Death in Zanzibar, by MM Kaye

>> Friday, May 16, 2003

Another vacation book was Death in Zanzibar, by MM Kaye.

What would you do if your passport was stolen and a murder weapon was hidden in your hotel room when you were on a much-anticipated trip to Zanzibar? Would you go to the police and postpone your vacation? or would you do what Dany Ashton did, which was to panic, and take a seemingly easier route out in impersonating a drunken man's secretary, 'borrowing' her passport, and raveling yourself more deeply in the web of the murderer?

To Dany Ashton it seems like the offer of the holiday of a lifetime when her stepfather invites her to stay on the strange and beautiful "Isle of Cloves". But even before her plane takes off, Dany's delight has faded as she finds herself at the centre of a frightening mystery. On her arrival at Kivulimi, the 'House of Shade', her unease turns to terror when she realizes that among the house-guests is a dangerous and ruthless murderer. Dany doesn't know who to trust . . .

This one was a C+. It was definitely my least favourite of Kaye's Death Abroad books. Some elements were really excellent, but there were some which were very problematic to me.

The setting and atmosphere were the best part of the book. Kaye is great at this, making you breath the same air her characters are breathing. My favourite thing was probably the description of the long plane trip from London to Zanzibar, with its half-dozen layovers and its ambience of almost - camaraderie between the passengers.

The mystery itself was also interesting and engaging, though again, not her best. And the solution, as in Death in Cyprus, was almost-cheating, but not quite.

What bothered me here was something that is present in the other books in the series, but in a much lesser degree: the old-fashioned, politically incorrect for today, colonialist, patronizing world-view. Female characters were foolish and grating, and males were very condescending to them. And Dany, our heroine, was so wishy-washy! And sorry, she was pretty stupid, I'm afraid. The natives (except for Sayyid Omar) were dismissed as stupid and less advanced, and there were even quite a few barbs directed at an Italian character, simply for being Italian (as someone of dual citizenship, both Uruguayan and Italian, this was truly beyond the pale!)

And all the stuff about the "Reds"... it was a valid concern in 1959, when this book was written, but it hasn't aged well. It was all done too heavy-handedly, as in the final scene, where the villain is confessing all, after being administered a truth serum (BTW, the day I read this I'd just read this article (link in Spanish), discussing whether using truth serums counts as torture, and since my opinion is that it does, this bothered me greatly). In this final scene, at one point, the villain explains that they need an island to start exporting revolution, or something like that: "... but the snag is going to be the Zanzibaris. They're too damned easygoing. They'll have to be educated... taught to kill. And to hate. That's the important thing. Hate... to hate... to hate." Sorry, but that sounds like stupid, simplistic propaganda to me.

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