Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Matthew Head's The Congo Venus

John Canaday (1907-1985) was an American who wrote seven detective novels between 1943 and 1955, under the pseudonym Matthew Head. These included the four Dr Mary Finney mysteries. The Congo Venus, published in 1950, was the third book in this series.

The Congo Venus takes place in Léopoldville, in what was then the Belgian Congo, during the 1940s. It concerns the murder of the local blonde bombshell, Liliane Morelli. Liliane is (or was because she’s already dead when the book opens) Belgian, in her twenties and dangerous in the way that blonde bombshells tend to be. She is married to a much older man. It is generally assumed that Liliane is a bit of a sexual adventuress but the small enclosed world of the European community in Léopoldville (there are about 6,000 Europeans in the city) is rife with gossip. It’s possible that Liliane is (or was) in fact a faithful wife.

In any case she is dead, a victim of blackwater fever.

The narrator, Tolliver, is a young (or youngish) American who holds some kind of position connected with the Allied war effort. He’s not exactly a junior diplomat - we assume he’s employed by the War Department or maybe the State Department.

His friend Dr Mary Finney is an American as well, a middle-aged doctor who has apparently spent most of her adult life in Africa. For some reason, which she doesn’t disclose, she wants to hear anything that Tolliver can tell her that is connected directly or indirectly with Liliane Morelli. She also wants to hear everything he knows about everyone closely connected to Liliane.

Of course, given that this is a mystery novel, we immediately assume that Miss Finney has some suspicions about the circumstances of Liliane’s death. She is however unwilling to reveal this openly.

We learn that Liliane was hated by her step-daughter Jeanne’s aunt, Madame de St. Nicaise. Liliane seems to have had an uneasy relationship with Jeanne. At the time of her death Liliane was being treated by Dr Gollmer, an ageing medical practitioner with a very colourful local reputation. Dr Gollmer lives with his two girlfriends, Lala and Babu.

In the course of the conversations between Miss Finney and Tolliver a number of local scandals are given an airing. There was the celebrated musical falling out between Madame de St. Nicaise and Dr Gollmer. There was the scandal of the red-headed American lieutenant. And of course the scandal of the Congo Venus. Dr Gollmer dabbled in painting and his most famous (or infamous) painting was The Congo Venus, a kind of African riff on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The scandal was that the very nude Venus in the painting was clearly modelled on Liliane Morelli.

There are several things that give this book a very distinctive flavour. The first, obviously, is the setting. Léopoldville in the 40s was like an overheated social pressure cooker, a place in which sexual intrigues and scandal flourished because the only other thing to do was to drink too much.

The second distinctive feature is the meandering discursive structure. It’s like sitting in a bar and having a guy tell you a long rambling story. There’s no attempt at a linear narrative. He’ll start telling you about something that happened last week and then launch into a digression about about something that happened five years ago, then he’ll go off into another digression about events that occurred two years ago, then he’ll realise that that event was connected to something else that happened six months ago and he’ll start telling you about that.

It sounds chaotic and you do have to concentrate in order to piece the narrative together but surprisingly the discursive approach works rather well. Part of the reason it works is the author’s stylistic lightness of touch and his gift for complicated but amusing anecdote. Of course these anecdotes must be assumed to contain plenty of clues but since we don’t even know for a very long time that any kind of crime was actually committed, and if there was a crime we have no idea how it might have been carried out, we don’t know what kinds of clues to look out for. It doesn’t matter because the digressions are so entertaining.

Tolliver is a very pleasant and reasonably intelligent fellow but not very colourful. Miss Finney is rather more worldly than we initially assume her to be and she seems to derive considerable pleasure from pumping Tolliver for information without giving him any hints as to why she has suspicions about Liliane’s death and what those suspicions might be. Tolliver is a typical Dr Watson. He sees the same things the detective sees but entirely fails to grasp their significance.

Mary Finney is on the surface a typical golden age of detection spinster amateur detective, but one who has led a less sheltered life than most members of that breed. She certainly understands the sexual motivations in murder cases and there are plenty of potential sexual motivations in this story.

Of course the question is, is this really an example of the golden age puzzle-plot detective novel? I’d say no. Don’t approach this book expecting the kind of intricate plotting that you’d get in a Freeman Wills Crofts or John Dickson Carr novel, or an early Ellery Queen. This book was published in 1950 and it’s perhaps more a psychological (or even psycho-sexual) crime novel than a pure golden age puzzle-plot novel. The actual plot is nothing special and while Mary Finney does lots of detecting she relies mostly on psychological insights (and to a lesser extent on her medical knowledge). There are no clever alibis to be broken and there are no physical clues.

It is a thoroughly enjoyable read but it’s the setting and the discursive narrative that makes The Congo Venus interesting, and propels it into the highly recommended category.

I had never even heard of Matthew Head until I came across TomCat’s review of his earlier Mary Finney mystery The Cabinda Affair, which also sounds intriguing.


  1. Thanks for the mention, D! Glad you enjoyed the book despite it not being a typical GAD story. I suppose you can class Head as a transitional writer with the appearance of a traditional detective story, but with all of the emphasis on characterization and psychology. But he did it very well. And the beautifully realized, colorful settings definitely helped.

    1. And the beautifully realized, colorful settings definitely helped.

      Yes, he did an exceptional job of capturing the hot-house atmosphere of an enclosed tropical world. Which is something that I always enjoy.