The set-up is certainly very striking. The murder victim, Aaron Ku, is the chief of the Ku, a New Guinea tribe transported lock, stock and barrel from their home to a terrace in London.
The entire Ku civilisation currently lives in three bedrooms in Flagg Terrace – one room for the men, one for the women and children, and one for Dr Ku and his husband.
Dr Ku is Scottish, by the way, an anthropologist who married into the tribe. Dr Ku’s father, the Reverend Mackenzie, was the missionary who nominally converted the Ku back in New Guinea. The tribe was then forced into exile by the Japanese, and Dr Ku brought them to safety in England, before writing his PhD about them. In the view of one of the characters, the Ku are Dr Ku’s ‘own private stamp-collection, unique, worth untold millions in auction rooms, not to be touched by ignorant hands.’ In other words, the Ku live in the glass-sided ants’ nest of the title.
Dropped into this mini-culture is James Pibble, the Yard’s specialist in ‘kooky’ cases and a man with an instinct for spotting bad guys – the Adversary.
Pibble handles the Ku with an open mind and a desire to learn and be respectful that seem a lot more modern than 1968. Although his vocabulary is occasionally – ahem – old-fashioned, his heart is in the right place. He gives short shrift to a local bigot:
You can’t bring a bunch of bleeding savages inner a sillised country and plonk em down an not expeck sunnick to appen – sagainst nature […] My missis is scared to go out of an evening for fear she’ll come back one of these nights with er ead shrank.
The case intersects with more typical police work thanks to the Ku’s neighbour Caine, a con man who also accompanied them out of New Guinea. Pibble immediately recognises Caine as an ‘Adversary’: ‘always the same, with the same lunging arrogance, the same Olympian sneer’. Caine has links to high-class prostitution, and stole one of Pibble’s colleague’s girlfriends to boot. Pibble admits to himself that ‘he didn’t want to catch anybody if it wasn’t going to be Caine’.
Pibble has to work out whether the causes of Aaron’s murder lie in straightforward chicanery on the part of the Adversary, or deep in Ku ritual and culture.
I expected, given the date of publication, to find the Ku stereotyped as comic savages. However, in Dickinson’s hands the Ku come to life. To different degrees they are intelligent and stupid, comic and serious, curious and incurious, ignorant and informed. Each has a distinct personality.
One theme of the book is integration. Dr Ku, by meeting various ritual requirements, has been accepted as a Ku and has a voice in tribal affairs. However, this privileged position also places constraints on his behaviour.
The Ku have been in England since the War, and the privileged bubble they inhabit means they have preserved their lifestyle to a certain extent, but they are gradually changing. Two of them work for London Transport. Paul Ku, Dr Ku’s husband, is a talented artist who has taken every advantage of his move to England and is carving out a reputation and a decent income from his work. Robin Ku, born in England, ably skips between his Beatles-obsessed school friends and his life in the men’s hut. At home he is trying to become a ritual drummer (he likes Ringo), using Dr Ku’s PhD as a guidebook.
The other side of cultural integration is cultural disintegration. There’s an awareness that the Ku stand to lose not just their Ku-ness, but also their Christianity. The latter was Aaron’s main concern before his death.
The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest is fascinating as an exploration of a traditional culture (OK, an invented traditional culture, but seemingly inspired by the anthropologist Malinowski’s work in the Trobriand Islands), which adds loads of interest to the investigation. The culprit is eminently guessable, but I completely missed the clues. A book I’ll definitely revisit.
The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest
First published (as Skin Deep) by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd in 1968
This edition Arrow, 1987
Final destination: A keeper
Bitter Tea and Mystery: My favorite aspect of this book is Jimmy Pibble. He deals with an unusual and trying situation admirably. He is respectful of all the people he interviews, and he is open to new ways of looking at things. A wonderful character.