Death in the Andamans by MM Kaye takes place over Christmas in the late 1930s. Copper Randal’s school chum Valerie has invited Copper (christened Caroline Olivia Phoebe Elizabeth) to stay with her in the tropics. Valerie’s stepfather, Sir Lionel Masson, is the Chief Commissioner of the Andaman Islands, a group of islands governed by the British in the Bay of Bengal.
Copper has spent the previous two years working in drab London:
“… at about the time that Valerie was setting sail for the Andamans, Copper had been reluctantly embarking upon the infinitely more prosaic venture of earning her living as a shorthand typist in the city of London.
“For two drab years she had drawn a weekly pay cheque from Messrs Hudnut and Addison Limited, Glass and China Merchants, whose gaunt and grimy premises were situated in that unlovely section of London known as the elephant and Castle. The weekly pay cheque had been incredibly meager, and at times it had needed all Copper’s ingenuity, couple with incorrigible optimism, to make both ends meet and life seem at all worth supporting. ‘But someday,’ said Copper, reassuring herself, ‘something exciting is bound to happen!’ “
Something, in the form of a “small and totally unexpected legacy” from a forgotten uncle, did occur and Copper promptly resigned her job and traveled to the Andamans on the S. S. Maharaja.
“That had been nearly three weeks ago. Three weeks of glitteringly blue days and incredibly lovely star-splashed nights. … It was all so different from that other world of fog and rain, strap-hanging, shorthand and crowded rush-hour buses, that she sometimes felt that she must have dreamed it all. Or that this was the dream, and presently she would awake to find herself back once more in the cheerless, gas-lit lodgings off the Fulham Road. But no: this was real. This wonderful, colourful world.”
Copper’s “wonderful, colourful world” quickly meets stormy weather, and with a vengeance. On Christmas Eve, Copper, Valerie, and a group of friends picnic on one of the nearby islands. Returning, by car and ferry, to “the mainland,” as the largest island is known, the weather becomes a character in its own right.
“ ‘Why is everything such a queer yellow colour?’ persisted Copper restlessly. … Copper … leant out to look back at the sky between the double wall of trees behind them. They heard her catch her breath in a harsh gasp, and Dan Harcourt … leant out in turn and whistled expressively. ‘Great Caesar’s Ghost –! Here, step on it, Charles, or inside another five minutes we’re going to be overhauled by the father and mother of a storm!’ “
Several of the party travel back in sailboats. All three boats are overturned within seconds of the the storm hitting. Fortunately all but one of the sailors is later rescued, however, Ferrers Shilto is not found, and he is given up for lost, presumed drowned. The group on the ferry arrives safely on the mainland, but nerves are understandably frayed.
Because of the storm, the Christmas Eve dinner at Government House is sparsely attended and extremely trying. The evening ends after the household cat brushes against one of the guests, who begins screaming hysterically and has to be taken to the little local hospital.
Then misfortune becomes mystery. On Christmas afternoon, Copper, Valerie, Valerie’s fiancé Charles, visiting naval officer Nick, Dr. Dan Harcourt and some of the others walk to the beach to get some fresh air after the storm subsides. Imagine their surprise when the body of Ferrers Shilto is tossed by an incoming wave practically at their feet!
Later that evening, young Dr. Dutt informs Sir Lionel that he has signed the death certificate stating that Shilto drowned. Dan Harcourt, a Navy doctor temporarily in port questions Dutt, who becomes very defensive. Arrangements are made for a funeral the next day – this is the tropics, after all, and funerals must be held quickly.
However, the next morning another body is found in place of Shilto’s. Instead of Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men, Christmas becomes a game of “was it you?” as the inmates of Government Hosue and the other islanders watch each other with suspicion. Add a ghost, a mysterious fortune, a disappearing letter, an affaire or two, and some romance, and you’ll thoroughly enjoy Christmas in the Andamans with the English expats.
About the Author
MM Kaye was an English girl who spent many of her growing-up years in India. Later she traveled extensively with her husband, a British military officer. She has written two enormous, powerful novels about India, The Far Pavilions (which was made into a disappointing movie) and Shadow of the Moon. She set a third novel, Trade Winds, in Zanzibar. Besides these novels, Kaye wrote several stunning children’s books, the best of which is Ordinary Princess, which she also illustrated. As she moved from country to country with her husband, she would write a mystery set in the country. Besides being well written, interesting whodunits, Kaye’s mysteries provide fascinating glimpses into the society and history of their settings, and give us a look at expat British life in numerous settings.