Michael Innes was one of the liveliest and most prolific of the writers of the Golden Age of Mystery. He is a favourite author of my good friend and colleague Charlie Cochrane. As her own books are set in a Cambridge College, it is not surprising that she is especially fond of Death at the President's Lodging.I share her admiration for Innes but tend to prefer A Night of Errors or Appleby and Honeybath (my next post will be a review of Appleby and Honeybath.) Charlie and I are in good company, Edmund Crispin admired Innes so much that he chose his writing name from one of Innes' characters.
Michael Innes was the pseudonym of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart. Born in Scotland in 1906, Innes was educated at Edinburgh Academy and later at Oriel College, Oxford, where he studied English Literature. In 1929 he went to Vienna to study psychoanalysis. From 1930 to 1935 he lectured at the University of Leeds. In 1932, he married Margaret Hardwick and they were together for forty-seven years, until her death in 1979; they had three sons and two daughters. Margaret Hardwick was his landlady's daughter and the prompt arrival of their children left the family in urgent need of a better income, which was one of the reasons they decided to emigrate to Australia.
From 1936 to 1946, Stewart was Professor of English in the University of Adelaide, South Australia. It was in 1936, on board ship, on the journey out, that he wrote his first 'Michael Innes' novel, Death at the President's Lodging featuring his best known creation, John Appleby, at this time a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard. In his memoir, Myself and Michael Innes, Stewart gives three reasons for turning to detective fiction. One is that he felt he did not have the talent or experience to be a novelist and he did not write non-genre fiction until 1954 when he published Mark Lambert's Supper under his own name. The second reason he claimed for writing mystery stories was that it was 'respectable,' indeed many academics of the time had turned to writing mysteries. The third reason was that he needed the money to support his growing family.
In 1946, having written another nine Appleby novels, he returned to the United Kingdom. In Appleby's End (1945) John Appleby marries sculptress, Judith Raven, and retires, for the first time, to live in the country. However by 1947 in A Night of Errors, Appleby has returned to detection if not to the police force. From 1946 to 1948, Stewart lectured in English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The Journeying Boy (1949) has a richly drawn and comic Irish background which echoes this time in Ireland . In 1948 Stewart returned to Oxford University.
In 1973, when Stewart retired, he was a professor of Oxford university. As J.I.M. Stewart he was a notable academic and wrote full-length critical studies of Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce and Thomas Love Peacock and aspects of Shakespeare's work. His last published work was his memoir, Myself and Michael Innes. (1987)
Myself and Michael Innes is a collection of elegantly written and often amusing anecdotes about his life as an academic and observations about writing a crime novel, in which he speaks of the problems of keeping the plot on track while fully developing characters and settings. Myself and Michael Innes is remarkable for the skilful and charming way Stewart entertains while avoiding to give any of his inner life away.
The crime writer Julian Symons described Innes as a 'farceur' and, in Myself and Michael Innes, Innes acknowledges that he has attempted 'to bring a little fantasy and fun into the detective story,' his reason being that, 'Detective stories are purely recreational reading, after all, and needn't scorn the ambition to amuse as well as puzzle.'
This sums up the heart of the Innes' books. They are entertainment, humorous, witty and frequently highly improbable. His books have a literary or artistic theme running through them and this, quite often, provides the motivation behind the crime. Usually set in the academic world or in the homes of the aristocracy, it is interesting to note that Innes' depiction of the nobly born is sometimes of endearingly eccentric characters but often of arrogant, stupid and selfish noblemen who thoroughly deserve whatever unpleasant fate befalls them. Many of the mysteries centre around their possession of some literary or artistic treasure that they either do not appreciate and wish to reject, conceal, destroy or profit by. In The Ampersand Papers (1978) Lord Ampersand is irritated by requests from academics to study his family papers and Lord Ampersand's son and heir, Lord Skillet, comes up with a malicious and eccentric way of discouraging these visitors:
'What Lord Skillet had thought of seemed itself attended with an element of risk. Why not constitute that large upper chamber something that could be called a muniment room; fix over the entrance to it, in a temporary way, one of those rope-and-pulley affairs used to hoist things up into warehouses; and then deposit in it by this method all the Ampersand papers that ever were? The sort of people who devoted themselves to antiquarian pursuits and crackpot researchings would not be of a temper to remain undaunted by so arduous – indeed perilous – a path to knowledge. They'd take one look and give Treskinnick a wide berth.
Lord Ampersand was at first rather shocked by the levity of his son's proposal. But as well as being funny, there was something faintly malign about it that appealed to the arrogant side of his nature.'
One thing these noblemen have in common is a sense of entitlement, not because of their achievements but because of their birth. Even Appleby's wife, Judith, has a sense of entitlement that Appleby, who comes of middle-class stock, finds disconcerting:
'Appleby, who was fond of admitting that he was a very conventional man, stared at his wife aghast. “Ask for him? We can't barge in on a total stranger.”
“He can't be a total stranger to Uncle Julius. Uncle Julius knows all the other nobs in the county, I suppose. We could explain I was his niece.”
Appleby's alarm grew. This social outrage was already vivid in his imagination.
“It just isn't done,” he said.' (A Connoisseur's Case, 1962.)
