White Mischief, published in 1988 by Vintage, is an account of one of colonial Africa’s most notorious unsolved murders. In January 1941, Josslyn Hay was discovered shot dead in his car, in Nairobi. The resulting court case laid bare the astonishingly louche lifestyle of the white minority in Kenya at that time, and this book is an interesting record of both that crime and the society that surrounded it.
Fox begins by laying out for us the primary characters of the case. Most important of course, is the victim, Josslyn Hay, a handsome man with a long string of wives and girlfriends behind him. He falls madly in love with one Diana, a beautiful woman who has been married for just two months to a much older man, Sir Delves Broughton. They tell Broughton that they wish to elope, and that very night Hay is shot.
It would appear that the prime suspect is very obvious: the cuckolded husband, Broughton. This is however to underestimate the complexity of the drink-addled, wife-swapping, morphine-addicted society to which these people belonged. There are in fact many people who would like to see the handsome Josslyn Hay dead. He is not a very sympathetic character. His second wife, for example, whose money he spent before abandoning her, was found by her doctor in a house that smelled of “champagne and vomit,” covered in heroin abscesses. She apparently asked him, sadly enough, “You will promise to come to my funeral, even if you’re the only one?”
The many possible suspects include Hay’s ex-lover, Alice de Trafford, who never got over him; indeed, her behaviour at the mortuary was bizarre – after she had put a small branch on his body, “she kissed him on the lips, pulled the sheet back, smeared it with her vaginal juices and said, ‘Now you’re mine forever.’” Then there is Dickinson, also in love with Diana; then there is Diana herself, who may (or may not) have had a furious argument with Hay just before he died. In the end, Broughton is tried and acquitted.
The second half of the book is perhaps more interesting than the first, in that it details the attempts of the author to solve this mystery many years after the fact. We thus get to meet many of the characters again, in the 1960s and 1970s, which provides an interesting picture of the birth of modern, democratic Africa, through the fortunes of one small group of people – from Diana, who survived and prospered, becoming one of the richest women in Kenya and a personal friend of Jomo Kenyatta, to Broughton, who, almost broke, eventually killed himself in a London hotel. Finally the author traces one person who no one thought to speak to – a woman who was fifteen at the time of the murder – and she holds the key to the murderer’s identity.
This is a very well researched and compelling account of a real crime that reads almost like a soap opera. While the small, incestuous cast of characters undoubtedly gives the story focus and drama, it also presents a very narrow view of Kenya in this period, which I sometimes found annoying. While all the events happen in Kenya, and most of the characters spend all their lives in that country, the author continually harks back to England, and English ideas, as if this is the real locus of the drama. This quibble aside, White Mischief is an interesting and worthwhile account of a unique period in Nairobi history.
Sarah Norman is a Zimbabwean who splits her time between Harare and Nairobi. She documents her reading life in the blog White Whale (www.booksof2010.blogspot.com)