“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”
The opening lines of M.M. Kaye’s Death in Kenya, transports the reader into Flamingo a sprawling plantation on the banks of Lake Naivasha dominated by the huge sprawling single storied house with “thatched roofs, wide verandahs and spacious rooms paneled in undressed cedar wood, that defied all architectural rules and yet blended with the wild beauty of the Rift Valley” dominated by the septugenaraian Kenyan settler, Lady Emily De Brett, tramping about the estate in her scarlet dungarees, flashing diamonds and a pith helmet. Despite the gardens bursting with color, frolicking hippos, tea on the verandah, the army of servants, the heady round of picnics to the Crater Lake and sundowners with friends, there’s at atmosphere of lurking menace. The year is 1955, and despite the official narrative being that the Mau Mau rebellion had been crushed, characters worry about the Mau Mau on the run or being disguised among the plantation staff, particularly rumors around the mysterious “General Africa” (a reference to Waruhiru Itote, the real life Mau Mau fighter who went by the name General China) who was rumored to be in hiding near Naivasha. Flamingo itself had successfully held off a Mau Mau attack in the past, though it’s manager had died in the crossfire. As the settlers drink they umpteenth gin and tonic, they look over their shoulders convinced that the “secret ceremonies, extortion, intimidation-same old filthy familiar ingredients simmering away again ready to boil over in the drop of the hat”. The lurking tension spills into outright fear, as one by one characters are murdered, and while it could well be the Mau-Mau (the choice of weapons includes a panga and an poison tipped Masai arrow), it’s equally likely to be one of the small community of Europeans living around the plantation.
I read Death in Kenya in the Fall of 2016, after a day’s research at the National Archives of Kenya in Nairobi where the files I was reading portrayed another kind of terror, unleashed upon the Kenyan population by the colonial state. As documented extensively by scholars like Caroline Elkins and David Anderson and leading up to a High Court case for reparations, the Kenyan Emergency saw the suspension of civil liberties, tens of thousands of deaths, the imprisonment of around 400,000 Kikuyu into concentration camps and “enclosed villages, torture, beating, mutilation, castration and sexual assault. Ostensibly to curb the Mau Mau insurgency, a guerilla movement prompted by the expropriation of land by White settlers, the retaliation attacked not just the Mau Mau gureilla fighters but a large majority of the civilian population. By 1957, in a secret memoranda, the Attorney General advised the Governor that the situation was prompting “comparisons with Nazi Germany” and argued for a legal regulation of torture, famously saying “those who administerviolence … should remain collected, balanced and dispassionate".
How does one read light fiction set amid such unspeakable violence? At first, Kaye’s sympathies with the settlers seem clear, as she says in the Authors note, much of opinions voiced by her characters were taken from life, and very few of the Kenya born settlers would believe the “winds of change” would blow strongly enough to blow them out of the country they looked upon as their own. This comes through brutally when Drew Stratton, the swarthy sunburned settler, who walked like a cowboy displays a tally of “Mau Mau” kills on the verandah to the queasy Victoria Caryll, newly arrived from England. Stratton and his friends are reported to have gone underground, with blackface, to infiltrate the Mau Mau groups. Describing the horrors of the Mau Mau, and the losses suffered by loyalist Africans and Europeans, Stratton roughly rejects Victoria’s plaintive statement that “it is their country” making the case for settler colonialism in the crudest possible terms, “I want to stay here, and if that is immoral and indefensible colonialism, then every American whose pioneer forebears went in the covered wagon to open up the West is tarred with the same brush; and when the UNO orders them out, we may consider moving”.
It is here, in its crudest and most violent articulation, that the uncertainties of the settler imagination are also highlighted. The awareness that their methods are under critique, the role of the UN and the shift in power towards the United States. The self-awareness comes through in Stratton’s apology for “the grossly oversimplified lecture on the Settler’s point of view”. Settler society is seen as a corrupted European society, as the gentle Alice de Brett shudders at the “casual attitude of most women towards firearms and the sight and smell of blood”. Morals are seen as lax, and several married characters are having affairs outside their marriages. Kenneth Brandon, the Byronic 19 year old, “capacity for falling in love with other men’s wives” makes him qualified as the right type for Kenya.
Kenyan settlers, particularly the hedonistic aristocrats who belonged to the Happy Valley Set had making international scandal pages including its very own real life murder mystery, when the Earl of Errol was foundmysteriously shot in his Buick in Ngong road. His lover’s husband another British aristocrat was tried and acquitted of his murder and would later commit suicide. As Lady De Brett asserts, it would unlikely that any jury in Kenya would find her (and by implication any prominent settler) guilty of murder. Martin Weiner and Elizabeth Kolsky have documented that Europeans were rarely found guilty of violence in colonial trials. The impunity of white violence and close, besieged nature of settler society, also makes it awkward for the police inspector to conduct his investigation having to interrogate and detain his friends and social acquaintance.