John Appleby is Innes' chief detective creation and, at the start of his stories, he is a detective inspector at Scotland Yard. Appleby is a quiet, eminently civilised man. Despite his middle-class background he moves with ease amongst the aristocracy and academics that he has to investigate. He is well-educated and erudite and his insight into literature and art often provides the vital clue to the case. Appleby is one of the longest lived protagonists in detective fiction. His career started with Death At the President's Lodging in 1936 and continued for fifty years until his last case, Appleby and the Ospreys in 1986. One of the greatest mysteries surrounding Appleby is his extraordinary career. Appleby retired at an early age just after the Second World War, soon after meeting his wife, Judith. (Appleby's End, 1945.) He was involved in two investigations as a civilian and then reappeared a in A Private View (1952) as Sir John Appleby, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. His meteoric rise is neither chronicled nor excused by his creator. Even after his second retirement, Appleby becomes involved in a large number of cases and leads the official investigators in the right direction. Although occasionally the police in charge of the investigation are less than impressed by his intervention, in most cases they welcome assistance from a man of Appleby's reputation, especially a man who by his own knighthood and by his wife's aristocratic connections, has entry into places and secrets where an ordinary police detective has no hope of being admitted. During both his retirements, Appleby expresses his unwillingness to be involved in the case and, inevitably, he is drawn in. Soon after his first retirement, when a police friend asks him to accompany him to the home of a murdered baronet, Appleby replies: '“I've had my fill of murdered baronets – and especially at midnight, as you say. The annals of the Yard are glutted with them. It was hard at times to believe that any could be left alive in England. For you must add, you know, all those we were obliged to hang... Who is it?”' (A Night of Errors, 1947.) And there in the last three words is the sound of a man taking the bait.
Appleby is Innes' main detective but there are other cases solved by Charles Honeybath, a well-known portrait painter and a friend of Appleby, who first appears in The Mysterious Commission (1974.). In Appleby and Honeybath (1983), the two men combine to investigate. Although Honeybath first discovers the body, it is Appleby who actually solves the mystery. In some of the later Appleby mysteries, Appleby's son, Bobby, also investigates.
As well as the Appleby and Honeybath series, Innes wrote several stand alone mystery novels, but all his books were written in the same humorous, elegant style. 'In his books, he concerned himself more with style and humor than with realism, and his work was widely admired.' (The New York Times Obituary for J.I.M. Stewart.) Innes certainly placed humour above any form of realism. Coincidences abound, both in the plots and in the detection of the crime; his characters are outrageous and (apart from Appleby, Honeybath and their close family and friends) quite often unlikeable. Many of the names could easily grace a Restoration Comedy. Lord Osprey (a tedious, nervous and rambling old gentleman); Honoria Wimpole (a well-born and decisive young lady); Trumfitt (the enormous and threatening local publican); Miss Minnichip (the local spinster); Mr Broadwater (a dedicated fisherman); Bagot (the ancient-retainer butler); Rupert Quickfall (a successful barrister) can all be found in the last Appleby novel, Appleby and the Ospreys (1986), but similar gems can be found in all the Innes' novels.
However Innes' novels are not just about humour, even of the most elegant literary kind. The plots are intricate and fascinating and his understanding of psychology and motivation is excellent. As a young man he had travelled to Vienna to study Freudian psychology and this is evident throughout his work. The first pages of A Night of Errors (1947) beautifully illustrate the on-going emotional destruction of one person by another.
'”Lucy,” said Lady Dromio, “can you see the little silver bell?”
There was a lot of silver on the tea-table; nevertheless Lucy did not trouble to survey it, or to take her eyes from the single fleecy cloud sailing almost directly overhead.
“No, mama. Swindle has forgotten it.”
“How very vexatious.” Lady Dromio, who had been peering despondently into an empty hot-water jug, glanced with equal despondence over the spreading lawns by which she was surrounded... “How very vexing,” Lady Dromio repeated.
“Yes, mama. But the situation is a familiar one.”
“Familiar, child?” From under her white hair the faded blue eyes of Lady Dromio expressed a large, vague surprise.
“Swindle, I think, has a horror of the ringing bell. He avoids it. One day he will undoubtedly try to avoid the clangour of the angel's trumpet too.”
“Lucy, dear, what odd, clever things you say.” Lady Dromio's tone was placid, but there was a remorselessness in the way she flicked open and shut the lid of the hot-water jug... it brought Lucy to her feet – a tall, dark girl in her early thirties, at once lackadaisical and restless. Her movement was received by Lady Dromio as if it was something entirely unexpected.
“Well, dear, if you would like to fetch some that will be very nice.”
Lucy compressed her lips, held out her hand for the hot-water jug and departed across the lawn. Lady Dromio watched her go, turned to scrutinise her tea-table, watched again. Across the hot lawn Lucy was almost out of earshot. Lady Dromio called; she picked up and waved an empty cream-jug. Lucy turned obediently back.'
Innes always remained at his core J.I.M. Stewart, an academic and his understanding of criminal motivation is informed not only by his interest in psychology but also by his critical studies, especially concerning Shakespeare. Much of the root of wrong-doing in the Innes' mysteries comes from characters who are thoughtless, selfish, greedy and ambitious, rather than deliberately setting out to kill. The observation he made about Macbeth in his critical study Character and Motive in Shakespeare (1949), could apply to many of the 'villains' in his books: 'The evil which may rise up in a man's imagination may sweep him on to crime, particularly if... he is imaginative without the release of being creative.'