Elspeth Huxley (1907 – 1997)

OIPElspeth Joscelin Huxley CBE (née Grant; 23 July 1907 – 10 January 1997) was a polymath, writer, journalist, broadcaster, magistrate, environmentalist, farmer, and government advisor. She wrote 30 books; but she is best known for her lyrical books The Flame Trees of Thika and The Mottled Lizard which were based on her experiences growing up in a coffee farm in Colonial Kenya. Nellie and Major Josceline Grant, Elspeth Grant’s parents, arrived in Thika in what was then British East Africa in 1912, when she was 5 years old, to start a life as coffee farmers and colonial settlers. Flame Trees… explores how unprepared for rustic life the early British settlers really were. Elspeth was educated at a whites only school in Nairobi.

She left Africa in 1925, earning a degree in agriculture at Reading University in England and studying at Cornell University in upstate New York. Elspeth returned to Africa periodically, becoming the Assistant Press Officer to the Empire Marketing Board in 1929. She married Gervas Huxley, a grandson of Thomas Huxley and a cousin of Aldous Huxley, in 1931. They had one son, Charles, who was born in February 1944. She resigned her post in 1932 and traveled widely. She was appointed an independent member of the Advisory Commission for the Review of the Constitution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (the Monckton Commission). An advocate of colonialism early in life, she later called for independence for African countries. In the 1960s, she served as a correspondent for the National Review magazine.

Most of Elspeth Huxley’s writing reflects on her experiences growing up in Kenya and her continued interest in African development. Her output includes both novels and non-fiction: autobiography, travel writing, political exposition, biography, and journalism, produced throughout the latter half of the twentieth century—her book-publishing career alone spanned more than sixty years. Sympathising from the beginning with the white settlers and increasingly with the black Africans, with a professional background in agriculture as well as journalism, she became a skilled interpreter of Africa to the world outside, even while remembering that “no person of one race and culture can truly interpret events from the angle of individuals” who belong to a “different race and culture.” This has not exempted her from later strong critique of her racial attitudes: attitudes which were normal, nearly inescapable, for her generation, her race, and her colonial identity. As a professional she prided herself on being able to turn her pen to anything. Her polemical writing on environmental issues, for instance, deserves to be better known. (Source: Goodreads)

She died on 10 January 1997 in a nursing home in Tetbury, in Gloucestershire, England. She was 89.

Elspeth Huxley Obituary The Independent.

Elspeth Huxley produced a handful of detective novels, mainly set in sub-Saharan East Africa. The first three, featuring Superintendent Vachell, are: Murder at Government House (1937), Murder on Safari (1938), Death of an Aryan aka The African Poison Murders (1939). Years later she published The Merry Hippo aka The Incident at the Merry Hippo (1963) and A Man From Nowhere (1964).

Mike Grost finds ‘her mystery plotting rarely achieves much interest as a puzzle. Her story telling is dull. Her characters tend to be either mediocre human beings or unpleasant, thus lacking much positive interest.’ (A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection). However I’m quite tempted to read Murder on Safari, both because the action is set in Africa, as for the time when the story unfolds. Besides it has also some favourable reviews.

One of the best detective novels I read last year was Murder on Safari (1938) by Elspeth Huxley. Despite its uninspired title, the book is the epitome of what a detective story should be: an excellent cast of well-drawn characters inhabiting a vividly painted setting and a top-notch plot that plays scrupulous fair with its readers – in this case providing a solution with nearly a dozen footnotes, referring back to the pages where the clues were given. Brilliant!’ (TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time).

150 Favorite Golden Age British Detective Novels: A Very Personal Selection, by Curt J. Evans.

My 150 Favorite Mysteries (Updated: July 1, 2012) by TomCat.

Further reading:


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. Methuen & Co. Ltd. (UK), 1938)


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. Harper & Brothers (USA), 1938)

Lord and Lady Baradale, on a posh safari in Kenya, anticipate splendid photo trophies for their luxurious labors. But rather than collecting trophies, they gave some up. When Lady Baradale’s jewels are stolen, a young Canadian policeman, Vachell, is called in. He sets to work on the theft, but is interrupted by murder. Lady Baradale’s body is discovered with a bullet hole in the skull. Every member of the hunting party is suspect.
“Elspeth Huxley does not rely for effect simply on the unusual nature of her Kenyan setting. She has woven a complicated web of clue and counter-clue, clever enough to entrance and entangle even the most experienced detective fan.” (The Times, London) Source: Fantastic Fiction.

Murder on Safari has been reviewed, among others, at The Invisible Event, Tipping My Fedora, Vintage Pop Fiction, Only Detect, The Grandest Game in the World, Crimepieces, My Reader’s Block, and ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’

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