Hard not to love an archetypal English countryside mystery first published 1962, that has a homage to Tom Lehrer in it.
‘A piano, you idiot?….I’m not expecting a piano. What should I want a piano for? To play myself to sleep with Mozart and that crowd?’ Channing-Kennedy gave a short, sharp bellow of laughter on this, so that one had to suppose he considered it a considerable witticism.
It is undeniable that the story line is thin – a fan tells me that is often the case – but it isn’t why you read an Innes. You read it to share his lighthearted love of language, the fun he has with it, the droll wit. It’s so jolly English, what.
I complained in my review of Donleavy recently that he is frequently described as having a staccato style, which I think is predicated on a misunderstanding of how he writes, perhaps because Donleavy himself played the master of the manor. But here Innes captures exactly that staccato upper class English way, that inability to construct sentences. Having read these books back to back it really struck me, the contrast between this, and the dreamy melodic nature of Donleavy’s prose.
‘I’ve no idea, my dear. I’ve never heard him mentioned for years. Went off the rails, they say. But I don’t know how badly. Sad thing, when a decent family produces a rotter. Came across it once or twice in the Regiment. Honoured name, you know. And then suddenly you have a boy forging a cheque or cheating at cards. Embarrassing.’ For a moment Colonel Raven looked extremely serious. Then he brightened. ‘But I see that Tarbox has let us have the Stilton,’ he said. ‘Dig into it John. It’s really not bad – not as Stilton goes nowadays.’
The words make pictures in your mind, it’s hard to believe that Appleby’s stories haven’t been filmed. And I wonder if Sir Humphrey Appleby, the star of Yes Minister, is deliberated named as a tribute to Michael Innes for word games in the English language.
Wiki’s done a good job of summarising the nature of these books:
Between 1936 and 1986, Stewart, writing under the pseudonym of Michael Innes, published nearly fifty crime novels and short story collections, which he later described as “entertainments”. These abound in literary allusions and in what critics have variously described as “mischievous wit”, “exuberant fancy” and a “tongue-in-cheek propensity” for intriguing turns of phrase. Julian Symons identified Innes as one of the “farceurs”—crime writers for whom the detective story was “an over-civilized joke with a frivolity which makes it a literary conversation piece with detection taking place on the side”—and described Innes’s writing as being “rather in the manner of Peacock strained through or distorted by Aldous Huxley“. His mysteries have also been described as combining “the elliptical introspection … [of] a Jamesian character’s speech, the intellectual precision of a Conradian description, and the amazing coincidences that mark any one of Hardy’s plots”.
For: when you want to be entertained with a deft touch that keeps a smile on your face
For: appreciation of the English language
For: the butler