Elspeth Huxley: The Merry Hippo


A Royal Commission has been assembled to consider the road to independence for Hapana, a Protectorate leaving the British Empire. As part of their pre-conference research, they are staying at the Merry Hippo in Happy Landings, a pleasant town owned by a copper-mining conglomerate.

The Deputy Commissioner, a seemingly harmless old buffer named Lord Bagpuse, who in his active life has taken ‘not the least speck of interest in colonial development’, is poisoned by his picnic lunch on a fishing trip. His wife thinks he has been murdered by Communists in revenge for his opposition to Polish pig imports (Bagpuse is obsessed with pig farming). However, the more informed members of the Commission suspect the actions of a Soviet spy on the brink of exposure. Aiming to poison the Commissioner, he or she got the Deputy instead.

Superintendent Jacey is in his last few months on his job (he’ll be replaced by his grumpy sergeant after independence), and is perhaps at heart a naturalist rather than a policeman. However, he sets out to trap the murderer and the spy in a situation already complicated by conflict between the Triple-P Party and the Forever Forward Group, protests against colonialism, rumours that tapioca is a Communist plot to deprive Hapanan men of their virility, mining interests, and a new religious cult purifying men for ten shillings and an oath of allegiance involving an enema.

The characterisation is quite strong, and I grew quite fond of some of the Commissioners, although others faded into the background. A subplot concerns a realistically bumpy love affair between academic Alex Burton and the Commissioner’s secretary Miss Labouchère. However, the mystery itself, with a closed circle of suspects, an opportunistic method of killing, and a Christie-esque motive, is a bit rickety. However, as a glimpse of a particular moment of history from an active participant, this is interesting.

Elspeth Huxley knew a bit about Commissions. Born in 1907 (her memoir about growing up in Africa, The Flame Trees of Thika, is probably the best known of her works), in 1960 she served on the Advisory Commission for the Review of the Constitution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

Wikipedia tells us that ‘Early in life an advocate of colonialism, she later called for independence for African countries’. I’m not 100% sure where she stood when writing The Merry Hippo. The book is a satire on the process of ending colonialism. Both the Europeans and the Africans are lampooned, not with the savagery of a Tom Sharpe, but still with some absurdity and bite. The British are clinging on to their relevance but their preoccupations are of no interest to their former subjects, who are mired in in-fighting and obviously on the road to dictatorship. The only winner will be the copper mining company which owns the Merry Hippo and the nearby town.

The book ends with the beginning of another interminable meeting about the minutiae of constitutional reform. The deaths of a few Commissioners has not had the slightest impact.

The Merry Hippo
Elspeth Huxley
First published in the UK by Chatto & Windus, 1963
This edition Penguin Books 1965
256 pages
Source: City Books Norwich
Final destination: A keeper

See also:

Kirkus Review: There are so many incidents at Merry Hippo that the reader, even treated with hearty, heavy doses of satire, can easily succumb to sleeping sickness.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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3 Responses to Elspeth Huxley: The Merry Hippo

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I must admit, Rich, the title is what really got my attention!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jason Half says:

    This is a fascinating review, Rich, and I’m always happy to see such variety in reading material among mystery fans. It made me think of Peter Dickinson’s The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest from around this general time, but I’m especially intrigued by the satire and brief examples you list with this title. (Your Ants’ Nest review from last year is also great!)

    It’s interesting to see that you found more to recommend than Kirkus Reviews’ dismissive reading of Hippo. I found myself in exactly the same position when I reviewed George Milner’s A Bloody Scandal a few weeks ago, and found that the biting critique of British society — with their definitions of scandalous behaviour completely backwards — that I had responded to was viewed as pointless digressive filler by the Kirkus reviewer…

    Cheers — Jason


  3. Pingback: Supping full with horrors: crime, corruption, with sex and music – The Grandest Game in the World

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