Monday, February 17, 2020

The African Poison Murders (Death of an Aryan)

The African Poison Murders (originally published in 1939 as Death of an Aryan) was Elspeth Huxley’s third mystery novel.

This time Superintendent Vachell’s initial problem is Nazis. Or at least a German farmer in Kenya who is assumed to be a Nazi agent. There seems to be a bit of a power struggle within the local Nazi hierarchy.

But when murder occurs it seems more likely that it was something to do with a woman. If it was murder. The autopsy offered no clues whatever as to the cause of death. The one obvious cause of death is ruled out immediately. Superintendent Vachell suspects poisoning but there’s not a shred of evidence pointing in that direction. The second murder affords even fewer clues and again there’s no possible way to determine the cause of death.

Superintendent Vachell has other problems. His biggest problem is Janice West, the wife of a local farmer. The Wests seem like they might be involved in some way, but Vachell doesn’t want to think too much about that since he’s fallen hopelessly in love with Mrs West. All very unprofessional, but this is Africa and even Canadian colonial policemen are prone to forbidden passions in the tropics.

What I particularly liked about Elspeth Huxley’s Murder On Safari was that so many of the events, including the murders, could only have taken place in Africa. This is also the case in The African Poison Murders. Vital clues are provided by a bushbuck and by a leopard. Birds provide several crucial clues, directly and indirectly. The terrifying climax in which Vachell stares death in the face could only happen in Africa.

And of course social and sexual mores were different in the tropics. Kenya in the 30s was in fact renowned for the rather friend easy approach to sexual morality taken by the European colonists. Sexual passions always seem to be seething beneath the surface in The African Poison Murders.

This novel includes a fair number of popular golden age detective story clichés, particularly in regard to poisonings.

Having the detective hero fall in love with one of the suspects had certainly been done before but it is somewhat risky. While it makes the detective more human (which can endear him to the reader) it also makes him decidedly unprofessional (which can alienate the reader). Putting a love story into a detective novel is itself risky. It can slow things down and it can be a distraction. There’s a good reason that it was something that was rather frowned upon. Huxley pulls it off reasonably well here and she makes sure that the mystery plot doesn’t get derailed by it.

Vachell knows he’s skating on thin ice, especially given that at the time he falls in clove with Mrs West he’s still not sure of the murderer’s identity and therefore can’t be certain that she isn’t the killer.

The ending is a little unconventional. While there are plenty of clues to guide Vachell and he does do some serious detecting the solution is very much motive-based, and very much psychology-based. Which means the motive has to be psychologically convincing. If you don’t buy the motive the whole thing collapses. I found it to be plausible so I had no great problems with the solution.

The African Poison Murders has other things going for it. Huxley is an entertaining writer. The book doesn’t have to rely entirely on plotting. The colourful setting and the colourful characters provide plenty of enjoyment. That’s all well and good as long as the plot works and I think it does.

The African Poison Murders is highly recommended.


  1. Where do you find the time to read so much in the age of the internet?

    1. Where do you find the time to read so much in the age of the internet?

      That's easy. I don't do the social media thing. I don't do facebook or twitter. They're the big internet time sinks.