Murder and mystery in Victoria Falls
Murder and mystery in Victoria Falls
BY: BRYONY RHEAM, Author and freelance writer
WEBSITE : www.victoriafallshotel.com
“We walked from the train to the hotel, a big white building closely wired against mosquitoes. There were no roads, no houses. We went out on the stoep and I uttered a gasp. There, half a mile away, facing us, were the Falls. I’ve never seen anything so grand and beautiful – I never shall.”
Anne Beddingfield utters these words on arrival at the Victoria Falls in Agatha Christie’s 1924 novel, The Man in the Brown Suit. Anne becomes embroiled in murder and mystery when she happens to witness a supposedly accidental death in a London tube station. Her investigation leads her to embarking on a sea voyage to Cape Town and a train journey up to Southern Rhodesia. In true Christie style, Anne finds mystery, adventure and, of course, love in her time in Africa; the novel ending with her living on an island in the middle of the Zambezi upstream from the Falls.
The Victoria Falls Hotel is the epitome of a setting from an Agatha Christie novel. It is easy to imagine her characters arriving - the retired colonel who has spent much time in Africa; the young and attractive recently married couple who are game for anything and enjoy a spot of tennis in the afternoon; the ageing actress who likes the attention of younger men; the attractive and dedicated governess to whom her employer has taken a little too much of a shine; the cantankerous and watchful bachelor who sends and receives numerous frantic telegrams during his stay and declines a trip to see the Falls with the rest of the party. Beneath the veneer of good manners and British bonhomie lurk the tensions of jealousy, betrayal and lust and it is not long before a body is found.
Today, Agatha Christie is one of the best-selling writers of all time. She is the author of over 80 novels and only the Bible and Shakespeare have sold more copies than her two billion. However, back in 1922, Christie had only written two books, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Secret Adversary (which wasn’t yet published) and she was still relatively unknown as an author.
At the time she was married to her first husband, Colonel Archibald Christie, who struggled to find a well-paid and fulfilling job after being demobbed in 1918. The idea for her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles had been hatched while she was working in a hospital dispensary during the First World War, where she acquired knowledge of poisons. The book, for which she signed a very constricted deal with The Bodley Head, didn’t bring in very much money, but at this point in her life she had not even considered being an author. Her second novel she wrote with the express idea of making money in order to save her childhood home, Ashfield, from being sold. Although the book sold well, she again made little from it in the way of royalties.
Then one evening a man named Belcher came to dinner and asked Archibald if he would like to accompany him on a British Empire Mission to promote the Empire Exhibition due to be held in London in 1924. He wanted Archie to be his financial advisor and said that Agatha could come too.
Agatha had always dreamt of seeing the world and had so far only been to a couple of European destinations. With the post-war gloom hanging heavily over Britain and not much money to be had, the Christies seized the opportunity to see the world, even if it meant leaving their two year old daughter behind in the care of Agatha’s mother and sister.
The Christies set sail for Cape Town on the Kildonan Castle in late January 1922. Agatha loved South Africa and it was here that she and her husband learnt to surf – a relatively new water sport in those days. There was some doubt as to whether they would go up to Southern Rhodesia due to the insistence of the government that they pay their own way there. In South Africa, they had been guests of the government and all hotel bills and transport costs had been covered.
After much wrangling, the Southern Rhodesian government gave in and the tour party went up to Bulawayo and then Salisbury (now Harare). Bulawayo, Agatha Christie described as: “not very attractive, flat and sandy and a dirty hotel full of smells”. The hotel in question was the Grand, at one time Bulawayo’s answer to The Ritz. After a brief trip to Salisbury and a stay at The Meikle’s Hotel, which Agatha did enjoy, the Christies took the train to Victoria Falls.
In a letter to her mother, Christie wrote: “It has been lovely here. I can’t bear to leave. It’s not just the Falls themselves, although they are very wonderful... but the whole place. No road, only paths, just the hotel and primeval woods for miles and miles stretching into blueness. A delightful hotel, long and low and white, with beautifully clean rooms, and wired all over like a fine meat safe against malarial mosquitoes.”
Today, the town of Victoria Falls has grown considerably. It is a hive of hotels, guesthouses, lodges and campsites. Sitting on the terrace at The Victoria Falls Hotel, it is not difficult to imagine a bygone age. You may even see some of Christie’s characters ordering high tea or strolling through the grounds, if in slightly more modern dress. People rarely change, even if the times do.