Death in Kenya by M.M. Kaye

This is the fourth in M.M. Kaye’s Death In… mystery series, although the books can be read in any order as they each stand entirely on their own. Like the other novels in the series, this one, Death in Kenya (originally published in 1958 as Later Than You Think), is set in one of the many locations in which Kaye herself lived for a while with her husband, an officer in the British army. In the 1950s, Kenya was still a British colony but the Mau Mau Uprising had been causing unrest across the country throughout the decade and this forms the backdrop for Kaye’s story.

The mystery takes place in and around Flamingo, an estate in Kenya’s Rift Valley which belongs to Lady Emily DeBrett, an eccentric elderly woman who has lived there for many years. When some mysterious, inexplicable events begin to occur at Flamingo – and rumours of a ghost begin to circulate – Lady Em acknowledges that she needs help and sends for her niece in England, Victoria Caryll, to come and join her as companion and secretary. Victoria is tempted by the invitation: Kenya is where she grew up and she longs to return to the country she loves so much, but she knows that Em’s grandson, Eden DeBrett also lives at Flamingo with his wife, Alice – and Eden is the man Victoria was once engaged to, before he ended their relationship with no explanation and broke her heart.

Torn between going and staying, the pull of the Rift Valley eventually wins and Victoria finds herself boarding a plane for Kenya. But when she arrives, she discovers that she has much more than an old lover and a jealous wife to worry about. A murder has been committed and the estate is in turmoil. Will the murderer be found before he or she kills again? Do the people of Flamingo face danger from the Mau Mau leader known as General Africa? And what is the significance of the haunting piece of music called the Rift Valley Concerto?

The mystery aspect of the book is quite enjoyable. I didn’t guess who the murderer was so I was surprised when the truth was revealed, although looking back I feel as though I should have guessed – we were given enough clues to be able to work it out, I think. The descriptions of Kenya are wonderful too, of course; it helps that Kaye lived there herself so could draw on her own experiences and memories when writing the book. I’ve read about the Mau Mau Uprising before, in Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh, so I already had some basic background knowledge, but that is a recent historical novel whereas Death in Kenya was a contemporary one, so the authors are looking at the same events from different perspectives and from different points in time. Kaye’s sympathies here seem to be more with the white European settlers, which is interesting because that’s not always the case in her novels – as anyone who has read The Far Pavilions or Shadow of the Moon will know, she usually takes a much more balanced view when writing about colonialism. However, she does state in her author’s note that “the opinions voiced by my characters were taken from life and at first hand.”

Although Death in Kenya has the same elements as the previous three books – an interesting, atmospheric setting, a courageous young heroine, a murder mystery to solve and a touch of romance – I found this one slightly different. While the others followed a similar formula (with the heroine actually being on the scene at the time of the murder and falling under suspicion herself), in this book Victoria Caryll doesn’t enter the story until some of the key events have already been played out. This makes Victoria feel somewhat like an outsider and no more or less important to the story than any of the other characters. That lack of one strong, central character to really focus on and connect with probably explains why I felt less engaged with this novel than I did with some of the others, particularly Death in Kashmir and Death in Cyprus.

I still have the last two books in the series – Death in Zanzibar and Death in the Andamans to read – and as they are set in two places I know nothing at all about, I’m looking forward to reading them and learning more!

Death in Cyprus by M.M. Kaye

I read this novel from 1956, the third in M.M. Kaye’s Death In… series, in the final days of February and it provided some welcome respite from the freezing temperatures and heavy snow we were experiencing in my part of the country. Lovely, evocative passages like this one took me away from the cold for a while and into the warmth and beauty of Cyprus:

Olive groves, the tree trunks so gnarled and twisted with age that some of them must surely have seen the Crusaders come and go, stood dark against the glittering expanse of blue, and below them the little town of Kyrenia lay basking in the noonday sun like a handful of pearls and white pebbles washed up by the sea.

