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