Saturday, November 08, 2008

You Can’t (Usually) Go Home Again

One of my favorite books of all time is M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind. I fell in love with it when I was quite young, and have reread it with equal pleasure several times over the years. So when I came upon Kaye’s Death in Zanzibar at the recent Friends of the Library Booksale, I considered it a find.

If you’re not familiar with the two books, Death in Zanzibar is a whodunit from the fifties, very much in the style of Agatha Christie. In writing the “modern” murder mystery, Kaye conceived a backstory involving a rakish nineteenth-century English outlaw/privateer, a prudish American do-gooder, and a trove of hidden treasure. In one of those fascinating twists of the creative process, she found herself so obsessed with her “backstory” that she later went on to write that story, too, in a sprawling historical novel that became Trade Wind.

I remember checking Death in Zanzibar out of my local library in the seventies, and being swept away by lush descriptions of the island and its culture. So I thought I was in for a real treat when I started reading it last week—“thought” being the operative word in that sentence. To begin with, where’s the island? I’m now half way through the book, and we’re still on the plane! Why didn’t I remember that part of the book? Obviously, because it wasn’t memorable. Yet I intend to continue reading, not because I’m enjoying the story (I’m not) , but because the book itself is an eye-opening period piece.

First of all, it’s taking our heroine days to get to Zanzibar; that’s what international travel was like in the fifties. I myself have vague memories of flying back and forth to Europe as a child and having to stop and spend the night in the Azores (okay, I know I’m really dating myself here!). Yet if I were to read this book without looking at the copyright date, I suspect I’d guess it was written in the thirties, rather than in the fifties. Ladies wear lovely linen suits and hats, and young women traveling alone are ever-so-careful of their reputations. A flamingly gay secretary is caricatured in a most politically incorrect way, as is the Westernized Oriental Gentleman (aka Wog, for those of you familiar with overt mid-twentieth century British racism), who is portrayed as a sinister character largely by virtue of being labeled a “nationalist” who wants to kick the benevolent British out of their God-given colonies. Oh, and then there’s all the talk about the evil “Reds.”

Sadly, Death in Zanzibar is a novel that has not aged well in the way of, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Huckleberry Finn, or even Kaye’s own Trade Wind. It occurs to me now that all three of those novels were actually “historicals” at the time they were written, even though the first two were set within the remembered lifetimes of their authors. Which is a thought I hope to ponder, at a later date.

9 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I've got a copy of Trade Wind around here and should read it. AS I remember, it's a big thick book.

cs harris said...

I'm not sure you'll like it, Charles; but Lana might.

Steve Malley said...

Your post got me thinking about Graham Greene-- how much the world has changed but how readable his work remains...

Susan/DC said...

I recently reread an old Agatha Christie from the 1950s ("Destination Unknown") and it has much the same feel. It was a contemporary novel at the time it was written, but today some of its attitudes and the emphasis on conspiracies and the "Red scare" are badly outdated -- although, in the end, it's the capitalist Who Did It.

Barbara Martin said...

When younger I inhaled whodunits, but trailed away from crime novels. Now an interest is returning, and Death in Zanzibar might be a nice reintroduction back.

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