The setting is not as idyllic as it seems, however: there appears to be a murderer on the loose – someone has already killed once and could kill again. The first death occurs on board the S.S. Orantares on which twenty-one-year-old Amanda Derington is a passenger. Amanda has accompanied her uncle on a business trip to North Africa and has suggested that she could visit Cyprus while he continues his tour of the various offices of the Derington empire. Horrified at the thought of his niece travelling alone, Uncle Oswin arranges for her to be chaperoned on the journey and to stay at the home of one of his managers on her arrival.

Setting sail from Egypt to Cyprus, Amanda gets to know Alistair Blaine and his wife Julia, an unhappy, bitter woman who accuses every other female on the ship of trying to steal her husband. When Julia collapses and dies in Amanda’s cabin after drinking a glass of her favourite lemon water, only Amanda knows that it was not suicide. Taking the advice of her fellow passenger Steve Howard, Amanda keeps her thoughts to herself, and when she finds a bottle of poison hidden behind her pillow she conceals the evidence from the police. After all, she herself would be the prime suspect and could find it difficult to prove her innocence. Unfortunately, this decision puts her in danger of a different kind when they reach Cyprus, where her knowledge of the crime could make her the killer’s next target…

Death in Cyprus is a great murder mystery with plenty of possible suspects. Apart from Amanda herself, I could imagine every one of them being the murderer and my suspicion fell on one, then another, then another, then switched back to the first. Could it be Persis Halliday, the American romantic novelist who has come to Cyprus to look for inspiration? What about Glenn Barton, the Derington employee who was supposed to be Amanda’s host in Nicosia but had to cancel because his wife had left him? Claire Norman, who seems to know far too much about everyone else’s business? Or Lumley Potter, the spiritual, bohemian artist who is Glenn’s wife’s new lover? The eventual solution to the mystery is quite logical and I feel as though I should have worked it out, but I had allowed myself to get too distracted by red herrings!

As this is a book from the 1950s, some of the attitudes are a bit dated, particularly regarding a romance which develops between Amanda and one of the group she travels to Cyprus with (I won’t tell you who he is, even though it’s very obvious from early in the book). There’s a definite sense that he views Amanda as a helpless woman who needs the protection of a man – although, to be fair, she gives that impression herself with her habit of repeatedly putting herself into dangerous situations from which she needs to be rescued, wandering off on her own in lonely places and venturing into strangers’ houses late at night! Of course, Amanda’s reckless actions do have a purpose because they are the reason for most of the suspense in the story.

I love the Death In… novels. I’ve read three so far and enjoyed them all, especially this one and Death in Kashmir. The books all stand alone – they have different settings and different characters – but I have been reading them in publication order anyway, which means Death in Kenya will be next for me.

Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

I really have no idea why I haven’t read this book before now. The Far Pavilions has been one of my favourite books since I was a teenager, but for some reason it just never occurred to me to look into what else M.M. Kaye wrote until recently, when I read two of her Death In… mystery novels. When I saw that Cirtnecce was hosting a readalong of Shadow of the Moon this summer, it seemed the perfect opportunity to try another of Kaye’s historical novels in the hope that I would love it as much as The Far Pavilions!

Shadow of the Moon was originally published in 1957 and revised in 1979. Like The Far Pavilions, it is set in India, but at a slightly earlier time – before and during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Our heroine, Winter de Ballesteros, is born in Lucknow to an English mother and Spanish father. Orphaned by the age of six, Winter is sent to England to be raised by her great-grandfather, the Earl of Ware, but the country of her birth still holds a special place in her heart and she dreams of returning one day to the Gulab Mahal, the place she considers home.

Winter is eleven when she meets Conway Barton, who is visiting from India, and she is captivated by his good looks and his connection with the country she misses so much. Conway, with his eye on Winter’s fortune, suggests a betrothal, but it is not until six years later that Winter is old enough to go and join him in India for the wedding. Now Commissioner of Lunjore, Conway says that he is far too busy to escort his fiancée across the sea himself, so he sends his assistant, Captain Alex Randall, in his place. Unknown to Winter, however, her betrothed is no longer the man she thinks he is and has another reason for wanting to delay their meeting. Will the marriage take place or will Alex be able to change her mind during the long voyage to Lunjore?

