#709: The African Poison Murders, a.k.a. Death of an Aryan (1939) by Elspeth Huxley

African Poison Murders

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Elspeth Huxley’s Murder on Safari (1938) used its uncommon milieu and the author’s own experiences of life in Kenya as a young girl to enrich what might have otherwise been a ham-handed attempt to introduce some ‘variety’ into the annals of detective fiction. Its reliance on the trappings of safari life, and on the general ignorance of her policeman Superintendent Vachell to introduce the unfamiliar aspects to the reader, worked well with some unusual clues to mark it out as a very accomplished piece of detective fiction…right up until the reveal of the killer, when it all sort of fell apart. And lightning, it seems, has struck twice…

The African Poison Murders (1939) sees Vachell invited to the home of Dennis and Janice West, who are engaging in a war of attrition with Karl Munson, the German Nazi who owns the farm next to theirs. For every tragedy that befalls Munson’s farm — his cows getting loose and eating poisonous leaves, say — a similar unhappiness will also visit itself upon the Wests: the squeamish among you should be aware, the first chapter here contains an act of violence upon a dog that you may not forget for some time. With each homestead finding that blame falls at the feet of the other, and each declaring wide-eyed innocence in any wrong-doing, Vachell must venture forth to untangle the puzzle.

Where Huxley succeeds here is again in the casual and authoritative realisation of the setting and people, and in marrying this to the trappings of the classic detective novel. With, say, homesteads composed of loose collections of buildings “like dog biscuits upset out of a packet” and populated by natives who have little interest in the doings of the white bwana and an at-best loose appreciation of timings, the movements and alibis of the key players become somewhat difficult to pin down. Equally, the sheer amount of hats worn by anyone working in such a place makes challenging any movements around their own farm somewhat intractable.

“If ever I decide to rub out a guy, I’ll pick a quiet dairy proposition for a background. One moment you’re milking a cow, next you’re bumping off a neighbour, and then you’re back again feeding the pigs…”

Equally, the relaxed attitude born of life in isolation and common purpose makes access to weapons and other means of death markedly easier than in a typical country house murder: “I dislike locks, just as I dislike firearms;” Vachell is told at one point, “both indicate a distrust of one’s fellow men which they then feel impelled to justify”. So, as the two titles suggest, it’s only a matter of time before Munson ends up poisoned in his flower-drying shed, and an accompanying deluge of anonymous notes, suspicious visits, and political rumbling makes itself known.

The setting and the attitudes of its denizens is what compels this novel. The violence hinted at above is ever present, but with the commonplace and casual brutality of frontier living — see Munson’s young son Roy shooting down a dove with his bow-and-arrow set and then casually breaking its neck with such force that the head comes off in his hands. Only his young sister Theodora is shocked, with Vachell’s attempt to console little more than a half-hearted “That’s just how brothers are…”, and even then she’s more upset by a reminder of some earlier event than the act itself. Given the distances between everyone’s farms, Huxley does a good job of making you feel these people live atop each other — which, in this setting, they do — and brings to this a sense of long-held grudges and irritations that hold as true in these wide open plains as they would in the most crowded cities. Every accusation stings, every act of vandalism a leitmotif of the existence they all endure, and the emotional temperature is always on the rise.

The evil had to come out; but who would be corrupted by its poison none could say.

Away from this, things are less successful. Vachell may now be more intelligent when it comes to reading animal prints in the mud, but his investigative technique leaves much to be desired: allowing a suspect to tell him the symptoms of a poison without following it up, or being too unwilling to press an issue when suspects react poorly under questioning (“I see your extensive knowledge of Nazi organisation has made you an admirer of what I believe is the Gestapo technique,” he’s challenged at one point after asking a perfectly valid question that might have a bearing on the murder investigation he’s conducting). And, boy, isn’t the pace ever casual. A late bushfire might provide an exciting interlude, but there’s nothing of real plot value — there’s one…event, but it’s hardly necessary here — and only throws the relaxed pacing that persists throughout into sharp relief. Rarely have I felt so uninvested in the stakes or the pressing need to stop more, y’know, deaths.

