The books in the Elspeth Huxley’s Superintendent Vachell series are generally regarded as skillful examples of mysteries from the Golden Age, illustrating the subgenres of the locked room mystery, the country house mystery, and the expedition or safari mystery. In all of them, much in the manner of Agatha Christie, Huxley gathers together a group of suspects and has her foreign detective explore their motives before revealing the identity of the murderer.
The books contain many twists and turns of plot, some more plausible than others, and more violence and blood than in the classic Christie mysteries, especially in Death of an Aryan (1939). There is conventional attention paid to timetables and the physical layout of the scene of the crime, and in Murder on Safari (1938) Huxley introduces the unusual technique of using footnotes at the end of the novel to refer readers back to passages earlier in the book containing clues to the solution.
The three series books maintain a certain detachment, in part through the use of an outsider as the detective and central figure, and in part through a certain lightness of tone, especially in the first two books. This lightness and detachment become comic in Huxley’s fourth and final completed mystery, The Merry Hippo, but detachment and comedy vanish in her grim psychological crime story, A Man from Nowhere.
Huxley’s detachment seems to reflect her point of view on things African. She presents Africans, white settlers, tourists, administrators, the press, and British politicians, and invites readers to find them all absurd in their own way. Fears of an African uprising turn out to be spectacularly absurd in the first Vachell book, when the true nature of the Africans’ secret society is revealed. Huxley seems ready to laugh at everyone, including the Nazis, an unfortunate misjudgment most notable when she has some characters in Death of an Aryan make jokes about imaginary poison gas piped in from Germany. Admittedly, the poison gas jokes were written before the horrors of the actual poison gas used by the Nazis became known. Similarly, the lighthearted dismissal of African uprisings was written long before the serious Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya began in the 1950’s, terrifying the white settlers, Huxley’s own mother included.
The fact that serious uprisings did occur and that the process of decolonization caused hardship to many white settlers may explain the grim tone of Huxley’s last crime novel, which replaces detachment with what seems like identification with the vengeful Dick Herron and his cause, if not with his vengeful methods. It is true, however, that just a year earlier Huxley was more detached and comic than ever, in The Merry Hippo, but that book is notable for representing virtually all parties to developments in Africa except the white settlers. When dealing with visiting British politicians, the press, and African leaders Huxley could still laugh and satirize, but the plight of individual white settlers seems to have made her more serious.
Even while laughing and constructing a murder mystery, Huxley could still be serious, and it is the distinguishing mark of her crime writing that it contains serious undercurrents about Africa, especially concerning the clash of British and African ways of life there. In her mysteries, she portrays the complexities resulting from the British intrusion...
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