While Kaye had spent a short period of time in Kenya, her powers of observation on local culture are acute and are reflected in the book. A key alibi is established by several African staff members hearing a suspect play a piano, and when the suspect suggests that “none of the servants would know the difference between one tune and another”, the inspector points out that the average African has a better ear for music than one imagines. Peter Leman’srecent work traces how orality in accounts of legal trials has the “the capacity to challenge the narrative foundations of colonial law and its postcolonial residues and offer alternative models of temporality and modernity that give rise, in turn, to alternative forms of legality”. Songs, verbal oath takings and music formed a key part of the evidence in the famous Kapenguria trial, which sought to prosecute Jomo Kenyatta and other Kikuyu leaders for managing the Mau Mau.
The violence against Africans during the Emergency is an uncomfortable reminder offstage, as a character worries about her maid giving evidence to the police, “they may take here away and hold her for questioning. You know what they are like”. Another notes that the police had roped into the house servants for questioning and turned the labour lines on the plantation “into the nearest thing to a concentration camp”. The role of the Brandons, Flamingo’s neighbours, in the brutal suppression of the revolt, offers a possibility that the Mau-Mau might take revenge by putting poison in their medicine box. As Lady Brett acknowledges, there are things worse than murder, including, “trials, hanging, suspicion, miscarriage of justice”.
As Erik Lindstrum shows in his recent article, British knowledge about violence in the colonies was both widespread, but also “fragmented and ambiguous”. British newspapers trying to position themselves as neutral failed to convey the extent of colonial violence and some of the most widely circulated narratives were framed by fiction and film. The solution to Death in Kenya (not to give away spoilers) is an ambiguous statement to the question of the settler colony. The serial murders insanity is driven by their desire to mark out a permanent presence in the colony, to master its future, even though it requires the sacrifice of English men and women. The murder is also revenged by an African, posing a problem for the British policeman, who don’t know what to do with an African who had killed a European but in the process saved the life of another.
Murder by the Panga: The Bassan Murder Case
In 1960, the plot of Death in Kenya seemed to take real life turn. Satyavadi Bassan, a young Kenyan-Indian and her two infant daughters were found hacked to death by a panga in their car on the road to Nyeri. Pyarelal Bassan, her husband and her four year old daughter were also found gravely injury and recounted at attack by three African men who had stopped their car, demanded money and attacked the family. The Indian Association of Nyeri rejected the idea of a robbery gone awry and insisted the murder was political, linking it to secret gatherings of Africans and the targeting of Indians as “outsiders” and “parasites” in Kenyan nationalist rhetoric. The use of the panga (like the wounds of Alice de Brett in Death in Kenya) were seen as “reminiscent of the Mau Mau killings”. As Sana Aiyyar in her study of the Indian diaspora in Kenya notes, “the use of the panga and mutiliation..became the catalyst for politicization of the Nyeri murder”. Aiyar argues that wile the Indian leaders in Kenya attacked African leadership for not condemning the violence, the emergent African political leaders also assumed that the attack was carried out by Africans and marked a “resurgence of ritualistic violence that threatened their leadership”
The subsequent trial and investigation revealed, as in Kaye’s who-dunnit, the crime originated neither from economic reasons nor the political churn of nationalism, but from a domestic setting. Pyarelal Bassan was found to have hired the men to murder his wife and children, and the trial hinted at both Pyarelal and Satyavati having extra-martial liaisons. Once again we see a crime that originates in the "malice domestic" of a settler society, being initially framed as a crime arising out of the violent churn of African politics.
Crime in the Colony: Elspeth Huxley’s Murders in Chania
Colonial Kenya also forms the setting for a series of murder mysteries by ElspethHuxley. Huxley, the author of over 42 books is best known for her memoir, TheFlame Trees of Thika, serialized in television and frequently analysed by literary scholars working on colonialism, memory and nostalgia. Huxley’s murder mysteries set in the fictional country of Chania (standing in for Kenya) draw richly from colonial legal sources.
Katherine Luongo opens her compelling study of Witchcraft and Colonial Rule in Kenya, 1900-1950 with an extract from Huxley’s first crime novel, Murder at Government House (1937), a long digression from the process of investigating the murder of the Governor of Chania in his study.
“included a lengthy, elaborate anecdote about another high-profle murder case in the colony, the “Wabenda witchcraft case.” Chania’s secretary for Native Affairs recounted the local narrative of the “Wabenda witchcraft case” to the detective in charge of investigating the governor’s murder: The Wabenda, among whom witchcraft was more strongly entrenched than among most Chania tribes, had put to death an old woman, who, they alleged, was a witch. The woman had stood trial before the elders and the chiefs of the tribe, had been subjected to a poison ordeal, and found guilty of causing the death of one of the head chief’s wives and the deformity of two of his children. Then, following the custom of the tribe, she had been executed, in a slow and painful manner. . . . It was a horrible death, but meted out after due trial, and for the most anti-social crime in the Wabenda calendar. After outlining the circumstances surrounding the witch-killing, the secretary for Native Affairs turned to how Wabenda and British conceptions and processes of justice collided in the context of the case. He elaborated, The chiefs and elders were put on trial for the murder of the old witch. Forty-i ve of them appeared in the dock – a special dock built for the occasion. They did not deny that the witch had died under their instructions. They claimed that in ordering her death they were protecting the tribe from sorcery, in accordance with their obligations and traditions. They were found guilty and condemned to death. There was no alternative under British law; the judges who pronounced sentence did so with reluctance and disquiet.
