If M.M. Kaye's 1959 novel, Death in Zanzibar was made into a movie, I imagine it as one of those Hitchcockian-era films made in technicolor with elegant stars wearing impeccably designed and gorgeous clothing in an exotic locale, but this one has a twist. I had to add a category to my tags--'Romantic Suspense', because while it is suspenseful, it is less so in the 'thriller' vein and more with a light touch and a strong dose of romance. And the sort of slightly chaste but happy romance which happens mostly off stage but you know is there. I see a young Doris Day as Dany Ashton, and for Lashmer (Lash) J. Holden Jnr.? Hmm. Maybe Rock Hudson, or someone like Rock Hudson, but a young Rock Hudson. Someone handsome but just slightly taciturn with a dry sense of humor.
Pure unadulterated pleasure was this reading experience. I honestly dragged it out as long as I could as it is a perfect escapist read but well written and you can tell M.M. Kaye knows well of which she writes, namely the island setting of Kivulimi on the Isle of Cloves otherwise known as Zanzibar (to orient yourself it is off the coast of Tanzania). Lots of local color and exotic, sunny-local color with a hint of colonial politics and a with mystery and an air of threat as well.
But let's start out in Britain first, shall we? Dany Ashton was not going to miss her one opportunity to travel to Zanzibar. Barely out of school, she is only about nineteen. Her mother, who she calls Lorraine (never maternally minded, but she has a good heart and a string of ex-husbands), is there with husband number, well, whichever number husband, author Tyson Frost. This is her first proper taste of freedom and she is not going to let it slip by. Surely she is adult-enough to do an errand for Tyson, get to London and then the first of her flights east to the Isle.
"Dany had been wildly delighted at the prospect of going to this outlandish spot where Tyson Frost owned a house, and she had not only paid no attention to her great-aunt's warnings, but had flatly refused to spend the three nights in London under the roof of an elderly relative or be accompanied there by Twisdon, Great-aunt Harriet's austere and aged maid."
Well, that was her first mistake. Things had been going splendidly really. She picked up whatever missive Tyson's lawyer had to give her to take to Tyson. She got to London and the hotel where other travelers waiting for the flight out to Zanzibar were staying--Tyson's sister and her traveling companion; an Italian Marchese; the wickedly beautiful Amalfi Gordon who was traveling to Zanzibar to get married; and her betrothed, American businessman Lashmer Holden who was mixing business with pleasure. First business with Tyson and then his honeymoon.
Don't bad things happen in threes? The second is an intruder in Dany's room. She had been sleeping soundly when some little noise wakes her up. And then follows a restless night putting her on edge. So much so that when she steps out into the hall very early the next morning to collect the newspaper she's floored by the headline--the very same lawyer she had just visited has been found murdered. The police are looking for a woman of interest--seen leaving his office earlier that day. And they found handkerchief with the initials DA embroidered on it. Stunned, she turns too late to go back to her room--the door swings shut behind her. Locked out of her hotel room in nothing but her nightgown and a newspaper to cover up!
I wish I could say Lashmer J. Holden now comes to her rescue, but he is in a deplorable, disheveled state. He's wearing the previous night's formal dress with the tie off-kilter and holding a fluffy, stuffed cat with a pink ribbon around its neck (dubbed Asbestos in case you're curious). You might call him "rakish", but his mood is playfully angry--the worse for wear thanks to a few too many glasses of something or other. It would seem that Amalfi has thrown Mr. Holden over for the handsome (and rich) Italian Marchese and now his mood is decidedly black.
If he had only been a little more sober, things might not have taken the turn they did. But Dany wanted to go to Zanzibar so badly and not get messed up in a murder investigation (she must be the woman of interest the police are looking for). And while she and he are arguing in his hotel room (dressed as she was it wouldn't have been decent to leave her unattended in the hallway), her own room is being ransacked. Lash's solution to get Dany out of the hotel and to her family is to take on the name and persona of his secretary who has cancelled at the last minute. No one is thinking straight, and by the time they realize their mistake, there is at least one more dead body, and a missive that must contain some important piece of information that someone is willing to kill for. And we've not even arrived yet on the island!
Sounds like the perfect set up for a story of suspense and adventure, don't you think? Throw in a few murders, mistaken identities, and a tangled web of lies that just gets more complicated and complex as the story goes. It's amazing (and entertaining) how danger will throw two disparate souls together. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, but then I have loved every book I've read by M.M. Kaye. This is the one novel of her set of "Death in . . ." books that I never got around to reading when I first came across them years ago. I think the rest must be revisited soon. If you enjoy the works of Elizabeth Peters and Mary Stewart, you are likely to love the M.M. Kaye books as much as I do.
My own copy is the 1960s era edition on the left. It really suits the story--Dany with her tinted hair and unattractive fringe a la Miss Kitchell, Lash's secretary, and Lash's rather annoyed scowl. I wonder how many days will pass before I raid the bin where the rest of these books reside . . .