Lightning could strike twice, right? I went into Max Murray’s The Voice of the Corpse (1948) last week knowing nothing about it and that turned out rather well, and no less authorities than Xavier Lechard and Nick Fuller had enthused about this in recent weeks. Plus, in the comments on that above post, TomCat — who knows my standards pretty well, I feel — called Murder on Safari (1938) “a wonderfully written detective story with a splendid backdrop, [that] plays scrupulously fair with the reader”. So, despite (deliberately) knowing nothing about this one either, this wasn’t a risk at all. Kick back, and let the good times roll.
The title might have you dreaming of some sort of web browser-based modern novel of computer terror and suspense, but the date will banish any such fears: page one has Great White Hunter Danny de Mare consulting Superintendent Vachell of the Chania C.I.D with regards the pilfering of some valuable jewels from the fabulously wealthy sponsor of the animal hunting party he’s chaperoning in the vicinity of that fictional African province. As Lady Baradale herself puts it when Vachell is brought out to the camp under the guise of replacing the second hunter attached to the party, “I’m afraid you won’t have to look farther than the white section of the camp for the thief” — this is GAD, remember, so the servants are never guilty, though here with the somewhat backhanded consideration that a native would have simply grabbed “anything that sparkled”.
However, the book is not called Theft on Safari, and soon Vachell is out in the wilds with a closed circle of suspects as one of the members is shot, the murder ingeniously disguised — really, Huxley makes superb use of her setting throughout — and so the ante may be considered seriously upped. From here, it follows fairly standard 1930s detective novel lines, but told with a very pleasing twist as the usual suspects must be observed — alibis, weapons, ammunition, etc — but the setting means this must typically be achieved in a creatively untypical manner: an alibi of someone shooting at buffalo, for instance, requires trackers to go to the site where the shooting is claimed to have taken place, and establish how long ago buffalo were at the site based on footprints, faeces samples, and the like. You remember how in most of Iron Man 3 Tony Stark is deprived of his suit and so must creatively use bits of it or other means to achieve his ends? This is the 1930s Iron Man 3. But good.
To be perfectly honest, the only thing that didn’t work for me was the solution: after such a loving exploration of the setting and the nature of the activity at the heart of the book, the fact that a killer must be identified comes as something of a let-down on two counts. The first is that it’s all rather obvious, to my eye at least, and the second is that Huxley’s scrupulously brilliant regaling of the crime and motivations (complete, as you’ll no doubt have heard, with entirely needless but fun footnotes telling you where clues can be found — a lodestar of how to sprinkle actual clues throughout your narrative) begins with a huge moment of “Well, if we assume this…” in order to jump onto the logic train which a) stands out like a warthog in a pigeon coop and b) undoes a lot of the killer’s enterprise. It also gives rise to one of the weirdest final pages of probably any GAD novel I’ve ever read…just, like, what the hell is that?
But, well, elsewhere it’s pretty difficult to fault. Huxley’s characters are superb, a collection of loose and fine tics and traits where others might colour in some with a banshee wail of bright colours or deliberate herring smells. Gordon Catchpole’s interior design expert with his straining of words in really the most obnoxious manner is a beautiful deployment of dialogue allowing us to see for ourselves what needn’t be — and isn’t — rammed down our throat by having someone else tell us what a twat he is, and Vachell is a pleasingly clueless dolt who never saw a wild animal he couldn’t mistake for an anthill, a pair of dungarees, or literally anything except the threat to his life and well-being that it is. And the aloof, intelligent, wry expert pilot Chris Davis seems to have a great deal more agency than the typical woman in this sort of role in the 1930s would usually be granted: as good with a trenchant and accurate observation as she is loyal to a fault (seriously, that last line of chapter 17 — gives me chills).
Huxley is also, perhaps carefully given her Kenyan provinance and upbringing, neither pro- nor anti-hunting, but is clear in her disdain for aspects of the practice: “I must go and butcher this wretched lion to make Catchpole’s holiday, I suppose,” de Mare gripes at one point. “It’ll probably give him some new ideas for mural designs in cocktail bars”. At another point we’re treated to the piquantly circular trappings of “it’s a funny thing about the rich. We all pretend to despise them, and the only way we can escape from them is to become one of them ourselves”. And if you’ve read a more savage takedown of privilege than Lord Baradale’s extended, venom-dripped castigation of the fallacy of the perceived sportsmanship of hunting then, brother, we need to talk. And all this effortlessly contrasted against the gentle beauty of her savage surroundings — of “a herd of startled giraffe who cocked their foolish heads, perched on stiff necks like sparrows on a flagpole” or gossip spreading through a camp “as logs being carried down a river will catch against some obstruction, form a restless island, and part again before the insistent pressure of flowing water”.
It might be a bit too long on setting at times, each vista and array described in such loving detail before any actors trample in and spoil the view, but it’s clearly so close to her heart, and so uncommon in the genre, that I’ll give Huxley a pass on that. I would happily read another 40 of these, and was extremely excited to have discovered another author I could spend years collecting…and so of course detection turned out to have only been a hobby with Huxley and we have a mere four other books in the genre from her hand. Ho-hum. Back to Ellery Queen it is, then…
Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora: 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.
Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock: The mystery plot is very well constructed, and it plays fair. There are even ‘clue-finder’ footnotes in my book, guiding readers back to the points in the story where Vachell found his evidence. I hadn’t spotted the clues, but I saw that a good policeman would, and I understood how the case against the culprit had been built. … This book stands out not because it is innovative or inventive, but because the author has such depth of understanding of her setting and the distinctive possibilities that it presents for a murderer.
For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Voice of the Corpse from last week because…er, how to put this — the guilty parties share a sort of…there’s a degree of…look, it’s to do with the killers and the way they’re…no, that’s saying too much…uhm, hmm. Trust me, it’s a spoiler of sorts.