Fri 22 May 2015
SUZANNE ARRUDA – The Leopard’s Play. NAL, hardcover, January 2009; trade paperback, September 2009.
Among the more entertaining mystery series to emerge in this century, Suzanne Arruda’s books about female flyer and photojournalist American Jade del Cameron, aka Simba Jyke, meaning lioness, set in British East Africa post WWI, are an entertaining mix of adventure, action, solid detection, exotic location, and early feminism.
Like Hemingway, Jade drove an ambulance in Italy during the war, and has come home to British East Africa where she has an ongoing romance with bush pilot and former ace Sam Featherstone. As The Leopard’s Prey, the fourth entry in her adventures, opens she is working for the Perkins and Daley Zoological Company helping to collect and capture animals for zoos (don’t go all politically correct, this is taking place in the era of Frank Buck, Clyde Beatty, and great white hunters of the Hemingway vein.
The stories are historically accurate and feminist or not, Jade is a woman of her time, taking the job to keep the animals from extinction), as the jacket says: “…lassoing zebras, chasing down a rhinoceros, and posing as bait for a leopard.” She even has a pet cheetah named Biscuit, again not untrue to the era or the type.
There is a murder of course. Jade’s friends Maggie and Neville Thompson find the body of a merchant, and her lover Sam is implicated, so Jade naturally has to clear his name, which leads to cracking Sam’s plane up in the African wilderness and a long trek to safety where savage beasts are the least of her problems. All this leads to being cornered by a murderer planning to use a killer leopard as a murder weapon, and an aging lion named Percy with a mind of his own.
“My mother says you must watch for danger in a killer’s eyes.” a native warns Jade. She just misunderstands which killer the old native woman means, to her almost fatal chagrin.
Jade is not a particularly cerebral sleuth, hardly Miss Marple in a leather flying jacket and jodhpurs. She has an Indiana Jones streak, though she is never presented as a super woman or comic book heroine. Her adventures are well within the laws of probability, given that she stumbles on more than her fair share of adventure and bodies while moving from one job to the next.
Her attitudes are enlightened, but not unknown in that time frame, yet another example of Arruda’s research. She’s something of a mix of Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, and Pancho Barnes with a bit of Pearl White and Nyoka the Jungle Girl thrown into the mix along with a grown up Nancy Drew.
The series captures the Africa of the era, from the adventure and romance of Out of Africa to the high and low social whirl of White Mischief, with nods to Hemingway’s African tales and memoirs. The action is well handled, and Jade is no mean sleuth. Like Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands mysteries Arruda never lets the mystery take a back seat to the adventure aspect of the books, and like that series, the world Jade moves in is richly portrayed and researched from the attitudes and politics of that world to the details of cameras, planes, and clothes.
Arruda’s style is simple and straightforward, literate, but never complex and deceptively easy to read.
I haven’t been able to follow the series beyond this one, but the first four books remain fresh and original, with green-eyed Jade a heroine you can root for. The books have the quality of an old fashioned adventure film like Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in Too Hot to Handle, with the same crackling dialogue, wit, and action, but there is a well done mystery at the heart and a clever heroine/sleuth to pull for.
The Jade del Cameron Series —
Mark of the Lion (2006)
Stalking Ivory (2007)
The Serpent’s Daughter (2008)
The Leopard’s Prey (2008)
The Treasure of the Golden Cheetah (2009)
The Crocodile’s Last Embrace (2010)
The Devil’s Dance (2015)