Michael Innes: A Critique

Innes - photo.jpgAdapted from my Master’s thesis, University of Sydney, 2012.

Michael Innes (pseudonym of J. I. M. Stewart) was the most famous of the ‘donnish’ detective writers, a school whose work was fantastical and abounded in literary allusions.

Innes himself described his works as “on the frontier between the detective story and the fantasy; they have a somewhat ‘literary’ flavour but their values remain those of melodrama and not of fiction proper”.

He is an acquired taste, and many readers find him too rich a dish.  I love many of his early works; they are exuberant jeux d’esprit, bursting with ideas, wildly imaginative, and full of wit.  If you like Umberto Eco, you’ll enjoy Innes.

I find his later works, however, artificial, unconvincing, and often tedious.

The problem is that for Innes, style was more important than substance.  His style was brilliant; George L. Scheper (Michael Innes, 1986) rightly praises “his wit, his erudition, his gentle good humour, donnish manner, and mandarin prose”.  Indeed, to Scheper and Erik Routley (The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story, 1972), the very fact that style is more important than plot is one of Innes’s strengths.

Scheper claims that Innes’s works are superior because they are “detective novels of manners in the comic and pastoral modes”, rather than thrillers or puzzle plot works in which mystery and detection are important.

The reader who wants a clever detective story will consider this a fallacy; what does style matter if the story is weak?

It is all the more unfortunate that Innes’s early works are a classic demonstration of how style can be used to create atmosphere and tell a story.  These novels — particularly the great opening quartet Death at the President’s Lodging (1936), Hamlet, Revenge! (1937), Lament for a Maker (1938) and Stop Press (1939), and some of the 1940s works such as the surreal Daffodil Affair (1942), and the brilliant comic extravaganza From London Far (1946) — are dazzlingly clever, densely plotted and closely written, literate, full of wit and invention.  They show what a really first-class mind can do with the detective story.

Innes - Death at the President's Lodging.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Innes, like Chesterton and Sayers before him, used the genre to address ideas.  His first novel, Death at the President’s Lodging, is, like Sayers’s Gaudy Night of the previous year, a university novel.  Sayers argued that an action must be judged in terms of its effect on other people, and that truth does not exist in a vacuum; Innes argues that truth varies for everyone, depending on how much—or how little—they know.  Thus, the elderly academics each see another faculty member of faculty behaving suspiciously on the night of the murder; they decide that that person is guilty, and trying to frame someone else.  Each academic then attempts either to provide more evidence against the culprit, or to get rid of the evidence against the supposed scapegoat (which makes each of them look suspicious in turn), until every don has been accused of the murder.  Everyone believes that he is telling the truth, when he is mistaken.  Innes discusses the blurring of the barrier between artificiality and reality; the murder as a detective story; and the reliability of evidence (“What is proof?” jesting Appleby asked).


Innes - Lament for a Maker pbk.JPGThe classic example of Innes’s ability to use style to create atmosphere is Lament for a Maker, which is narrated by five different characters, each with his own voice and speech patterns, often using Scottish dialect.  Innes brings the Scotland of miserly lairds, rat-infested castles, unpleasant retainers, scarecrows, barren snowy wastes, and religious feud to life as much through language as through description.  In a way, it recalls Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast in its denseness, its doom-laden atmosphere which achieves its greatest effects by making the horrible amusing and the amusing horrible, and the delight in the possibilities of the English or Scottish tongue.  The style of both writers is rich, often arcane.  The settings and stories are hardly realistic, but both writers have the power to make the reader believe whole-heartedly in the world, which works on its own terms.

As early as 1939, however, there is a tendency for style to be an end in itself.

Innes - Stop Press 2.jpgStop Press may well be Innes’s masterpiece.  It is a staggering tour de force which involves the escape of the Spider (a reformed criminal who has become a legendary detective) from the pages of Richard Eliot’s books into those of Michael Innes.  It has many of the features that would recur in later Innes books.  It is set in a large country house, inhabited by aristocrats, artists and academics.  There is no murder, although the plot is of labyrinthine complexity and extreme subtlety, and there is a slew of minor outrages (one of which is a gleeful parody of the hanging of the children in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure).  There are entertaining digressions on such topics as medical hypnosis, telepathy, paramnesia, metaphysics, the Venerable Bede, and gun-running.  There are hilarious literary pastiches, and amusing minor characters.

