Saturday, June 8, 2013

Murder on Safari: Review

I had seen various copies of Elspeth Huxley's mysteries numerous times at our Friends of the Library bookshop.  I had also read a lovely review of Murder on Safari penned by Sergio over at Tipping My Fedora back in 2011.  I eventually picked up a copy for myself in June of 2012 and here I am now with my own take on Huxley's book set in Kenya, Africa.  I'm afraid that TomCat over at Beneath the Stains of Time will be most disappointed to find that I lean more heavily towards Sergio's rating of the book than I do his.  While this is an interesting example of a Golden Age (1930s) mystery in an unusual setting, I wouldn't put it on my all-time Best 100 list.

The story takes place on (surprise!) safari in Africa.  Lord and Lady Baradale have paid good money for a luxurious outing in the African veldt for themselves, Lord Baradale's daughter Cara from a previous marriage, and her fiance, Sir Gordon Catchpole.  Along for the ride are a mechanic (who is, incidentally, Lady Baradale's toy-boy lover) and a maid.  They have hot baths, a top-notch chef, a well-stocked liquor cabinet, one of the best white hunters around--Danny de Mare, an aviatrix to spot game for them--Chris Davis, and more servants in their entourage than might be found at most good hotels.   Oh, and Lady Baradale, who wears Chanel No. 5 in the jungle, has brought along her safe full of fabulous jewels.  And then seems surprised that someone might relieve her of the choicest pieces of her collection.

Superintendent Vachell of the Chania Police is brought in by Lady Baradale to hunt down the culprit.  The assistant to Danny de Mare is let go--both to provide a cover story for Vachell who takes on the position as a disguise and to remove temptation from Cara Baradale's sight. It takes very little time for Vachell to reveal how little he knows about the white hunter business as well as to be faced with the murder of Lady Baradale.  Lady Baradale wasn't exactly the most beloved of people.  She liked her own way--and had a way of getting it no matter who she had to hurt or anger in the process.  So the question is was the murder a result of the jewel robbery or was it more personal?  It will take another murder and a couple of attempts on the Superintendent's life before Vachell will be able to put all the pieces together--and even then he won't have enough evidence to prove it without the culprit making a get-away that's as good as a confession.

I will say that this is the best mystery yet that I've read which was set in Africa.The safari setting was interesting and unusual and provided much of the exciting elements of the story--from encounters with elephants, lions, and a wounded buffalo to rains that cut the safari off from outside help to a plane crash.  It managed to provide some of the "closed society" feel of the Golden Age novels.  And I did appreciate how fairly clued the mystery was.  So much so that Huxley provides footnotes to refer readers to where the clues appeared in the story.  I didn't find this nearly as distracting as Sergio did.  What I did find a bit annoying was that after being hit over the head and important evidence removed from Lady Baradale's safe right under his nose Vachell didn't seem to give any thought to leaving all his evidence locked in his evidence case in his tent while he went wandering around the camp and hunting areas.  A safe is much more impregnable than a locked evidence case and yet he just assumed that all his little accumulations would be fine in a tent that he repeatedly notes has no door to lock.  Even if someone didn't force the lock and take the evidence (which they did), all they had to do was grab the case and go hide it out in the jungle somewhere or drop it in the river full of crocodiles.  At the very least, I'd be carrying those items around with me....

I didn't really care for most of the characters either.  It was hard to have sympathy for any of them, even our intrepid Superintendent...the best of the bunch is Chris Davis, a very independent woman for the time period.  I like the way she so easily spots that Vachell is no white hunter and the easy repartee between them--and I can appreciate her difficulties as revealed in the denouement.

Overall, this was a pleasant read and good puzzle--but I rate it middle of the road at three stars.

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