True crime, with rare exceptions, lacks the glamour, the intricacy, the poetic structure, the multiplicity of suspects, and the array of suggestive clues that go into making a good fake crime story. Homicide, in practice, is usually dull where it isn’t sordid and sordid where it isn’t dull, and either there is no mystery to it at all or there is no hope that a satisfying resolution will ever emerge from the non-pattern of facts that it leaves behind. But in 1941, within the community of white settlers in Kenya known as Happy Valley, a murder took place that might have come straight out of a Golden Age detective yarn.
The victim and everyone in his circle resemble characters from the world of Agatha Christie, with secrets to hide and grudges to bear. They have multiple connections to one another by blood or marriage (often, in fact, because they have multiple marriages), plenty of servants to order about (servants who might see, and then report, incriminating activity), and ample leisure in which to cause trouble—for themselves, through drink or general dissipation, and for others, through adultery or vicious backbiting or worse. The Happy Valley set, consisting of moneyed and titled people who have failed to fit socially in their home country, is at bottom a pretty unhappy bunch. So, on the morning of January 24, 1941, when the body of Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, pierced by a bullet and slumped under the steering wheel of his Buick touring car, is found at a crossroads outside Nairobi, police can direct their attention to a select group of people who theoretically had the means, the opportunity, and especially the motive to put him into that state.
Investigators also have a rich, fiction-worthy set of clues to pursue: ballistics evidence; scuff marks found in the back seat of Erroll’s car; rumors of jealousy-charged scenes at the Muthaiga Country Club, the center of Happy Valley social life; reports of comings and goings that may or may not add up to alibis. Before long, the authorities arrest Sir “Jock” Delves Broughton and bring him to trial for murder. (Erroll had been carrying on an open affair with Broughton’s much younger wife, Diana.) A jury acquits Broughton of the crime, however, and alternative theories of the case linger for years in the local gossip. Might one of Erroll’s spurned former lovers be the culprit? Did political machinations—Erroll had entered wartime service as Assistant Military Secretary for East Africa—lead to his assassination?
The way that Fox tells this tale detracts a little from its intrinsic appeal. Instead of focusing on pertinent events that occurred before or soon after Lord Erroll’s death, he devotes much of his narrative to research efforts that he undertook in the late 1960s with Cyril Connolly, a once-famous English man of letters who nursed a decades-long obsession with the killing. (The two writers collaborated on a piece about the case for the Sunday Times of London.) That obsession, and the often fruitless inquiries that arose from it, seem to intrigue Fox as much as the original mystery does. What fascinated Connolly most about the Erroll murder story was the vanished milieu of aristocratic decadence in which it unfolded, and Fox, in that same spirit, colors in many corners of the Happy Valley backdrop that have no bearing on the crime of 1941. As with a fictional murder story, readers come to the end of this book with a vivid awareness of who the guilty party must have been. But Fox conveys that insight with the wistful implication that it might be better not to know the killer’s identity. To him, ultimately, the crime matters far less than the “truth” that surrounds it.