But as the secretary for Native Affairs noted, the “Wabenda witchcraft case” was not easily resolved by the sentencing of the forty-i ve Wabenda in the British courts. He noted, The Government was in an awkward position. It could not, obviously, execute forty-five respectable old men, many of them appointed to authority and trusted by the Government, who had acted in good faith and according to the customs of their fathers. In the end it had compromised. Thirty-four of the elders had been reprieved and pardoned. Ten had been reprieved and sentenced to terms of imprisonment. In one case, that of the senior chief who had supervised the execution, the death sentence had been allowed to stand. 4 Finally, the secretary for Native Affairs addressed some of the ways in which the case was figured in additional “judicial settings”; in the Supreme Court of Chania, in the governor’s Privy Council, and in the equally salient “courts of opinion” of various metropolitan and Chanian publics. He explained, The case was not yet over. The sentenced chief, M’bola, had appealed to the Supreme Court, lost, and finally appealed to the Privy Council. Feeling in native areas ran high. Agitators had seized upon the case as an example of the tyranny and brutality of British rule. Administrators feared serious troubles should it be carried out.”
As Luongo asks, “Why would a story of witchcraft, law, and the colonies have resonated with British reading publics at home and abroad?”. She does on to show that these fictional events mirrored a real life witch killing case in the 1930s, i.e. the Wakamba Witch trials, which “long-standing, circuitous, imperial story of African witchcraft beliefs and practices challenging the ability of colonial states to achieve law and order in the British African Empire”. Huxley’s who-dunnits are not Mayhem Parva imported to the colony, but arise from it’s settings. For instance, in Death of a Safari, a lions kills and a charging buffalo are turned into weapons of murder. or in African Poisons shows extensive knowledge of land use rights, animal husbandry and African toxins.
Huxley, unlike Kaye, was a long term resident in Kenya and her murder mysteries offer better rounded characters and complex accounts of the changing political situation. The women are not damsels in distress, but professionals.
In Murder in Government House, the detective is assisted by Olivia Brandeis is an anthropologist who documents a Kenyan secret society with rituals of seizing power from the English (possibly inspired by Mary Leakey), the safari in Murder on an African Safari (1938) is led by the dashing aviatrix (modelled on real life Beryl Markham) who flies ahead to spot the wild game; The African Poison Murders (1939) has a female solicitor trying to set up a practice (modelled on K.P Hurst, the sole female Barrister in Kenya who was one of the rare European lawyers who had engaged to defend Africans accused as Mau-Mau) and Thomasina Labouchiere is an assistant to the British commission negotiating independence an at the Incident at the Merry Hippo (1963) (mirroring perhaps Huxley’s own experience as an independent member of the commission for the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland) . Her who-dunnits spaced out over two decades offer an acutely changing awareness of politics, for instance in African Poison Murders tensions break out between English and German settlers, when a possible Nazi sympathizing German is found poisoned on his farm. She demonstrates acute insights into the nature of the colonial bureaucracy, outlining the differences between different kinds of training in Murder in Government House, or the awareness that the Governor can suspend the right of a solicitor to practice in African Poison Murders.
The Historian as a Detective: Richard Rathbone's Murder and Politics in Colonial Ghana
How can legal historians draw from structures of detective novels? In many ways, their methods of collecting and evaluating evidence, building off fragments and constructing the "who dunnit" is the same. One model is Richard Rathbone's Murder and Politics in Colonial Ghana, which as reviewer notes, “is not the West African companion to Elspeth Huxley's East African whodunnit, Murder at Government House. Nor, despite its trailer of 'Colonial Ghana' (itself a curious chronological byline), is it a critique of Colonial Office administration” Rathbone uses the “ritual murder” of an Ghanian chief during a royal funeral procession, and subsequent investigation and trial to trace how traditional and new Ghanian elites engaged with the local and imperial administration during the transition from late colonial rule to independence. The book is also a whodunit, as Rathbone seeks to also solve the mystery of Akea Mensa’s death (aided by none other than mystery writer and British civil servant P.D James, who is acknowledged in the book). Did Mensa really die or did he go into exile? Was this suicide, an accidental fall into a mineshaft or a public lynching? Was the motive “ritual murder” or unpopular treasury reforms?
In my next post, I'll return to M.M Kaye's sojourns to Zanzibar, Cyprus, India and Germany and reflect upon the absence/presence of empire in the Golden Age Detective Novel
PS: I am grateful to Surabhi Ranganathan for talking through some of these ideas.
PS: I am grateful to Surabhi Ranganathan for talking through some of these ideas.