I love M.M. Kaye’s Death In… novels, but I’ve been taking my time with the series as there are only six books and I didn’t want to finish them all too quickly. The books all stand alone as entirely separate mystery novels, but are all set in one of several fascinating locations around the world in which Kaye lived with her husband, who was in the British Army. So far, my favourite is still the first, Death in Kashmir, but this one – the fifth in the series – ties with Death in Cyprus for second place.
Death in Zanzibar was originally published in 1959 as The House of Shade. The novel begins with Dany Ashton on her way to Zanzibar to stay with her mother Lorraine and stepfather, Tyson Frost, at Tyson’s home Kivulimi, known as the ‘House of Shade’. Before leaving London, she visits Tyson’s solicitor, Mr Honeywood, to collect a document her stepfather has asked her to bring out to Zanzibar for him. The next day, she reads in the newspaper that Mr Honeywood was murdered just after she left his office and the police have found a handkerchief at the murder scene with her initials on it. Determined that nothing will stop her from visiting Zanzibar, Dany decides to say nothing and continue with her journey – until she discovers that someone has broken into her hotel room and stolen her passport.
Staying in the same hotel is Lashmer Holden, an American publisher whose father is a close friend of Tyson’s. Lash is also on his way to Kivulimi on business and when he hears Dany’s story, he comes up with a plan to get her to Zanzibar and to throw the police off her trail. The only problem is, Lash is drunk (his fiancée has just broken off their engagement) and when he sobers up, halfway across Africa, he is horrified to learn what he and Dany have done.
I won’t go into the plot in any more detail, but there are more murders, a mysterious old mansion, family secrets, disguises and forged letters – all the elements of an entertaining and atmospheric read. I have seen a lot of comparisons of Kaye’s crime novels with Agatha Christie’s and I do agree, to a certain extent – this one did remind me at times of books like Murder in Mesopotamia or They Came to Baghdad – but I think, with their blend of suspense, romance, beautiful young heroines and evocative settings, a better comparison would be with Mary Stewart’s novels. Kaye’s books are darker than Stewart’s, though; they always seem to involve several scenes with the heroine hearing noises in the night and coming across intruders in the dark which are genuinely quite creepy and sinister!
I think this is probably the first book I’ve ever read set in Zanzibar, so I enjoyed the parts describing the island: the colours, smells and sounds, the politics and the people – and lots of interesting little facts, such as a mention of spikes on old wooden doors which had been put there to repel elephant attacks. However, about half of the book actually takes place during the journey, on planes, in airports, and in hotels; Zanzibar is less important to the story than the settings of some of the other books. The mystery itself is an excellent one with lots of suspects, several of whom I suspected at various points in the novel – but not the right one! I liked the romantic aspect of the story too and although I would have preferred Dany to have been slightly less naive and innocent, I had to remind myself that she had just left school the year before and had led a sheltered life.
I still need to read Death in the Andamans, but I’m particularly looking forward to reading Kaye’s historical novel Trade Wind, which is also set in Zanzibar during the time of one of Tyson Frost’s ancestors.
This is book 5/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021.