Michael Innes is the author of some 50 mystery novels or books of short stories and I own 40 of these. When I chose to blog about him as my favourite mystery author, I didn’t realize that I was going to have to reread most of these books. Over the years, the plots have run together in my mind, understandably since plot is never the strong point of an Innes novel. He is incredibly erudite which can get in the way of the action. But ultimately, I like him because he makes me laugh.
Michael Innes is the pseudonym of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, born in Edinburgh in 1906, Oxford educated and author of a number of literary novels and works of criticism. As Innes he wrote 37 books in the John Appleby series, four featuring an art connoisseur named Honeybath and ten stand- alone mysteries. As Stewart he wrote literary novels and books of criticism. In 1987 he published a memoir, “Myself and Michael Innes”. He died in 1994.
The writer Julian Symons has described his writing as “an over-civilized joke which makes it a literary conversation piece with detection taking place on the side.” He also refers to the style as “rather in the manner of Peacock strained through or distorted by Aldous Huxley.” And another critic says his writing combines “Jamesian characters’ speech, the intellectual precision of a Conradian description and amazing coincidences that mark any one of Hardy’s plots.” So you can see he wouldn’t be every reader’s cup of tea.
In case you have forgotten your English studies, Thomas Love Peacock was the friend of Shelley, who wrote the comic novels “Nightmare Abbey” and “Headlong Hall.” I quote from his satirical poem, “The War-Song of Dinas Vawr”.
“We there in strife bewildring
Spilt blood enough to swim in.
We orphaned many children,
And widowed many women.”
But I digress.
The first Michael Innes novel is “Death at the President’s Lodging”, published in 1936. Inspector John Appleby comes to Oxford from London to investigate the murder of the president of St. Anthony’s College. It is a bit tedious , one of those puzzles where everything hinges on whether a telephone call was made at 11:20 or 11:23. Since most of the characters are Oxford dons, someone is always throwing in a literary quotation which Appleby always recognizes. I had forgotten that he had been up at Oxford, eight years before the events of the novel. He is obviously the right sort (though his grandfather was a baker) and fits in well. Stewart was an Oxford don himself so he would know.
“Hamlet, Revenge”, published in 1937, involves a murder during a private performance of “Hamlet” at Scamnum Court, home of the Duke and Duchess of Horton. Innes dearly loved a Lord and the gentry and the aristocracy feature prominently in his books.
“Stop Press”, published in 1939, is interesting because the main character is a writer who, oddly enough, has written 37 books about a criminal turned good guy, called The Spider. The author is getting sick of his creation and wants to kill him off but too many people depend on the industry he has created. Appleby’s sister, Patricia, is one of the main characters here but I haven’t come across her again.
With the coming of World War Two and later the Cold War, Innes wrote a number of novels involving spies, secret formulae, and prolonged chases across England, Scotland, and Ireland in the manner of John Buchan , a fellow Scot. He described one of these books, “The Journeying Boy”, as “not wholly unsuccessful” which gives you an idea of his self deprecating style. It is a favourite of mine though Appleby is not a character in it.
Another of my favourites is the very funny “Appleby’s End”, where the detective meets Judith Raven, a sculptor, on a train. She comes from a county family and all her relatives are completely dotty. She and Appleby spend a night in a haystack, get engaged within twenty-four hours, and marry two or three days later. Judith appears in many of the later Appleby novels, very much her own woman. She continues with her artistic career while producing a number of children. One of them, Bobby, is the detective in a few later mysteries but he never takes off like his father did.
The Honeybath novels give Innes a chance to show off his knowledge of art (he had a special fondness for Vermeer) but Honeybath is not as plausible a detective as Appleby. Like the creator of The Spider, Innes kept trying to get rid of his hero but no one else could take Appleby’s place.
You may have seen the Disney film, “Candleshoe”. Innes wrote the book “Christmas at Candleshoe”, on which it is very loosely based. Disney bought it as a vehicle for Jodie Foster and changed the boy hero into a girl along with practically everything else in the story. Incidentally, Christmas in the title has nothing to do with the season. He is a celebrated artist in wood, on the lines of Grinling Gibbons. (You read enough Innes and you start imitating his style.)
One of the great mysteries about John Appleby is his career in the police. When he married Judith, he was going to retire and become a farmer—a gentleman farmer of course. Innes wrote a number of stand-alone mysteries during this time. Then Appleby reappears as Assistant Commissioner of Police at Scotland Yard and he has been kinighted. Innes was somewhat bemused by this himself and described it as an unusual career path. In “Appleby Plays Chicken” we learn that Sir John did something secret during the war so perhaps that explains his promotion.
While I was doing this research on Innes I came across an amusing error. One of the files I Googled mentions that Stewart had married his landlady while a lecturer at the University of Leeds. For such an intellectual and social snob this sounded unlikely. When I read his memoir I realized that this was a misreading of the text. He actually married a fellow lodger, a medical student, who later qualified as a doctor. As I’m sure you all know, not everything you read on the Internet is true. But at least my admiration for Michael Innes is sincere.
Lynne Murphy studied journalism at Carleton University and worked as a reporter on the now defunct “Ottawa Journal” and then as an editor for CBC Radio News. (It was in the sixties and Lynne was the first woman editor they ever hired.) It was there she learned to “write tight”.
Lynne has sold articles through the years, but “The Troublemaker” in the Sisters in Crime anthology The Whole She-Bang is her first published work of fiction.
The Mesdames are proud to feature Lynne’s story “Saving Bessie’s Worms” in our 2013 crime anthology titled THIRTEEN.
In 1992 Lynne helped found the Toronto Chapter of Sisters in Crime and is proud that it continues to thrive.