Deaths in Zanzibar and everywhere else

Death in Zanzibar - M.M. Kaye

My geography education is sadly lacking. When the protagonist of this novel, Dany, mentioned that Zanzibar was an island, I was surprised. I knew – vaguely – that it was somewhere in Africa but I didn’t know exactly where, or how large it is. I looked it up in Wikipedia.

Dany is a recent high school graduate in England. Her mother, a beautiful society lady, is married to the super-rich writer Tyson Frost, but Dany grew up in a staid British village with her respectable great aunt. Now, she is invited to spend some time in her stepfather’s home in Zanzibar. Excited to get out of her prim aunt’s supervision, to travel on her own for the first time in her adult life, she embarks on a spree of London shopping, movies, and theatre before she boards her plane to Africa.

Unfortunately, her trip starts off with disturbing news: her stepfather’s old solicitor is murdered on the same day she went to see him. She is carrying a letter from the solicitor to her stepfather. Young and naive, she doesn’t think it has anything to do with her, until her international passport is stolen from her room.

Now she is in real trouble. Her desire to see Zanzibar, to start her exciting new adventure, explodes. She can’t imagine missing her flight, not for anything. She would go to Zanzibar, no matter what, so she accepts a harebrained help offer from a drunken stranger who stays in the same hotel.

That one cockeyed step thrusts her into an international intrigue that involves multiple murders, Communists’ plots, a long-dead adventurer-slash-pirate, and a treasure of three million dollars. And Zanzibar, of course, is in the middle of it all.

Dany is a charming and naive teenage heroine. She has nothing in common with the modern fictional girls of the same age, but for 1959, the year of this book’s publication, she is rather typical, and so is the author’s attitude to sexes in general. All the plot-moving stuff is performed invariably by men. The women in the book are either striking femmes fatales or naive and honest dupes like Dany. They either fall in love and get married or want to be married or have their female companions/friends instead of male partners, but they are always relationship-oriented. They don’t act, investigate, fight, create, or generally do anything worth mentioning.

The novel is a mystery/thriller/romance set in the exotic milieu of Zanzibar. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed reading it and I might read another book by this author, but to tell the truth, her treatment of female characters chafed me. I like my heroines more active, while Dany always finds important clues or overhears pertinent bits of information by either accident or sheer stupidity. She is always in the right spot at the wrong moment, and this strings of coincidences gets stale pretty soon.

From the political standpoint, Zanzibar was still under British rule at the time, and the British imperialist disposition colors this story from start to end. I’m not sure I disagree with everything it implies, but I’m not sure I agree wholeheartedly either. Here are a few quotes demonstrating this book’s strong and weak sides:

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‘... Ever noticed how for all their bellowings about “Peace and Brotherly Love” the average Red is eaten up from nose to tail with envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness. Their gods and their gospel are hate and destruction...’

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In common with all young women she had dreamed of the time when she would fall in love. It would be a romantic and rapturous and altogether wonderful moment, and the hero of it would certainly not be a pallid and disheveled stranger who was suffering from an imperial hangover...

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‘...there is something special about this island. Something that I haven’t met anywhere else. Do you know what is the most familiar sound in Zanzibar? – laughter! ... People laughing. There is a gaiety and good humor about them that is strangely warming to even such a corrugated, corroded and eroded heart as mine, and this is the only place I have yet hit upon where black and white and every shade in between ’em appear to be able to live together in complete friendliness and harmony, with no color bars. It’s a living proof and a practical demonstration that it can be done. ... But it won’t last.’

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He looked down at Dany’s white face and smiled a little crookedly. ‘It’s a helluva mess, honey, but you don’t have to lose your nerve.’

‘I haven’t any left to lose!’ admitted Dany ruefully. “Not an atom!’

Lash laughed and reached down his hands to pull her to her feet.

‘Nuts, Miss Kitchell! Momentarily mislaid, perhaps, but never lost.’

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It was a delightful if rather dated read, but the author’s volatile sense of humor and her indisputable love for the location saved it from being banal. For those interested in that time period, I would place this author beside Mary Stewart, although I like average Stewart a tad better.