The trenchant observation of Vachell’s character elsewhere — praising the intelligent work done by a junior officer one minute, then internally labelling him a “coarse bastard” the next when he unconsciously ventures into sensitive territory — makes me wonder if Huxley wanted him to be a bit, well, shit at his job. Almost everyone else here is concisely summed up with about them to be more than just a role to get us to the end of the book (even Munson a not entirely unpleasant man, and the sympathy generated for his boorish wife upon his murder is notable for how little would be evoked for such a character in other works), and Vachell’s mishandling feels like it could almost be deliberate in that setting. But, for all this investment in the quotidian existence of the characters, the final revelation of the murderer lacks anything like conviction (especially when Vachell admits that he can’t actually prove they committed the second murder…), and the brief flirtation with Christianna Brand-lite juggling of suspicion deserves to be in a far better book for the six pages it hangs around. And, goddamn, as with Murder on Safari we have another weird final page — this one coming slightly less out of nowhere, and doubtless a product of its time, but…the mind boggles.

One final point: you’ll have no doubt clocked the publication date and the mention of the Nazis up top. It was well-recognised at this point in the 1930s that the Nazi party was most assuredly an agitator on a grand scale, and Huxley’s use of political background is interesting for how understated it remains. That Munson and another character were jockeying for position in the local Party, or one character saying “I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the Nazis, [but] I’d hate to see them taking over this country. That would mean the push for anyone who isn’t actually a German, including me”, is about as explicit as it ever gets — and to see a narrative deliberately introduce this element and then take such a neutral attitude is fascinating in light of how we knew things turned out.

As pure detection The African Poison Murders can be skipped, but its ruddy-faced invention, its informed use of the people and setting (Huxley remains mercifully averse to the Noble Savage, though she veers a little close at times through, perhaps, simple over-enthusiasm), its enhancement of the trappings of the Golden Age — sinister collogues, the detective-as-emollient, appreciable threats and risk — leave much to commend it for. I’m delighted that the genre was able to stretch to this type of story, and for the intelligent handling of tricky ideas Huxley deserves a lot of credit. Expect the other volume of her detective output, Murder at Government House (1937), to follow here just as soon as I find a copy. And make some time in my schedule.

So, 2025-ish…

16 thoughts on “#709: The African Poison Murders, a.k.a. Death of an Aryan (1939) by Elspeth Huxley

  1. Sorry to hear this one didn’t really work as a proper detective novel, but everything else just hammers down the fact that Huxley was to Africa what Arthur W. Upfield was to Australia. They both wrote detective stories that couldn’t have taken place anywhere else with storytelling often coming first and plot second, which still produced some fine works of detective fiction.

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    • Thank-you! I knew I’d forgotten to mention something, and it was the similarity with Upfield that struck me while reading this.

      I read Winds Above the Diamantina while on hiatus, and it has similar flaws — there, it’s the huge area Boney has to cover and the slowness of the plot as a result. But you’re spot on that these stories certainly work only in their particular settings, and that’s rather damn cool in itself.

      Now all we have to do is find a novel from this era that uses its unusual setting well and provides an excellent detective plot along the way. Hopefully that third Huxley novel might be what I’m after…

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      • Now all we have to do is find a novel from this era that uses its unusual setting well and provides an excellent detective plot along the way.

        Sydney Hobson (or S.H.) Courtier’s The Glass Spear is what you’re looking for and is the best Australian detective novel I’ve read to date. Just like Upfield, but even more so, The Glass Spear couldn’t have taken place anywhere else and has an excellent plot with a beautifully executed character storyline. A mystery novel that succeeded in being both conventional and original. You might also find Cake in the Hat Box more to your liking. It has everything typical of his other work and a pretty solid plot.

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        • The Glass Spear has been on my lookout list for aaaaages, and I had no idea why — so it was doubtless an enthusiastic recommendation of yours from before that put it there.

          IIRC, some Upfields I’ve been given reason to think might be to my taste are Man of Two Tribes and, er, possibly Murder Must Wait. I dunno, I’ve probably written them down somewhere. Anyway, I’ll add Hatbox to the list and report back in 2037.

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          • I’ve not read Murder Must Wait, but Man of Two Tribes comes with a warning. It’s not a detective novel. It’s a fanciful crime fantasy that can only be compared to Ellery Queen’s bizarre And On the Eighth Day, but it was Upfield who penned a better story. So maybe an idea to review them together or back to back?

