#437: Murder on Safari (1938) by Elspeth Huxley

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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…

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See also

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.

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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.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card — after a barren couple of weeks here — this fulfils the category During a trip/vacation/cruise, etc.

33 thoughts on “#437: Murder on Safari (1938) by Elspeth Huxley

    • I’m hoping that if we remind you of your blog enough then maybe — one dim, distant day in the far flung future — you might rejoin the fold… 😀

  1. I don’t think I’ve heard any especially negative things about this book. Naturally therefore, I’ve still not read it. This is the kind of illogical foolishness I could say for so many books on my “hope to read while I’m still breathing list” and no, I can’t offer any credible explanation. I forever seem to be waiting for the “right time” although I have no idea when or even what that might be,

    • Ha, I know that feeling; my own neglected books that I really should have read by now — a bunch of Ed Hoch’s short fiction, The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake, a Sayers novel that doesn’t make me want to split my head open, a bunch of Henry Wade,, etc, etc — make me feel like I still can’t really talk about the genre with any authority: they’re always there, scratching at the back of my brain, whispering “But maybe we’ll change everything…”.

  2. Thanks for the review, and I remember finding the novel broadly enjoyable – but not especially so. I did recall it playing fair – with footnotes indicating page numbers, one can hardly accuse it of not playing fair – but I can’t recall the solution. What I can also recall is that the pieces of evidence that made up the solution were not especially staggering. But glad you enjoyed!

    I fear you’re in for another disappointment with next week’s book for review… 😒

    • Yeah, the solution is…fine. If anything, in trying to shift around suspicion so much, Huxley ends up narrowing down the options to a great extent (like, the harder someone tries to look guilty, the more you know it’s not them, right?). About 50 or so pages before the reveal I just had a moment of “Oh, okay, so it’s X for these reasons” and, yup, it was X for (some of) those reasons…some of the reasons you’d have to take a frank guess at, but once you’ve picked up the chain it’s pretty easy to follow.

      Spanish Cape is already challenging me, to the extent that I’ve already put it down and picked up Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker instead. I’m hoping a rapid detour into non-fiction will find me more…receptive to the contortions of Queen. Watch this space!

  3. Firstly, I’m glad you rated this one as highly as you did, but remember the solution being better than your review suggests. However, I probably need to re-read it, because it has been over a decade, or so, since I read it. But, as far as setting goes, this is arguably one of the best GAD books with an exotic location. Huxley put it to good use.

    And for God’s sake, step away from your next read! Why do you inflict this upon yourself? Just skip to the good ones already.

    • The setting is perfectly used, and shows a wonderful inventiveness, as I say, with the likes of alibis and physical evidence. It’s almost like a new subgenre, and I wonder a little whether more of this sort of thing — using the accepted tropes of GAD, but loosening the possibilities intelligently to suit the milieu — exists. Not sure how it could, but then I didn’t think something like this could exist and I’ve been proved quite squarely wrong.

      Queen is a cross I feel I must bear — Brad has committed to Halter, so I must balance things out and grit my teeth and get through it. It’s not going well, I won’t deny, so we’ll see what the weekend brings. Frankly, I’m too busy at the moment to grind through something I’m not enjoying purely for the purposes of entertaining people with a jeremiad next Thursday. I’m putting my needs first at present…

      • I’m too busy at the moment to grind through something I’m not enjoying purely for the purposes of entertaining people with a jeremiad next Thursday.
        How selfish!!!! And me, reading Papa La-bas to satiate the masses!

        • But you’re always so kind in your criticisms, Ben. C’ mon, where’s the fun in suffering if you’re not going to let loose? Though, in fairness, you’re still fortunate enough to not have to plumb the depths of real dreck on offer in the genre. Man, I cannot wait for you to truly despise something…

  4. Glad you found some favour with this as I keep seeing it on my second hand book trawls. What do you think is added to the mystery or plot that would be missing if it were not set in this African fictional location?

    • As I’ve said up top, I love how the rigour of alibis suddenly goes out the window but must still be checked, and the inventiveness used in pursuing such an investigations under such compromised circumstances. It shows a real inventiveness around what constitutes a clue and — in one key way — even what constitutes a murder. Out of this setting, those things would not impact the plotting at all; indeed, I think the solution is such a dud because as an overall mystery plot it’s something of a dud, but the inventiveness deployed in always having to take the longer path hides that from you for quite a long time. And then the solution came and I was all “Oh, yeah, there’s a fairly standard thing going on here”.