There’s a romantic aspect to Shadow of the Moon, then, but the historical element is just as important. Cirtnecce has put together two excellent posts (here and here) describing the political landscape in India in 1857, how the country came to be ruled by the British East India Company and the factors leading to the rebellion. All of this is explored in a lot of depth throughout the novel, showing the same impressive level of research and the same understanding and sympathy for India and its people that I remember from The Far Pavilions.

The descriptions of India itself are wonderful and vivid. Whether she’s writing about the streets and bazaars of Lunjore or the relentless heat of summer and the relief of the monsoon, Kaye always chooses just the right words to bring the scene to life. The horrors and atrocities of the Mutiny are also described in vivid detail, although a relatively short portion of the novel is devoted to the actual rebellion and much more to the gradual building of tension, ending in the controversy over the new Enfield rifles which sparked the revolt (the British required the sepoys to use cartridges which were smeared with pork and beef fat, offensive to both Muslims and Hindus).

Lunjore, where much of the action is set, is a fictional district on the borders of Oudh (although it is portrayed so convincingly I had to check to see whether it was a real place or not) but the situation which unfolds there is similar to that being played out elsewhere in India. The British commanding officers are seemingly blind to what is going on around them, refusing to listen to stories of unrest amongst the Indian people and unwilling to doubt the loyalty of their armies. Alex Randall is one of the few exceptions – a man who thinks for himself and who tries to see things from the point of view of others. It’s so frustrating to watch his advice and warnings repeatedly falling on deaf ears as his superiors tell themselves he is worrying about nothing and stubbornly refuse to heed his words.

I found Alex an interesting, complex character, torn between his feelings for Winter and what he sees as his duties and responsibilities towards both the Company and the people of Lunjore. I was particularly intrigued by his relationship with Kishan Prasad – two men who are on ‘opposite sides’ but who each understand what the other is trying to do and under different circumstances might have been friends. With the bridging role he plays between the British and Indian perspectives, Alex often reminded me of Ashton Pelham-Martyn from The Far Pavilions. It took me a bit longer to warm to Winter – I was irritated by her infatuation with Conway and had to keep reminding myself that she was only seventeen!

Whether or not the romance captures your imagination, though, I think there should be something in this novel to interest most readers…the fascinating historical background, the colourful portrait of another time and place or maybe the adventure (plenty of daring escapes, disguises, ambushes and secret meetings by moonlight). I loved it and now I can’t wait to read M.M. Kaye’s other historical novel, Trade Wind, and the rest of the Death In series.

This is book 11/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Shadow of the Moon readalong

Just a quick post today to tell you about a readalong I’m going to be participating in this summer. I know I’ve mentioned before that The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye is one of my favourite historical fiction novels. I have also enjoyed two of her mysteries – Death in Kashmir and Death in Berlin – but for some reason still haven’t read her other historical novels, Shadow of the Moon and Trade Wind, despite having had a copy of the former on my shelf for a while now. When I saw that Cirtnecce of Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices and Cleo of Classical Carousel were planning a Shadow of the Moon readalong starting in June this seemed the perfect opportunity to finally pick up my copy and start reading.

Like The Far Pavilions, this book is set in India, a country Kaye really seemed to understand and wrote about beautifully. It was published in 1957, much earlier than The Far Pavilions (1978), so I’m curious to see what it is like and, from what I’ve heard about it, I’m anticipating another great read!

My commonplace book: February 2016

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

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Every sound of the quiet evening came clearly to her ears with an unnatural distinctness; but now each one possessed a different and terrifying meaning. The muffled shouts and laughter of the few remaining bathers from the indoor swimming bath were the cries of fleeing, panic-stricken people. The whisper of the breeze through the pine needles was a frightened man whispering orders in the shadow of fog-shrouded whin bushes. A passing car was the drone of an enemy bomber and the faint lap of water against the sea-green tiles at the far side of the wide pool was the lap of waves against a pebble beach.

Death in Berlin by M. M. Kaye (1955)

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“The promise of the day!” said Visconti, dreamily and sadly. “Hath it never struck thee how that promise never is fulfilled? Day after day, since the world began, something in the mystery of the dawn is promised – something the sunset smiles to see unfulfilled – something men have ever been cheated of – something men will never know – the promise of the dawn!”

