Sunday, March 19, 2017

Murder at Government House

Murder at Government House (1937) by Elspeth Huxley is the first of her Inspector Vachell stories set in the fictional colony of Chania (corresponding to Kenya, Africa). Vachell has come to Africa from Canada and has a much more forthright, almost brash manner than many of the colonials are used to. The inspector is called to investigate when Sir Malcolm MacLeod, Chania's Governor, is found strangled to death in his office in the late hours after a dinner party. It first looks like a locked room murder--guards at the doors, the connecting office door was locked, and Olivia Brandeis, a young anthropologist, was outside the Governor's window smoking and talking with another guest during the crucial time. And Vachell must discover how the murderer got in and out of the office without being seen. There are many among the guests who had a motive to kill the Governor--from those opposed to a proposed merger with a neighboring colony to ambitious government officials who could benefit from the Governor's removal.There are also many clues and red herrings for the inspector to sift through. Olivia Brandeis, having an alibi for the time of the murder, provides much-needed insight on her fellow dinner guests and brings Vachell an obscure, but important clue from a local witch doctor. An official-napping by plane and a high-speed chase--complete with an armed suspect and narrow escapes for our hero and heroine provide an exciting wrap-up.

Huxley gives her readers an interesting look at colonial life in Africa during the 1930s with an excellent look at the tensions experienced by the indigenous people trying to adapt to the ways of the British while experiencing the pull of their African heritage. There is also hints of the tensions breaking in the world with discussions of how the Japanese would love to get a foothold through a concession of some farmland. There is no overt references to the storms of war which are brewing, but the reader's historical hindsight can read between the lines. 

Vachell is a competent investigator (much more so than in Murder on Safari--my previous experience with Huxley's work), but still not a captivating character. I've been most remiss in my review-writing and, having finished six days ago, I find that he has left very little impression on me. Perhaps that is why Huxley's novels are not nearly as well-know as some of her contemporaries. This was an interesting look at colonial Africa and the mystery itself is fairly good--lots of suspects and clues to sift through. What keeps this from being top-shelf is Vachell's lack of, shall we say, flair and the fact that the solution depends on a rather obscure bit of knowledge that is not introduced to the reader until the inspector explains all. One might put the finger on the correct suspect with the available clues, but one would be hard-pressed to see how s/he could have done it without that key bit of knowledge. Not quite fair play. ★★ for a solid, entertaining read.

[Finished on 3/14/17]

This fulfills the "Telephone" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card and is my first entry in Rich's 1937 edition of the Crimes of the Century over at Past Offences. If you've got a 1937 mystery on tap, come join us!


Anonymous said...

Thanks Tracy - and your link worked this time :-)

I recently finished Huxley's The Merry Hippo and found it to be a very accurate portrait of a particular moment in history, but also slightly less than fair.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, mental block there - mixing you up with Tracy at Bitter Tea :-)

Bev Hankins said...

I like Tracy a not a problem being mixed up with her. :-)