Perhaps best known now for her book, The Far Pavilions, M.M. Kaye actually started her writing career with a series of six thrillers, Death in Kashmir, Death in Berlin, Death in Cyprus, Death in Kenya, Death in Zanzibar, and Death in the Andamans. Originally published in the 1950s, they were edited and reissued in the mid-80s, after the success of The Far Pavilions, and the ensuing television miniseries/movie.
As with the other mysteries new to me, I didn’t read the entire series, just three. Death in Kashmir, the first one, is set in India a few months before Partition takes place and a group of avid British skiiers takes a holiday in the mountains of Kashmir, the last they’ll have before leaving the country…and two deaths under suspicious circumstances occur on the slopes. The young heroine befriends Victim #2, and after Heroine’s return home, she receives a letter, in [victim]s hand which includes the rent receipt for a houseboat. Heroine moves into the houseboat and is instrumental in solving an International Intrigue. Death in Cyprus involves a girl coming out to visit her uncle, who owns a wine importing/exporting business; she is sucked into a corruption scandal. Death in the Andamans has a girl who comes into an inheritance from her black sheep uncle about whom no one speaks, tosses up her job and goes to visit her school chum, who’s gone to keep house for her widowed stepfather in the Andamans, just as a powerful storm sweeps through, destroying the landings and stranding a group of boaters…and a murderer.
They’re similar to one another in that each has a young woman approximately 20 years old who ends up entangled and embroiled in a death accompanied by concomitant plotting and international intrigue. Kim lite crossed with Nancy Drew once she’d left school, if you will. The girls are pretty and brave while remaining feminine, the heroes often appear as antagonists in the beginning but prove to be bravely manly, just misunderstood. Today, trite, and I can’t imagine that they were intended to be much more than lightweight novels at the time of their writing, enjoyable romances with thriller elements but not intended to be Literature For the Ages. Just gentle reads. That said, I do appreciate Kaye for creating a heroine/several heroines who are both femininely girlish AND brave. The protagonist in Death in Zanzibar is determined to live alone on the houseboat with only her dachshund puppy for companionship, the better to search for her acquaintance’s mystery, despite several unsuccessful attempts on her own life and successful ones on others.
The author’s notes in the 1980’s editions provide an interesting counterpoint to the books, as she adds personal background which led up to writing the novel. For example, Death in the Andamans was based in (small) part on a visit to her friend who was living there shortly before World War II broke out. The two women were stranded for several days by a Christmas Eve storm, and entertained themselves by coming up with a murder mystery based on their current situation–‘stranded on an island with a murderer’ being a mystery trope as common and overused then as now. Kaye then expanded this, 20 years later, into the book now published. Kaye and her husband, Goff Hamilton, led a decidedly peripatetic life, and these novels are set in places she lived or visited during her marriage.
I wouldn’t call them masterpieces–book blurbs are 90% puffery while I have a trifle more freedom–although fifty years on, the fact that their writing style is outdated doesn’t help. They are interesting as period pieces now, as an example of popular (I’d like to think so!) literature of the ’50s. I’d say read them as a description of a time now long gone and places now very different from the settings of the books, and indeed which had often changed by the time the books were published.