Stop Press is the supreme Innes.  It is witty and highly allusive, but it is also genuinely inventive, a splendidly original work with something new—a keen observation of character, a memorable phrase—in every chapter.  In many ways, it is the work he was born to write.

Innes - There Came Both Mist and Snow pbk.JPGAlas, he then spent most of his career rewriting the work, with ever-decreasing returns.  These became increasingly self-indulgent, making Innes’s books at times almost unbearably precious and talky.

There Came Both Mist and Snow (1940), for instance, is infamous for its family game in which the characters sit around swapping literary quotations about bells in Shakespeare, and in which SPOILER the attempted murder turns out to be a complete accident. 

Howard Haycraft’s judgement (Murder for Pleasure, 1941) that he ‘seem[ed] too well content to rest on his laurels’ seems justified.

Innes later came to believe that trying to amalgamate the detective story with the straight novel, as he had done in his earliest books, was artistic failure, and that real crime was too nasty to be made the subject of entertainment (Scheper).  “Nothing real must be allowed in.  Let your guilt and misery, for instance, be real and you crack the mould of form.”

Innes - From London Far pbk.jpgMany of these works downplay the darker, surreal elements of the early books, and emphasize the humorous elements of the situation, either by using a comic opera plot or playing the crime and investigation for laughs.  Thus, in The Weight of the Evidence (1944), the victim is found squashed beneath a meteorite, which sparks off jokes about the death of Aeschylus (killed by a tortoise dropped by an eagle who mistook his gleaming bald pate for a rock) and the Law of Falling Bodies.  The gleefully exuberant thriller From London Far features an endearing psychiatrist who believes that the furniture vans that pursue him are psychosexual hallucinations; to keep himself sane, he refuses to believe in any of the adventure that ensues when he is kidnapped.  Now there’s an idea for modern drama!

The comic elements reach their most extreme in Appleby’s End (1945), a parody of Wilkie Collins and the sensational novel strand of Victorian literature, via Gilbert and Sullivan and Stella Gibbons, which involves a family of eccentrics dominated by their long-dead literary relatives, rural passions, secret heirs and illegitimate children (by legal marriage), witchcraft and sorcery, and cows, dogs and pigs turning into marble statues.

The difference between these works and the post-WWII books is zest and energy.  Comedy in Innes’s early books comes from situations, from farcical elements, from madcap chases, and from his sheer joy in having the English language to play with, as much as in dialogue.  In the later, more sedate books, the humour comes almost entirely from highly polished wit, which is amusing but lacks the freewheeling joyous invention, the enthusiastic gusto, of the early books.

Innes’s works at this stage are highly elaborate, with fantastic elements, a far cry from the solidly constructed plots of orthodox British writers like John Rhode, or the ingenious puzzle plots of John Dickson Carr and S. S. Van Dine.

Innes - Hazelwood pbk.jpgWhat Happened at Hazelwood (1946) is a full-blooded melodrama complete with triplets, a bold, bad baronet murdered in the study, and painted portraits coming to life à la Ruddigore.  It is simultaneously a pastiche of the genre, a carefully constructed if deliberately improbable detective story with a memorably ingenious plot, and a strong story with vivid characterisation.  In short, these books have mystery and narrative.

The first decade of Innes’s writing career marks one of the high points of the detective story as a rich novel full of imagination and incident, humour and atmosphere, written for an intelligent audience.  Why did he change?

One answer may be that Innes became so enamoured of his own cleverness, was so dazzled by the ingenuity of his style and the appositeness of his literary quotations, that he fell into decadence.  He came to believe that style was paramount, and so style, not story, became the purpose of the work.

Although there are signs of self-indulgence in some of the earlier works—Appleby on Ararat (1941), an unconvincing tale of shipwrecks and Nazi spies seen through the lens of Sigmund Freud, or A Night of Errors (1948)—the rot really sets in with Christmas at Candleshoe (1953), an uninteresting tale of art thieves in a country house, narrated entirely in the present tense, and which ends on an anti-climax.

Increasingly, one sees in Innes’s work an emphasis on literary references and puns not because they are amusing in themselves, not because they add anything to the story, but because they allow Innes to show off.  Stream-of-conscious ramblings become more intrusive; everything that Appleby sees reminds him of a literary allusion which reminds him of another allusion and another and another.  Quotation-capping replaces conversation, and the plots themselves become vehicles for weak puns, evident in such works as An Awkward Lie (1971), Appleby’s Other Story (1974), and Sheiks and Adders (1982).

