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Review: The Idol of Mombasa, by Annamaria Alfieri
Felony and Mayhem, 2016. 249 pp. $15

When Justin Tolliver and his new bride, Vera, take up residence in Mombasa, British East Africa Protectorate, early in 1912, they have mixed feelings. They have transferred from Nairobi, where Justin, a colonial police officer, enjoyed his position, near where Vera was born, and her beloved father has his mission. But duty calls: Justin has been promoted to assistant district superintendent. Therein lies a source of marital friction, however, for he loves his work, whereas Vera wishes he’d give it up and become a farmer, as so many colonials do.

Justin promises he won’t remain on the force for long — a year at most — but that year promises to be very busy. He’s not even unpacked in Mombasa before a criminal act takes place that has diplomatic implications. The Grand Mufti of Egypt is in town to exhort the faithful of Islam, collect presents from the British, and remind them that their hold on the protectorate is anything but absolute, depending as it does on the Sultan of Zanzibar’s goodwill. And when a slave belonging to a prominent Muslim businessman runs away and is murdered for it, that should prompt soul-searching among the colonials. After all, Britain has outlawed slavery and claims that this “civilizing” influence justifies their empire. Yet political considerations and racism combine to separate the law from justice, at least as it’s practiced on the street.

Mombasa, buying ivory hunted in the East African interior, 1910-1920, Underwood & Underwood (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

This outlook sits poorly with Justin, who believes in the stated moral principle. He also espouses a comparatively liberal outlook concerning the people the British govern. He respects his sergeant, Kwai Libazo, a man half Kikuyu, half Masai, and takes him at his word, an attitude that marks Justin as “soft” among his peers. Back in England, he was a keen sportsman who played games as much for their sense of rules as their competitive aspect. But he’s a newcomer to Mombasa; he must follow orders; and, as an earl’s second son, he faces reverse snobbery, which makes his every move suspect. Other colonials wonder how an English-born aristocrat can even think of being a police officer, while they also turn up their noses at Vera, because he’s married down.

Meanwhile, Vera is fiercely anti-slavery and has far fewer scruples about adopting local customs. She understands that British clothing and manners don’t fit in Africa, and she wants to learn Arabic — imagine! Unlike a proper English wife, she speaks her mind, so Justin hears her views on his moral compromises, another arena of marital conflict. Nevertheless, husband and wife appreciate qualities in the other that they also fear. This setup provides great possibilities.

As befits the British colonial mission, they have their romantic notions about where they are and what they’re doing. For Justin, though Mombasa makes him wrinkle his nose, it also represents an exotic fantasy:

The smell of the salt air called to mind his father’s history books and his own boyhood dreams of adventure. He imagined that this place now smelled much the same as it had to da Gama, aboard the Portuguese carrack São Gabriel when the great explorer entered Mombasa Harbor, the first European to come to this place. This was a reason to be here. This had been a place of adventure for centuries. Whatever else Mombasa was, this was the sort of place that, as a child, he had always longed to be.

If all this seems extraneous to the mystery, rest assured it belongs. Alfieri creates a solid whodunit, with a satisfying ending. Just when you think she’s tipped her hand, she hasn’t. Suspects abound from all cultures and walks of life, including the Reverend Robert Morley and his sister, Katharine. (Is this echo of the actors in The African Queen too cute? Probably.) Still, despite the issues of justice, the marriage subplot, the racial and ethnic hatreds that divide the city, and Mombasa itself, only the mystery kept me reading.

The characters, though they display more than a single trait or two, seem locked into either-or emotional states during conflict, which simplifies them and makes them predictable. Also, Alfieri’s writing style, occasionally repetitive, as in the above example, explains more than it shows and distances me. Sometimes the explanations follow action that’s already clear or restate what’s been narrated before. It’s as though Alfieri or her editor fears that we’ve forgotten the circumstances or motivations and need reminders. Either that, or she doesn’t see how to deepen such moments. It’s too bad, because there’s much on offer, and I applaud the author’s intent and loving portrayal of time, place, and cultural associations. I wish more historical mysteries did that.

Read The Idol of Mombasa, if you will, for the story. But if you’re like me, you’ll wish the rest held up its end as well.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.