titles to come – so far THE RED RIGHT HAND is I think the only one to be added since the list’s initial compilation …

  3. Bev says:

    I have yet to read a Huxley book…although her titles show up regularly at our Friends of the Library used bookstore. Your review makes me think I ought to give her a try.

    I’ve got your two latest (this & the McBain) up on the progress site.

    • Thanks Bev – I did enjoy it and found it to be much more progressive than anticipated and I think this is the main reason it is remembered though the plot is more than decent – thanks for updating me!

  4. TomCat says:

    I was one of the first to sing praises for this book in the comment section of your compilation of favorite mysteries, and I have to contest your overall conclusion of the book. A 3.5 out of 5 is under reckoning one of the true, sparkling gems of the genre. From reading your review, I’m not even sure what the book did wrong to warrant such a low rating.

    It’s one of those delightful novels in which every element of the story, from the characters and the plot to the beautifully evoked setting they tramp about in, co-exists with one another in perfect harmony – and I never thought you could actually criticize a mystery writer for playing fair with the reader. You don’t have to pay heed to the multitude of footnotes referring back to the pages where the clues were planted. Just take her word for it, read on and check them out after turning over the final page.

    At the very least, it should’ve received four tips.

    • Hello TomCat, sorry we are not more in agreement on this one. I did enjoy it and I’ve got nothing against footnotes per se (I liked the ones in the early Van Dine novels for instance) and loved the way King mocked the whole approach with his ‘clue finder’ in the Obelist series. It’s not a big thing, I agree, though in the Huxley it tends to point to the mechanical nature of that kind of plotting.

      Now I agree that this is the nature of the beast with the traditional GAD story, but I singled it out because I thought the book had strengths and weaknesses in this regard. The plot is carefully worked out but not particularly startling or unusual, the setting is certainly different and the basically liberal attitude it displays was refreshing. On the other hand, in terms of its prose I thought it was a bit leaden and the conclusion tended to emphasise its more conventional aspects at the expense of what was a bit different about the novel as a whole – hence my scientifically worked out score.

      Thanks very much for taking the time to the time to critique my critique, much appreciated.

      All the best,

      Sergio

      • TomCat says:

        The clue finder, for me, was the finishing touch to an already exquisite story and it’s true that the plot lacked something to set the overall story apart from the rest, but on the other hand you have to wonder if adding a gimmick would’ve improved the book. I mean, what if the victim was found in a stretch of mud with a single track of prints leading to the body and the solution would’ve been a resounding disappointment? The story would’ve been tagged as a disappointing impossible crime story, which is exactly what happened with her first (locked room) mystery, Murder at the Governments House. I haven’t read it, but from what I gathered, it was quite a disappointment.

        So I don’t think the absence of a gimmick or plot device should devalue a story that proved to be able to stand firmly on its own legs.

        By the way, has your scientific method for scoring book ever been peer-reviewed? ;)

  5. Ela says:

    This sounds like just the sort of thing I’d like (at least in terms of characters). I’ve never read any of Elspeth Huxley’s works – I’ll have to try this one.

  6. Patrick says:

    Well, I was planning to take a look at this one, but your review has already taken a fine look at it.

  7. Hi Patrick – Please don’t let me stand in your way, especially as there are those that rate it much higher than I do after all!

  8. Yvette says:

    I’ve never read any of this author’s books. But I’m going to keep her name on my TBR list just in case.

    I’m working on my own Favorite 100 Mysteries List, but to keep myself from going nuts, I’m only including books I’ve read up until this year.

    • Hello Yvette, really looking forward to reading your list – of course I cheated by leaving it deliberately unfinished which I thought was quite clever in a sneaky sort of why but I just keep wanting to plug up those gaps because I haven’t come across any new ones lately that feel eligible – but I want to be positive … Huxley was good but, pace TomCat, I didn’t like it enough for the list I’m afraid.

  9. Pingback: ELSPETH HUXLEY. Murder on Safari (1938). « Only Detect

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