REVIEW: Death in Kenya – M. M. Kaye

Originally published as ‘Later Than You Think’ (1958)

1984 Penguin paperback cover (image from Amazon)

1984 Penguin paperback cover (image from Amazon)

I was doing that usual thing on Wikipedia of jumping from one article to another (I think it went from Little Women to White Mischief via Gabriel Byrne and Wah Wah) when I came upon details of the “Happy Valley murder case” which concerned the still-unsolved murder of Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll in 1941 in Kenya. Reading about this made me curious enough to get James Fox’s book on the subject (and the one on which the film of the same name was based), White Mischief. However, it also made me extract M. M. Kaye’s mystery novel Death in Kenya from my bookshelves and read that (again).

Kaye was born in India and spent much of her early life there: she is probably best known for her sweeping historical novels set in India, Shadow of the Moon and The Far Pavilions. She married an Army officer, Goff Hamilton, and during her married life she ‘followed the drum’ with him to many places, several of which she used as locations for her crime novels. The Hamiltons were in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising – termed The Emergency by the white settlers there – and Death in Kenya is set towards the end of that period (around 1956), when ‘the Emergency’ was almost over.

Death in Kenya (originally published under the title ‘Later Than You Think’) starts out by introducing the reader to a cast of characters based at a farm in the Rift Valley near Naivasha called ‘Flamingo’ owned by the DeBretts: Alice, the young and rather urban wife of Eden DeBrett, grandson of Lady Emily, one of the original white settlers; Gilly Markham, the farm manager, and his pretty and discontented wife Lisa, who’s fallen in love with Eden; Drew Stratton, a neighbouring settler; and Hector and Mabel Brandon, likewise, and their young son Ken. The sense of tension is very well conveyed by Alice’s interior monologue and the dialogue in the Markham’s bungalow, particularly Alice’s dislike of Kenya and her discomfort with the thought of the imminent arrival of Victoria Caryll, Lady Emily’s niece, who was born in Kenya and was once engaged to Eden.

The rest of the novel is seen largely through Victoria’s eyes, as she returns to Kenya, a country she has not seen since the age of six (she’s now twenty-four) as life at Flamingo is disrupted by murders, missing people and suspicion. Was the first death a Mau Mau killing after all? Or did the murderer have a more personal motive?

I am very fond of Kaye’s writing – she has an artist’s eye for landscape (photographs in her autobiography show that she was not a bad painter, and did actually make a living from it at one point) and scenery. This is the first line:

A flock of pelicans, their white wings dyed apricot by the setting sun, sailed low over the acacia trees of the garden with a sound like tearing silk, and the sudden swish of their passing sent Alice’s heart into her throat and dried her mouth with panic.

As a crime novel, the plotting doesn’t compare with Christie, and she does tend to litter the stage with corpses (there are, by the end, three murders, one attempted murder, and one which could be classed as justifiable homicide). Victoria is rather a passive heroine, though her conflict about returning to Kenya and how she’s to react to Eden, with whom she may still be in love, when he’s married, is well done: she’s not like Sarah Parrish in Death in Kashmir or ‘Copper’ Randal in Death in the Andamans, who are far more active and intrepid heroines.

There’s a closed circle of suspects, naturally, and Kaye is adept at dropping suspicion on all of them in turn. She concentrates the action on the white settlers, describing their interactions and interrogations by local Superintendent of Police Greg Gilbert (who’s in the unenviable position of having to ask questions of his friends); a few of the servants are named, but none of them have any dialogue – even though one of them, Wambui, saves Victoria’s life – and thus they exist only in the background. Unlike Georgette Heyer’s crime novels, Kaye does play fair with the reader, and doesn’t withhold clues or information, even if she’s clever about how she presents that information. Apart from the servant characters, she characterises well, so that one gets a sense of lives outside the action of the novel, or what might happen to them afterwards.

