26 Nov 2014
It’s been years since I’ve seen Stanley Hastings, the P.I. who does the best he can with what he has. I had read a couple of Parnell Hall’s books in the 1990s and loved them. “Suspense” and “Scam” were traditional murder mysteries enlivened by the presence of a detective who was clearly fighting above his weight and unsure of anything. The fact that he knew this, yet still doggedly pursued the truth made it easy to root for him. How can you not have hope for a man who says, “There’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand. I was born not understanding.”
So when I was offered the 19th Hastings book, Safari: A Stanley Hastings Mystery“>“Safari,” I thought it was time to get back in touch.
“Safari” is set in Zambia and Zimbabwe, far from Stanley’s native Manhattan. Stanley and his short-suffering acerbic wife, Alice, have spent an inheritance on a low-budget wildlife tour that promised close encounters with lions, leopards, hippos, giraffes and other tourists. Their trip into the bush is interrupted when a guide is found with a dented skull under a tree bearing heavy sausage fruit. It looks like an accident from a combination of sausage fruit and gravity, and the safari moves on. But Stanley suspects murder. He’s correct, of course, but not until another body or two is found, and the possibility grows that one of the tourists was responsible.
After about 20 years absence, I still find Stanley funny. He still stumbles through a case, still determined to find the truth. He’s also older, which gets him into trouble with Alice when he encounters a nubile member of the group. When she tells him, “you’re funny,” he thinks, “I wanted to die. I didn’t want to be funny. Not to a girl like that. To a girl like that, funny was a pejorative to a guy like me. Funny was what you called your old uncle Wally, the one who never married.”
I don’t recall Philip Marlowe having that problem.
The other major comic motif is Alice’s disdain for her husband’s brains. In the early books, she pops up from time to time to add a bit of pepper to the plot. As part of the party, her derision is so constant that you’d wish Stanley would go find a sausage fruit tree.
Dorothy L. Sayers described her novel “Busman’s Honeymoon” as “a love story with detective interruptions.” Change “love story” to “photographing animals eating each other,” and that’s “Safari.” Don’t worry about trying to solve the mystery; Stanley wraps it up in the last two chapters. Treat the book like a real safari, and take pleasure in the journey, not the destination.
Parnell Hall on Safari
Hall posted some videos on YouTube from his African journey that formed the basis for “Safari.”