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      • I echo your lament JJ. There are other books with unusual settings such as Murder in Trinidad and The Suva Harbour Mystery, but neither do well on the mystery front. Even worse the Trinidad one does not really get engaged with the locale, it is simply an island. It could be any old island based on the narrative.Dorothy Cole Meade with her mysteries in Malaya are probably some of the better ones I have come across for achieving both parts, particularly the second mystery.
        Does Hawaii count as unusual? If so than I would mention Juanita Sheridan’s work, though I don’t think you got on her with stuff very much.
        Now I think about Speak No Evil by Eberhart is set in Jamaica.
        I should probably stop here otherwise I will keep on remembering titles and authors…

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        • I also feel that Theodore Roscoe’s Murder on the Way! couldn’t take place anywhere other than Haiti…but I might be biased in that strength of conviction 🙂

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    • Huxley was to Africa what Arthur W. Upfield was to Australia. They both wrote detective stories that couldn’t have taken place anywhere else with storytelling often coming first and plot second, which still produced some fine works of detective fiction.

      Yes, I’d strongly agree with all of that.

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  2. I picked up the edition you have pictured right before the pandemic – it was a surprise find in a local store. I have way too many books that I want to read next and won’t be giving this a shot for a while.

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    • Yeah, I’d say there’s no rush to get to this. But when you tire of the same old country house, unbreakable alibi, linguistic clue fare and want to be reassured that the classic mystery is more than simply a hidebound dead-in-the-water recycling of the same tired ideas time after time….well, Huxley will be waiting for you.

      Also, this copy is a lovely physical book — there’s something about the production that makes it feel wonderful in the hand. Just a shame the contents don’t quite live up to the artefact. Murder on Safari would be a better starting point if one wished to be convinced of this type of story’s legitimacy.

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  3. Time to bring out the animal emojis! 🦓🦍🐘🐅🐆🦛🦘🦒🐫🦜🦨🦥🦦🦡🐿🦔🦝🦩🦌

    Sorry to hear that this didn’t work as well as the earlier Safari Murders. Looks like I should give this one a miss…

    Interesting to see you’re reviewing Thursday Murder Club next. I might have got this mixed up with another title – but I seem to have the impression you weren’t favourably disposed? If so, would be good to settle for a good puzzle mystery next – the latest LRI offering, or the Barrington Hills Vampire? 🧛🏻

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    • Yay! Animal emojis! 😺

      I’d certainly no start here with Huxley — Murder on Safari was better, and Death at Government House may, for all we know, be better again. As soon as I find a copy I’ll let you know…

      I don’t think I’ve offered an opinion on The Thursday Murder Club yet — certainly I’ve been looking forward to it since it was announced (I pre-ordered it back in, like February). I know Kate and Steve had reservations about the clewing, but beyond that I have no opinion yet. All shall be revealed once I’ve actually read it.

      As for LRI…yeah, they’re coming. The Red Locked Room is one of my offerings for the Reprint of the Year Award, so I’m writing it up in December, and I’m still waiting on a signed copy of Halter’s The White Lady and a physical copy of The Thirteenth Bullet by Lanteaume — the existence of that translation is very exciting to me. A glut of LRI reviews may then follow in fairly short order, we shall see.

      And as for the Byrnside — here’s a hint: when in OCTOBER seems like a suitable date to write a review of a book about a VAMPIRE?

      In short, don’t worry — this is all forthcoming, there is a (sort of a) plan 😄

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      • Sounds like there are plenty of interesting reviews lined up. 🧐✨

        For once I’m ahead in that I’ve finished reading “Thirteenth Bullet”. In the introduction I was flabbergasted when I read how Lanteaume was sufficiently discouraged by the sales of his earlt mystery novels that he burnt up a couple of his remaining manuscripts. 😱

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  4. The trenchant observation of Vachell’s character elsewhere — praising the intelligent work done by a junior officer one minute, then internally labelling him a “coarse bastard” the next when he unconsciously ventures into sensitive territory — makes me wonder if Huxley wanted him to be a bit, well, shit at his job.

    I think so. Vachell is in many ways very unprofessional and I think that Huxley wants us to regard him as a cop who behaves unprofessionally. She’s more interested in him as a flawed hero than as a genius detective. So maybe she was ahead of her time. We don’t expect seriously flawed detectives in a 1930s detective novel.

    I think it’s an OK detective story but a very enjoyable novel.

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