Glamour, Greed, Decadence, Murder


White Mischief (1987)

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

The first Safari by Ralph Lauren fashion collection debuted in 1984—not long before, as the print ads touted, the 1985 theatrical release of Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa. In this loose adaptation of a 1937 memoir by Isak Dinesen (Karen von Blixen’s pen name), Meryl Streep plays the Danish baroness, who in 1914 goes to Kenya to marry, run coffee plantations, and fall in love—with the land, the Kenyan people, and Robert Redford’s Denys Finch Hatton, a charming and elusive big-game hunter. The nearly three-hour film melodramatizes their doomed affair, conducted against an exquisitely shot backdrop of the Kenyan natural world. Nominated for eleven Oscars, it won seven, including awards for cinematography and art direction. Though the costume designer, Milena Canonero, missed out to Emi Wada for Ran, the Out of Africa wardrobe—devised, Canonero said, with meticulous attention to period accuracy—imbued safari chic with an unshakable allure. Fashion icons come and go, but Streep as Blixen, in her epauletted white shirts, utilitarian khaki jackets, and brown leather accessories, is a mood-board perennial.

Along with Out of Africa, the colonial Kenya narrative with the strongest retrospective stamp is the 1982 book White Mischief, by British journalist James Fox. Setting out to solve the 1941 murder of Josslyn Hay, an army captain in the Kenya Regiment and the de facto king of Happy Valley, Fox combined scrupulous fact-finding with a New Journalism–style depiction of his quest. The result was an exceptional feat of literary reportage, hailed as an instant true-crime classic. For Fox, it was the culmination of work spanning over a decade. He originally began investigating the case for a Sunday Times Magazine piece, written in collaboration with critic Cyril Connolly and published in 1969. For years, the mystery had obsessed Connolly, a frequent visitor to Kenya who, it so happened, had gone to Eton with the murder victim. “The coincidence,” Fox writes, “had a potent effect on his imagination, his envy, his fevered curiosity.”

After Connolly’s death in 1974, Fox delved back into his late colleague’s notes, expanded with new information elicited in response to the piece, and “decided to pursue the trail we had embarked upon together.” By the time Fox had researched and written White Mischief, it was the perfect moment to publish.

True-crime writers were entering a golden age, with books such as Ann Rule’s A Stranger Beside Me and Joe McGinnis’ Fatal Vision selling millions of copies. The film tie-in edition of White Mischief carried the era-defining tagline “They brought so much to Africa. Glamour, greed, decadence—and murder.”

“Set on Fire”, Emma Garman, Lapham’s Quarterly

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