`Are you married or do you live in Kenya'

The aficionadoes of scandalous gossip about British colonial high society still like to recall a classic case of murder in Happy…

The aficionadoes of scandalous gossip about British colonial high society still like to recall a classic case of murder in Happy Valley. That was the enclave in the White Highlands of Kenya, Juanita Carberry recalls, where the sexual escapades of British aristocrats in exile inspired the question "Are you married or do you live in Kenya?"

Even the married who lived there in the Imperial twilight behaved as if they weren't. The most notorious philanderer of all was one Josslyn Victor Hay, Earl of Erroll, a Scotsman who was noted for orgiastic house parties with a lot of drink and drugs and the seduction of his friends' wives. All white residents of Kenya before the country's independence had guns, so it is surprising that it was not until 1941, eighteen years after his arrival, that somebody killed Lord Erroll with a bullet in the head.

The Nairobi police and most of the Happy Valley set suspected that the murderer was Sir Delves Broughton, whose new bride and Erroll had been having a conspicuous affair. The author's family had sometimes provided their home as the lovers' rendezvous. The Carberrys had probably been the last to see Broughton on the night of the murder. When the case came to trial, Juanita and her stepmother, June Carberry, were called as witnesses for the defence. June did such a good job, swearing that Broughton had been too drunk to commit a murder and walk two miles home afterwards, that Juanita's testimony was not required. Broughton was acquitted.

The 10 pages about the Erroll murder are by far the most sensational part of the book, representing the worst of Juanita's generally ghastly childhood. And the most sensational part of the most sensational chapter is her claim that two days after the murder she and Broughton were alone and the following conversation ensued:


" `I don't want you to be afraid (Broughton said) but the police are following me.' `Whatever for?' `They think I killed Joss.' `Oh, how ridiculous.' There was a pause. `Well, actually, I did.' "

The 74-year-old memoirist relates that when she was 15 she asked the murderer how he had managed it and he gave her all the details - "the biggest secret anyone had ever confided to me," she writes. " `I'll never tell anyone - even if they torture me,' " she promised. Never, except the readers of this book.

"People may find it hard to believe that a man in his 60s would confess to a child he hardly knew that he had killed his wife's lover. We were, after all, living in an era when a conviction for murder meant the rope." Yes, actually, this is a little hard to believe. But soon after his confession, Broughton's wife left him and he committed suicide. Dead men tell no tales and challenge no autobiographies.

The rest of the book is mostly about the chaotic upbringing of a visually disadvantaged, dyslexic only child. Her father, the tenth Baron Carbery, left Freke Castle, his family's 200-year-old estate near Clonakilty in Co Cork, relinquished his title, added a second "r" to his name, and settled on a coffee plantation in Kenya.

Juanita describes him as a cowardly bully with a loud, angry voice who never showed her any affection. An avid, amateur aviator, he encouraged his wife, Juanita's mother, to pilot light planes, until she crashed to her death when Juanita was only three.

During the high jinks at Happy Valley, Juanita tried to make the best of a lonely life, described here with entertaining picturesqueness. Unlike her father, she learned to speak Swahili fluently and Kyuku well enough to make friends with the African servants whom most of the white adults treated as subhuman. She had exotic pets and recommends termites eaten raw. As soon as she could, at the age of 13 1/2, she ceased to be a virgin.

She writes that her father enjoyed watching her governess beating her until she screamed. Answering a questionnaire for her autograph album, he declared that his favourite book was Mein Kampf. She was quite relieved when she was told that her father wasn't her real father after all. She was probably the result of her mother's alleged affair with Carberry's business partner. The only certainty is that Juanita Carberry was a true child of Happy Valley.

Patrick Skene Catling is a journalist and critic