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.