M.M. Kaye

Death in the Andamans by M.M. Kaye

Title: Death in the Andamans
Author: M.M. Kaye
First published in 1960

Plot summary from Goodreads: Death in the Andamans is a masterpiece of mystery and romance from one of our most beloved authors. When a violent storm lashes the tiny Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, Copper Randal barely manages a safe return to Government House. She does get back in one piece with her hostess, Valerie Masson, Val’s fiance, and handsome naval officer Nick Tarrent, but one of the islanders is unaccounted for when the boats return to harbor. Cut off from the mainland and confined to the shadowy, haunted guest quarters, Copper and the other visitors conclude that one of their number is a murderer. The killer must be found before the storm destroys all trace of any possible clues.

M.M. Kaye is best known for her best selling epic The Far Pavilions, a novel set in British Raj India and published in 1978. I was 12 when The Far Pavilions was published, and read it when I was maybe 14. It was an incredibly formative novel for me, igniting a love of door-stop-sized books and historical fiction.

As it happens, Kaye had published six mystery novels with romantic subplots prior to publishing The Far Pavilions, which I found when I went looking for more books by her, after polishing off her second major work, The Shadow of the Moon. Each of her mysteries is set in an exotic location that was part of the British Empire, except for her second, Death in Berlin. Death in the Andamans was the last of them, published in 1960. They are billed as a series, although each of them contains different characters and different settings, so the only commonality is in the theme.

Each book centers around a young, innocent, and attractive woman who is travelling to an interesting locale. The Andamans, apparently, are an archipelago of islands between India and Myanmar. I only know this because I googled it, having never heard of the Andamans prior to reading this book. The British established a penal colony there in the 1840’s, and the islands were occupied by the Japanese during WWII. They also figure prominently in the second full length Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four.

Death in the Andamans is set over Christmas and is a classic closed circle mystery. Copper Randall, the heroine, has inherited a small legacy, which she used to promptly throw up her job and accept her friend Val’s invitation to come out to the Andamans, where Val’s father is the British official in charge, living in Government House. Once she arrives, she meets Nick Tarrant, handsome naval officer and erstwhile swain.

On Christmas eve, a great storm severs contact between Government House, where our characters are trapped over the holiday, and the outside world. When one of the characters, an unappealing fellow with a whole raft full of enemies, turns up having been murdered, Copper, Val, Nick, and Val’s fiance, must solve the mystery and stay alive.

M.M. Kaye’s romance subplots are always extremely chaste, with absolutely no premarital hanky panky, excepting a possible kiss or two, in spite of the fact that we have four lusty young people running through corridors in their night clothes and otherwise behaving like they are at a slumber party. It’s refreshingly simple. The setting is wonderfully exotic, and M.M. Kaye’s descriptions are evocative of time and place.

This is the third of her Death In books that I’ve read this year. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Death in Kashmir, which was the first I read. I’ve not yet reviewed that one, or the other, Death in Cyprus – which is my least favorite of the three, although it is still plenty entertaining. I, somewhat sadly, only have three left – Death in Zanzibar, Death in Berlin (the one I have queued up right now) and Death in Kenya.

M.M. Kaye

Death in Berlin by M.M. Kaye

Title: Death in Berlin
Author: M.M. Kaye
First published in 1955

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Miranda Brand is visiting Germany for what is supposed to be a month’s vacation. But from the moment that Brigadier Brindley relates the story about a fortune in lost diamonds–a story in which Miranda herself figures in an unusual way–the vacation atmosphere becomes transformed into something more ominous. And when murder strikes on the night train to Berlin, Miranda finds herself unwillingly involved in a complex chain of events that will soon throw her own life into peril. Set against a background of war-scarred Berlin in the early 1950s, M. M. Kaye’s Death in Berlin is a consummate mystery from one of the finest storytellers of our time.

I liked this installment, but I didn’t love it. It started strong, with a murder on a train that was reminiscent of The Murder on the Orient Express – mysteries set on trains are an especial weakness of mine. However, once we arrived in Berlin, I just wasn’t feeling the love for the setting. Post-war Berlin was grim, and although the discussion of the different sections of a divided city was interesting, I prefer the more exotic settings in her other books.

This particular book contained a lot of regressive themes and tropes. Older women are haggard, aging, rapidly losing their appeal. Young women are blooming and fresh. The male characters, especially Richard – the main character’s cousin – have important work to do with the British government, while the women have servants and seem to do very little at all. While I expect to get those kinds of elements in a book that was published in 1955, it was even more obvious in this book than it often is.

A few other things that bothered me with this book included the primary love interest/main investigator Simon Lang. In the other M.M. Kaye mysteries I’ve read, there is more of an equality of investigation between the heroine & hero. In this one, Lang does all of the work, and pretty much excludes Miranda from the process of figuring out whodunit. In addition, he literally uses her as bait to trap the murderer, and then his proposal of marriage is presumptuous and arrogant, telling Miranda that he will be her husband, not asking her to marry him.

So, this is the least favorite of the M.M. Kaye’s mysteries so far. It is well-written and the plot is interesting, but I didn’t engage with the characters, and found the setting to be humdrum.