  5. I’m glad that you shared my enthusiasm for this book (Thanks for the shoutout by the way!) I have a particular fondness for exotic mysteries, probably because the place where I live is anything but and this is one of the best I’ve read. The solution as I recall was nothing spectacular but worked (at least for me) on a psychological and emotional level; I agree though with Sergio that the characters and the writing are the book’s real strengths. Heck, a modern reviewer might say that Huxley “transcended the genre”! It would be fine that some publisher rescues Vachell from oblivion if only because I’ve been wanting to read “Death of an Aryan” for years but never could find an affordable copy.

    • Ahhh, Xavier, you break my heart — Death of an Aryan/The African Poison Murders was where I was hoping to go next, and you tell me it’s hard to find?

      I can’t tell you how much I was hoping that Huxley was going to have a Lorac-esque 70+ novels output and that I’d have many, many happy years churning through them as I stumbled across the green Penguin editions up and down the country.

      Well, that’s what you get for hoping…

      • Borrowable copies of this book, Death of an Aryan/The African Poison Murders and Murder at Government House are available on Internet Archive. There is a long wait-list for each one though; if you join now, you will have to wait a month or so before being provided access to the book.

        And good luck for reading Spanish Cape, JJ!

        • Ah, okay. To be honest I don’t really know how the Internet Archive works, but perhaps I’ll check it out — thanks, Neil. I dream of a lovely green Penguuin version swimming across my path, but for all I know it was never published in such an edition and so I’m onto a loser straight away.

          As for Spanish Cape…hairy Aaron it’s not exactly easy going. I mean, I’m not even reading it at present, having put it down to distract me with something else, and I’m still not enjoying it. Ugh, why do I do this to myself? 🙂

    • Same here. Nick Fuller once wrote a short, enticing review, but never got my hands on a copy. Murder at Government House is another one I would like to see back in print and not only because it’s a locked room mystery, I swear!

    • Under the title of THE AFRICAN POISON MURDERS the book isn’t difficult to find. There are a dozen paperback copies on Amazon now, the cheapest being only thirty-five cents plus shipping.

      • Thanks, Ron — I have a crazy TBR at present, but it’s good to know that Huxlet won’t be too ridiculous to track down when I get the itch again.

  6. 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?
    Hmm, well I’m kind of forced to read this book to find out what you meant by that.

    It’s interesting that the book includes references back to all of the original evidence throughout the story. With most mysteries, you reach the solution and you’re able to piece together all of the references in a general sense. It might be interesting to actually go back and read all of the key clues, but at best I’d say that I only flip back to the one key scene, and rarely at that.

    The only book that I can think of that really needed a page reference for a clue was The White Priory Murders. That Carr went that far makes me laugh to this day.

    • Crispin’s Holy Disorders has a clue-finder, as I unfortunately seem to remember does Obelist Fly High by C. Daly King. I’ve encountered only a handful of them — and Huxley’s here really is pointless, because it’s easy enough to remember what’s happened in the narrative — and don’t know if I like it or not.

      Part of me now thinks that there’s an interesting experiment in doing the reverse: namley, telling the reader that something is a clue when it’s first mentioned in the text. Like, how obscure could you make each thing so that you flag each one up and people still fail to draw the connections between them? Carr should’ve written that book; I’m not sure anyone else had the talent to do it properly…

        • Gleeps, but that#s from 1952 and there are a handful of books I still need to get through before I can read it (though, after yeeeeeears of trying to find it, I at least now have three beautiful copies). The next time The Spanish Cape Mystery makes me roll my eyes so hard I get dizzy (fourteen and counting) I might abandon it and read the next Carr on the list — Murder in the Atlantic — which will at least bring me one step closer to TNWA.

          Becasue I’m convinced TNWA sounds absolutely bloody fabulous, and will totally be worth the wait.

          • Gleeps, but that’s from 1952 and there are a handful of books I still need to get through before I can read it
            Either your hand is capable of holding an absurd number of books, or you vastly underestimate the number of novels that Carr put out in the 1940s.

            • Haha, neither: perhaps due to the high opinion of said stretch I have read a bunch already. However, I may dip into some reread to do them chronologically, so maybe it will take me longer than I thought…

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