MATTHEW HEAD. The Congo Venus (1950).

21 Mar


Detection, practiced mainly by a blunt and bumptious medical missionary named Mary Finney, more or less compensates for a dearth of mystery in this shaggy-dog story set among white colonials in the Belgian Congo.

When the tale starts, Liliane Morelli has already died. Ostensibly, she succumbed to blackwater fever, which she contracted (again, ostensibly) as a complication of malaria. Now, several weeks later, Dr. Finney has ventured from her base in the African interior to Leopoldville, the quaint settler’s town where Liliane whiled away the last days of her ultimately uncharmed life. Finney, summoned to help save the reputation of a fellow physician who had treated Liliane, launches an unofficial inquiry into the case.

In life, Liliane—a beautiful yet naive “Venus” figure, married to a much older man—aroused feelings in some locals that clearly held the potential to turn homicidal. Yet Head provides very little information on the mechanics of Liliane’s death, and he presents few candidates for the role of her murderer. Instead, he spins out a looping, leisurely account of various events that preceded her fatal illness. Head (the name is an alias of John Canaday, a scholar who later became the chief art critic for The New York Times) cares more about satirizing the culture of European expatriates than about setting forth and solving a puzzle. His strength lies in characterization, and he dwells less on hiding the culprit’s identity than on exploring that individual’s abnormal psychology.

Head also dotes on the quirks of his protagonist. In bulk and in braininess, Finney is a larger-than-life “great detective” on the model of Nero Wolfe. She even has a sidekick, Hooper Taliaferro, who seems to be cut from the same rough-hewn cloth as Archie Goodwin. A sardonic young man attached to the American legation in Leopoldville, Taliaferro also narrates this adventure, with a wry, appealing voice that does for a remote outpost on the Congo what Goodwin’s voice does for a certain big city on the Hudson.

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Posted by on March 21, 2010 in American, Golden Age, Novel


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