White Mischief by James Fox

“I hope I have never looked like a murderer. I think all my friends know it is not exactly my line of country. However, in a strange country, god knows what will happen.” (Sir Jock Delves Broughton)

There are some crimes that could only have occurred in a unique set of circumstances, and this is certainly true for the murder of Lord Erroll. Erroll, Josslyn Hay, the 22nd Earl of Erroll was shot in his car in the early morning hours of January 24th, 1941. Although a trial was conducted, no one was ever convicted for the crime, and the murder remains, officially, unsolved. Forty years after the murder (the book was originally published in the 80s), in White Mischief, author James Fox painstakingly pieced together transcripts from the trial and testimony of witnesses in an attempt to both explain and solve the crime.

white mischiefErroll was murdered in Kenya, and a large portion of the beginning of the book concentrates on establishing the atmosphere in Kenya in the late 30s. It was a wild place–well at least it was a wild place for the British expatriates who were whooping it up in the area known as Happy Valley,notorious since the 1920s as a playground for aristocratic fugitives of all kinds.” According to the author, “Happy Valley originated with Erroll himself and with Lady Idina Gordon” when they “set up house there in 1924.” She was a married woman and left her second husband and moved to Kenya with Erroll as it “seemed the obvious, indeed the only place to go.” Once established there Erroll and Idina became the centre of local society as she organized riotous parties and  partner-swapping evenings, but not everyone became entangled in these activities; the wife of the Governor put Idina “on the blacklist.”

Over time, the reputation of Happy Valley grew and became a Mecca for a certain type, including a number of British fascists.  European nobility gathered in this area of Kenya–this “permanent feast of dissipation and sensuous pleasure,” building splendid palaces, throwing endless parties, and engaging in appallingly bad behaviour. Most of the British expatriates were there for a reason–often scandal, bankruptcy and divorce drove them from the shores of England and to the less inhibited social whorl of Kenya. Sometimes British upper-class families despaired of a son’s relentless gambling habit, and so he was banished off to Kenya. Whatever the reasons, and there were many, a certain ‘type’ gravitated towards Happy Valley. And there, various degenerates led unleashed, uninhibited lives and recruiting newcomers into their ranks.

In the colonial imagination, Africa was a dangerous country which inspired extremes, liberated repressed desires, insinuated violence. At the furthest end of the scale was the subconscious fear that someone might even break ranks, betray his country and his class by ‘going native,’ though just what for this might take could never be out into words.

The colonials often shared that strange sensation common to exile Englishmen living in groups of being ‘out of bounds.’ Many of them had money. Many were remittance men who had been paid off by their families and sent away in disgrace. Once their spirits and sense of status was restored in the feudal paradise, the temptation to behave badly was irresistible

These uninhibited lifestyles resulted in morphine addictions and an endless array of extra-marital affairs for the upper-crust loungers who bestirred themselves once in a while to go off and shoot a lion or two. For those who couldn’t conform to British society, Happy Valley was a sort of paradise–and one was limited only by one’s personal resources.

Beneath the surface lay another rich seam: the extraordinary story of the British aristocracy in Kenya, subjected to a tropical climate and high altitude, suspended between English traditions and African customs, answerable, more or less, only to themselves.

Many people thrived in this Happy Valley bohemia, but many did not. The Earl of Erroll was one of those who thrived–women adored him, and men enjoyed his company, yet someone hated him enough to kill him. The contrasting views of Erroll show versions of a complicated man who usually got what he wanted. He was a known philanderer who delighted in deceiving husbands and had a string of married lovers long before he met and began an ill-fated affair with newlywed (and new arrival) Diana Broughton. In late 1940, 57 year-old Sir Jock Delves Broughton, fresh from a divorce, took his 22 year-old bride straight to Kenya where he owned a coffee plantation. It was hardly  a love match–at least not for Diana who had an unusual pre-nup agreement with Broughton. One meeting with Erroll, and Diana’s affair began…

In these pages, we see the bizarre culture of these wealthy exiles who built magnificent palaces surrounded by exquisitely manicured lawns and flower beds in their attempts to “preserve the way of life of the English county families.” These are the twilight years of the British colonies with multiple servants (sometimes unpaid and abused), with the spoiled rich amusing themselves with safaris, extravagant stunts and multiple love affairs.