There are some amusing moments – in light of White Mischief, Eden’s trenchant remark about young Ken Brandon, who’s fallen in love with Alice, and whom Lady Emily thinks is “not really the right type for Kenya” refers clearly to Erroll and the ‘Happy Valley’ set of an earlier era:

‘Judging from his capacity for falling in love with other men’s wives,’ said Eden acidly, ‘I should have thought he had at least one of the necessary qualifications.’

There’s also no grey in her portrayal of the Mau Mau uprising, and there are some opinions expressed which are typical of the time; I expect that also being married to an Army officer whose regiment has been sent out to deal with the ‘terrorist rising’ (as Kaye terms it in her foreword) isn’t necessarily going to give you a balanced picture of the political scene. By all accounts the British weren’t blameless (just have a look at the Wikipedia article linked to above), yet that’s not even mentioned. Drew Stratton, who’s meant to be sympathetic, gives Victoria a potted lecture on the settlers’ point of view and essentially calls the Mau Mau “a bestial horror”.

One of the interesting things about reading this series of novels is to see how life was like for British colonists before or as the British empire was being dismantled, since Kaye is very good at evoking that lost way of life, which was vanishing even as she was writing about it. In Death in Kashmir, for example, set in 1947, Charles Mallory remarks that “the Johnnies and Helens will infest places like Kenya” on India’s independence, little thinking that Kenya too would demand independence from Britain.

This is not one of my favourites of Kaye’s crime novels, but it is evocative and interesting as a historical document of the time as well as a crime novel.

Other crime novels by Kaye are:

Death in the Andamans; Death in Kashmir; Death in Cyprus; Death in Berlin; and Death in Zanzibar.

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5 Responses to REVIEW: Death in Kenya – M. M. Kaye

  1. Not read any of her crime fiction, so thanks for this detailed review. And welcome back Ela!

    • Ela says:

      The advent of the e-book really seems to be helping us read books by loads of previously hard-to-find authors – I noticed that the Murder Room have ‘Death in Kenya’ on their list. I thought I’d previously reviewed ‘Death in the Andamans’ which is my favourite of Kaye’s mystery novels, but not, so I may have to post reviews of all six!

      Thanks for the welcome back! I have been so remiss about blogging this year and I have read so much…

  2. Hey! It’s you! Hi, hi, I missed you! (I’m blogging as Reading the End now but I was Jenny’s Books before, so that is who I am.)

    I’ve only read Kaye’s better-known books, the two India ones plus her wonderful children’s book The Ordinary Princess. (I started Trade Winds but it got real rapey real fast and I gave it up as a bad lot.) I’ve been curious about her “Death in X” books for a while — what one should I start with? Sounds like this is not the best of them?

    • Ela says:

      Hi Jenny – thanks for the welcome back!

      It’s not the best of her ‘Death in’ books, but I do like them all for the sense of place and time – now vanished – that they all have. ‘Death in Kashmir’ and ‘Death in the Andamans’ are probably my favourites: their heroines are intelligent and courageous, and advance the plot rather than reacting to it, and neither of them does silly stuff. There’s a delightful quartet of would-be detectives in ‘Death in the Andamans’, too, though there are too many murders for a proper crime novel.

      I see what you mean about ‘Trade Wind’, though I’d argue that the (minimal) sex in all three of her historicals is a bit rapey – in ‘Shadow of the Moon’ Winter’s in love with Alex and she doesn’t protest, but he doesn’t give her any choice in the matter (at least the first time), and in ‘The Far Pavilions’ Ash with Juli (again the first time) isn’t entirely consensual. Admittedly in ‘Trade Wind’ Kaye has Hero understand Rory’s motivations, but Kaye doesn’t attempt to paint it as anything but rape. Kaye does a lot better in ‘Trade Wind’ with portraying the locals than she does in ‘Shadow of the Moon’ – I particularly like Rory’s friendship with Majid, and the scornful reactions of Chole to the European women which she hides from them, and the way the characters change and mellow in their reaction to adversity.

  3. Pingback: BOOK TO SCREEN: White Mischief | Ela's Book Blog

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