Death in the Dark Continent
Peter Hathaway Capstick (St. Martin’s Press, 1983, 238 pages.)
Reviewed by Ken Bailey
There’s probably no modern author of African hunting adventures that has captured audience appeal like Peter Capstick has. After a short career as a Wall Street stockbroker, Capstick headed to Latin America, where he traveled widely while hunting and fishing. A few years later he returned to New York, where he founded a business as a hunting booking agent. Shortly thereafter, he took a position as Hunting and Fishing Director at a subsidiary of Winchester and in that capacity, in 1968, he made his first trip to Africa. Subsequently, he worked as a professional hunter and game ranger in Zambia, Botswana and Rhodesia, today’s Zimbabwe.
Capstick started writing about his adventures in the late 1960s, publishing numerous articles in various sporting magazines. In 1977 he published his first book, Death in the Long Grass. It was a big success and cemented his reputation as an author of true adventure stories. Though some have questioned Capstick’s use of “literary license” in embellishing his writing, there’s no denying that he’s a captivating storyteller.
Death in the Dark Continent has a more narrow focus than Death in the Long Grass, which, using real-life examples, described perilous encounters with a range of dangerous African wildlife, from elephant and lion through to snakes, hyenas and more. In Dark Continent, Capstick’s attention is restricted to the Big Five; in fact, the book has only six chapters, an introduction and a chapter dedicated to each of buffalo, lion, leopard, rhino and elephant. As the title infers, while he does impart a little life history information and some hunting wisdom, the nucleus of each chapter is Capstick relating a series of tales in which hunting encounters result in the death, serious injury or a hair’s breadth away from death of the hunter. In some instances the stories detail his own experiences, while many are tales he has read about or heard from other hunting professionals.
I suspect that when Capstick wrote Death in the Long Grass he wasn’t thinking about “saving” some harrowing tales for subsequent books; he used his best material. As such, I would suggest that many of the stories in Death in the Dark Continent don’t quite reach the high standards of his first book. Still, it’s Capstick ability to tell a story, as much as the story itself, that has set him apart as an author of African adventure. His entertaining use of similes and metaphors is beyond compare, and few can match his uncanny ability to select just the right adjectives to best appeal to his audience.
Consider the opening sentence in the chapter on elephants – “Moths the size of woodcock mobbed the pressure lamp at the end of the dining hut table while a terminal moon suicided over the Luangwa River in an ecstasy of orange agony.”
By his own admission, Capstick is often guilty of purple prose, excessively ornate text, but you can’t deny that his colourful descriptions offer the reader a clear and revealing picture of the scene.
The chapter on buffalo opens with, “FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, KILL ME!”
I dare you to read that and not feel both compelled and eager to read what comes next. That’s the beauty of Capstick as an author—his lavish descriptions and riveting text immediately draw the reader in as few others have. Is it all factual? Who knows? And frankly, I don’t care.
I read Death in the Dark Continent over the course of a few evenings one week. As with all of Capstick’s writing, it’s easy to read, captivating in its content, and offers hunting adventure escapism at its best. It’s fun and entertaining, and often that’s all I want or need in my African literature.