Author James Fox follows the genesis of the book which began as an investigation for a story in the Sunday Times Magazine in the late 60s, the murder case and the subsequent trial, as well as his meeting with Lady Diana Delamere–known as Diana Broughton in White Mischief. Recreated here are the circumstances that drove a particular murder, but we also get an absolute sense of the society in the Happy Valley with the Muthaiga Club at its centre–a club in which jews were not allowed. The club hosted “nightly balls … and women were required to wear a different dress each night.” Often the parties, which ended at 6 in the morning, turned into hooliganism. Morphine and cocaine were frequent hors d’oeuvres to the all-night entertainment.

The story behind the crime is excellently and meticulously researched. The background story of Happy Valley’s society is fascinating, riveting stuff, and the build up to the murder is rather tense with every piece of background information slotted into place. Most of the characters are a dissolute, bored, destructive lot–certainly no one ‘deserved’ to be murdered (although one may feel a certain astonishment that there was only one victim). The degree of wonder remains in the fact that a nobleman was bumped off. Would this have happened in England? I doubt it. Kenya, for the decadent British expatriates who took up residence, was a peculiar paradise, and this was a unique time. While the author does a simply marvelous job of recreating the atmosphere of the times, there is no great revelation here as the criminal trial unfolds. Everything is an inevitable foregone conclusion, and the book’s strength is found in its successful re-creation of a peculiar time and place.

This was a re-read for me. I first watched the film years ago, and reading the book for the second time rekindled all my original feelings about the society in Happy Valley. For the second reading, already knowing about the decadent lifestyle of many of the Happy Valley residents, this time I was struck by how while bad behaviour was accepted amongst one’s own set, bad behaviour in front of the natives was “inexcusable.” How peculiar that the British ex-pats went to such lengths to recreate the trappings of a pseudo British society complete with its snobbery, magnificent gardens and polo fields, but then led the sort of wild lives that would find them ostracized back in England. The sheer rapidity of the fatal events that led to Erroll’s murder were just as surprising for this second read, although this time I marveled at the way society members stood up for Erroll’s murderer during the trial and yet he was a pariah following the verdict.

A few years ago, author Christine Nicholls revealed additional information that she had about the case, and while the information all slots into place, the murder of Lord Erroll is still, officially, unsolved.

The book contains a Cast of Characters and an image gallery.

Review copy/personal copy.

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15 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

15 responses to “White Mischief by James Fox

  1. Wow–I’ve never heard of this book, but it’s going on my wish list. Great review!

  2. I watched the movie as well and was always wondering whether I should read the book. An utterly decadent society. I have a vague memory of a book called The Bolter. Is that the same incident?

  3. The Bolter is/was Lady Idina (originally) Sackville. You’d like this, I think.

  4. Brian Joseph

    Indeed the portrait of the society sounds more interested then the murder itself. I had no idea about the tenor of the British expatriates. I wonder if anything similar happened in any of the other colonies.

  5. This could have happened in a French colony at the same time, I think. I’ve never heard of the story and your post is really fascinating.
    I like what you say about this world being a transcription of the society and codes from back home spiced up by a licence to be wild since you’re not at home and no one will really know.

    • I think it’s a fascinating situation and the murder seems to have been one of the toxic events that grew from this society. Plus you know my interest in crime…

  6. “…the Muthaiga Club at its centre–a club in which Jews were not allowed. ”

    You say this as though it was unusual then…

  7. I loved this book. I read it shortly after the movie came out back in the day. It’s a fascinating story. My brother, who has worked in various parts of Africa for many years, says you can still find remnants of British colonial types. His encounters with them are very strange.

  8. leroyhunter

    I remember the movie, and the book sounds much more interesting than I’d assumed – I thought it was a “tie-in” effort, as opposed to being the original source. Sounds well worth a look.

    I lived in Africa and Asia when I was a kid (in the80s) and the ex-pat thing there, while not descending into murder and debauchery (as far as I know) was still a distinctly odd phenomenon.

    • The details of how these people lived are fascinating. Even the court case, which is loaded with details, is riveting because of all the class issues. Important witnesses were not called to the stand and it had to be a class/race issue.
      You must have had an interesting childhood. I know a few ex-pats in Asia and the debauchery thing is definitely part of the deal–at least for the ones I know.

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