The Viper of Milan by Marjorie Bowen (1906)

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Louis X

Uncertain health, a clever but overbearing father whose authority had crushed him, an unfaithful wife who had scoffed at him, an empty treasury, impatient vassals always ready to rebel, a famine in the first winter of his reign, a storm which threatened the life of his second wife – beneath what disastrous conjunction of the planets, which the astrologers had not dared reveal to him, must he have been born, that he should meet with adversity in every decision, every enterprise, and end by being conquered, not even nobly in battle, but by the water and mud in which he had engulfed his army?

The Poisoned Crown by Maurice Druon (1956)

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She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her — understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937)

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Flag of Iowa

After all no fledgling had it easy, farmer or crow. Hadn’t he known since he was a boy the way the fledglings had to fall out of the nest and walk about, cheeping and crying, until they grew out their feathers and learned to fly on their own? Their helpless parents flew above them, and maybe dropped them a bit of food, but flying or succumbing belonged to them alone.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley (2014) – review to follow

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“I must insist upon it,” she continued, “that you shall take me now as I really am — as your dearest friend, your sister, your mother, if you will. I know what I am. Were my husband not still living it would be the same. I should never under any circumstances marry again. I have passed the period of a woman’s life when as a woman she is loved; but I have not outlived the power of loving.”

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope (1873)

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“There is no other way, Robert,” James said quietly, watching the emotions shift across his face. “If Balliol returns you lose everything. At least this way you have a chance to make sure you and your family are protected. Our best hope is that Edward will be able to keep Balliol from the throne. If he succeeds, God willing, you may one day still claim it.”

Renegade by Robyn Young (2012)

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St Patrick

And so it came to be that they carried me away into bondage, slung over the shoulder of the black-beard while the girl walked, roped behind. I cannot tell you of the voyage, nor of the faces of the many who were taken into captivity with us. I can only say that on that day “…the Lord brought over us the wrath of His anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers” in the land known as Eire.

The Lion and the Cross by Joan Lesley Hamilton (1979) – review to follow

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Everybody was bowing, sliding on to one knee as Henry came into the chamber, leaning on his staff and smiling…Here comes the King, and with the coming of the King, all life must stop, the very air must thicken as if congealed in awe of this gross man who hobbled painfully on his tall staff, nodding and smiling, blinking every second.

Here Comes the King by Philip Lindsay (1933)

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In a country where so many desire status and wealth, petty annoyances can spark disproportionately violent behaviour. We become frustrated because we feel powerless, invisible, unheard. We crave celebrity, but that’s not easy to come by, so we settle for notoriety. Envy and bitterness drive a new breed of lawbreakers, replacing the old motives of poverty and the need for escape. But how do you solve crimes which no longer have traditional motives?

Ten-Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler (2006) – review to follow

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Favourite books this month: Phineas Redux and The Viper of Milan

Death in Berlin by M.M. Kaye

Death in Berlin Almost exactly a year ago I read Death in Kashmir, the first in M.M. Kaye’s series of mystery novels. I loved it – in fact, it was one of my favourite books of the year – and last week I decided it was time to try another of her Death in… novels. I chose Death in Berlin because it’s the second in the series (although the books all have different settings and characters and all stand alone).

Death in Berlin, published in 1955, is set in a Berlin struggling to recover from the devastating effects of World War II. The city is divided into zones – American, British, French and Russian – and there are ruined buildings and piles of rubble everywhere. At the beginning of the novel we meet Miranda Brand, who is on her way to Berlin with her cousin Robert and his wife Stella. Robert, an army officer, is taking up a new post there and Miranda has decided to come along for a month’s holiday, keen to have a chance to see post-war Germany. During the journey to Berlin, they and a group of other military families listen to Brigadier Brindley tell a story involving a set of diamonds stolen by the Nazis during the war – a story which has special significance for Miranda. Later that night, the Brigadier is found dead in his train compartment and when a murder investigation begins, Miranda discovers that she herself could be a suspect.

