Book Review: An African Millionaire

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Society must see that the worst of thieves were not preyed upon by others.

An African Millionaire, by Grant Allen

Continuing on my streak of Victorian detective novels, I recently finished reading Grant Allen’s An African Millionaire. Like its predecessors, An African Millionaire is a collection of stories with the same set of characters, this time revolving around Sir Charles Vandrift, the titular (South) African millionaire, and Colonel Clay, a swindler who succeeds in fooling Sir Charles again and again, despite the many precautions he takes. The stories are recounted from the perspective of Charles’s brother-in-law and secretary, Seymour Wentworth.

At first, I simply enjoyed these stories for their most obvious appeal: trying to figure out the mystery of each masterful crime. And this is done beautifully. Although it’s usually quite simple for the reader to figure out what disguise Colonel Clay has donned this time (considering there are only a few new characters for each story), how he pulls off the crime is always creative and different.

I also appreciated that he was able to disguise himself in many different nationalities, professions, and societal stations, perhaps undermining the rigid class society of Victorian England. The same goes for Madame Picardet, his main female accomplice, although she still relies mainly on her feminine wiles to woo and lower Charles’s defenses.

After completing  his goal for each story (depriving Charles of some large sum of money or other valuables), Colonel Clay invariably leaves Charles a letter. In the letter, he chastises Charles for his own arrogance and greed, and implies that Charles deserves to have crimes committed at his expense.

And strangely enough, I came from the story empathizing with Colonel Clay, despite his identity as a criminal. As the story shows, no one is entirely blameless. Charles usually loses his money to Colonel Clay due to his own greed, dishonesty, or attempts to trick someone else out of their own valuables. Even Seymour, the narrator, attempts to betray Charles for his own financial gain. Charles, who lusts after Madame Picardet in her myriad disguises despite his status as a married man, and who often insults and degrades the narrator, is especially not a sympathetic character. Towards the end, this novel had me thinking more about the fluidity of good versus bad in each character. Despite the usual levity of detective fiction (which is also present in this novel), this particular book delves into more interesting moral issues.

YES OR NO?: YES! This was a surprising favorite out of my reading list for my seminar. An African Millionaire is elegantly written, and a quick read. Although it lacks the thrills that a modern reader might expect, it is still exciting and entertaining, with some deeper issues regarding class and morality at its heart.

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