“American Woman Weds Man She Shot” is an irresistible newspaper headline from 1932 about Alice de Janzé, the Chicago heiress who married second husband Raymund de Trafford after previously shooting him in a crime of passion. A member of the decadent Happy Valley crowd in Kenya, de Janzé lived a life of privilege and bad behavior. But was she capable of murder?
Paul Spicer’s The Temptress seeks to answer this question by reopening the case of Joss Hay, Lord Erroll, whose 1941 murder in Kenya has never been solved. Readers may remember Erroll as Lady Idina Sackville’s third husband from Frances Osborne’s The Bolter, the dramatic story of Sackville’s louche life in Happy Valley. While unhappy husbands, spurned mistresses and even Britain’s secret MI6 service are all potential candidates for Erroll’s murder, Spicer builds a case against the mentally unstable de Janzé, one of Erroll’s former lovers.
Spicer is uniquely situated to tell this story, as his mother had been a friend of de Janzé’s in Kenya in the 1920s. The book, however, works better as true-crime than it does as biography. Spicer’s case against de Janzé, while compelling, is hardly airtight: The narrative doesn’t tell us much about the actual relationship between de Janzé and Erroll, and Spicer relies too often on speculation. The second half of The Temptress is much more exciting than the first, as Spicer dives into the court records surrounding Erroll’s murder.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to get Alice de Janzé wrong: Any woman who travels to Paris from Kenya accompanied by a lion and a baboon offers a delectable subject for biography. Readers of The Bolter will happily snap this book up for more of the same scandalous behavior.