This novel has many of the same elements as Death in Kashmir – a young heroine in danger far from home, a romance with a man she’s not sure she can trust, an eerie and atmospheric setting – but this book didn’t impress me as much as the first one. It doesn’t have the stunning opening chapter that Death in Kashmir has and the characters feel less developed, to the point where I had trouble telling some of them apart. I also thought there was a lack of chemistry between Miranda and her love interest, whom I found very bland.

What I did like was the portrayal of a ruined Berlin in the aftermath of war. M.M. Kaye herself spent some time in Berlin when her husband’s regiment was stationed there, so she could draw on her own knowledge of the city while writing this novel. While it isn’t the exotic setting that 1940s Kashmir is, it does provide a great backdrop for a story of murder and mystery. Kaye really excels at creating a sense of unease and writing spine-tingling descriptions of what it feels like to be alone and vulnerable in dark, lonely surroundings – to be the only person awake in the sleeper carriage of an overnight train or to be sitting downstairs in a large, empty house and hear noises coming from upstairs.

I didn’t guess the solution to the mystery, but I did have my suspicions about various characters. I don’t think it would have been possible to work out everything, though, because a lot of information is withheld from us until the final chapters of the book. This information is provided by one of the characters who, in one very long scene near the end, sums everything up for Miranda and the reader. This is something that works well in an Agatha Christie novel, but feels a bit unnatural here.

While I didn’t like this book as much as Death in Kashmir, it hasn’t put me off wanting to read the rest of the Death in… mysteries. Death in Cyprus will probably be the next one I read, but I also have a copy of Kaye’s historical novel, Shadow of the Moon, which I’m looking forward to reading (and should really have read before now as The Far Pavilions is one of my favourite books).

Have you read any of the Death in… books? Which do you think is the best?

My commonplace book: January 2016

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

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I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)

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Roger had learned from Mr. Gray that this particular kind of rhododendron was called Ponticum, so the secret hiding-place was called Ponticum House. It was used for all sorts of activities and gradually it was furnished with odds and ends of furniture.

Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson (1955)

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There was the rub: that Julia, who could get intimate with a trapeze artist after five minutes’ conversation – who was intimate with a salesman after buying a pair of shoes – had talked for an hour to her own daughter, about the girl’s own father and lover, without the least intimacy at all.

“I’m a fool,” thought Julia, again. “It’s just because she’s such a perfect lady. And what I need is a good sleep.”

The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp (1937)

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So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea. A steamer far out at sea had drawn in the air a great scroll of smoke which stayed there curving and circling decoratively, as if the air were a fine gauze which held things and kept them softly in its mesh, only gently swaying them this way and that.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)

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Come, Joanna. I can wait no longer.

There it was, Henry’s declaration, as clear as my reflection in my mirror. Neither, I decided, could I wait.

I sent for my uncle of Burgundy. I had an urgent negotiation to undertake.

The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien (2016)

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Meantime, all around me is violence and robbery, coarse delight and savage pain, reckless joke and hopeless death. Is it any wonder that I cannot sink with these, that I cannot so forget my soul, as to live the life of brutes, and die the death more horrible because it dreams of waking? There is none to lead me forward, there is none to teach me right; young as I am, I live beneath a curse that lasts for ever.

Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore (1869)

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“It is the women who lay clothes to dry on the rooftops of Troy,” I continued. “It is the fishermen who catch the silver fish in the bay,” I gestured out over the plain towards the sea, sparkling blue in the sunlight, “and sell them on the stalls of the marketplace. It is the princes who live in the palaces on the windy heights of the city, and the slaves who draw water from the wells. This, my king – this is Troy. And if we act now, we may still be able to save our city before it is too late.”

For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser (2016)

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The desolation struck me like a blow, fresh and painful, as if all this destruction had been newly made yesterday, and as if this were my first sight of it. It was grief, I think, nothing more or less. I knew it was absurd. But I had noticed this reaction in others as well as in myself: that we mourned for our ravaged city as if for a mother.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (2016) – Review to follow

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“And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.”

“My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave. Just as we should travel down if we began our existence fifty miles above the earth’s surface.”

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

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Favourite books this month: Lorna Doone and Amberwell