Innes’s style on occasion becomes insufferably precious to the point of elliptical opacity.  There had been examples of this as early as Appleby on Ararat, in which the heroine is described as “being as yet unaware of being obscurely conscious of offence”.  Now Innes writes entire books in this style, leading Barzun and Taylor (A Catalogue of Crime, 1989) to ruefully comment on his fondness for “Henry James grammatical binges”.  Grobius Shortling quotes this, from The Open House (1972), as typical late Innesian syntax: “Unauthorized nocturnal intrusion within the purlieus of this august habitation automatically produced not a ringing of bells or the like, but a deluge of light calculated to appal and repel even the most temerarious burglar.”

Innes’s belief that style is paramount is matched by a decline in the quality of his plots.  From the technical purist standpoint of R. Austin Freeman or John Rhode, Innes had seldom been a good detective writer.  His plots are seldom built around a memorable idea in the way that Carr or Agatha Christie’s stories are, but are instead, as Grobius Shortling argued, driven by half a dozen people at cross-purposes, whose various plots and schemes create not so much a tangled skein as a snarl, which may, on occasion, symbolise the reader’s mood.  That said, too much story is always better than too little.

Innes - Night of Errors pbk.jpgThe book that demonstrates Innes’s dissatisfaction with the genre is A Night of Errors, written after his induction to the Detection Club, and which satirises the Club’s condemnation of identical twins by going one better and writing a book about triplets (Scheper).  The fantastical contortuplications of the plot – multiple impersonation, wrongly identified bodies, two separate murderers, bigamy, bastardy, and a lot of coincidence – is over-subtle and hard to follow, with multiple solution following multiple solution in dizzying array.

Scheper – who subscribes to Routley’s odd belief that the detective story does not play fair and is not about the problem – sees it as an anti-detective story, “a work whose ingenuity frees the reader from the absurd notion that interest in detective fiction has to do with competitive puzzle-solving, and allows the reader to recognise that our interest is, finally, literary and lies in the pleasure of the text”—a view which Innes may have held, but which violates the principles of the detective story.

From this point forward, Innes’s works are marked by weak plotting, with the murderer either known from the start [NOTE 1] or no murder at all, and the presence of gangs and spies.

NOTE 1: One of these, The New Sonia Wayward (1960), is Innes’s one work of note after the 1940s.  The others—Money from Holme (1964), A Change of Heir (1966), The Gay Phoenix (1976), Going It Alone (1980), and Carson’s Conspiracy (1984)—are Innes at his weakest.

One can tolerate (although not be enthralled by) fraud or theft, but the murder turning out to be accident or natural causes is an almost unforgiveable cheat.

The first time Innes uses this device, in SPOILER There Came Both Mist and Snow, it is ingenious.  The method relies on the action of cold weather on a pistol, and the book is a parody of the conventional country house mystery.  Every member of the family accuses everybody else; and what seems to be the attempted second murder turns out to have been committed by Inspector Appleby himself.  When the “victim” falls dead of a heart attack in Appleby and Honeybath (1983), however, the reader heartily feels like flinging the book out the window.

When spies and gangs appear [NOTE 2], the crime turns out to have been committed by amorphous, faceless organisations; often, the murderer is not even given a name.  As Carr argued, the proper place for gangs is in the thriller, not the detective story, and when they appear, the reader loses interest.

NOTE 2: See: The Secret Vanguard (1940), Appleby on Ararat (1941), From London Far (1946), The Journeying Boy (1949), Operation Pax (1951), A Private View (1952), Christmas at Candleshoe (1953), The Man from the Sea (1955), Appleby Plays Chicken (1957), An Awkward Lie (1971), The Mysterious Commission (1975), Sheiks and Adders (1982).

The other problem is the artificiality of Innes’s books.  The early books were fantastical and surreal, but Innes was able to make the reader accept the story on its own terms.  The books of the 1950s are very much set in the Cold War period, with spies and defectors, particularly the Graham Greenesque Man from the Sea (1955), but as Innes grew older, he came to resemble Wodehouse in his determination to ignore reality; he himself admitted that his was not “a real world, controlled by actual and contemporary and social pressures, any more than is, say, the world of P.G. Wodehouse”.  Many of his late books are set in country houses, and, although there are a few passing references to the 1960s counterculture, the date never seems later than the 1920s; large aristocratic families with butlers and hundreds of servants seem decidedly out of place in the age of Thatcher and Reagan.  One cannot believe in Innes’s stories.

Innes is a disappointing writer.  One feels that he was capable of more than he delivered.  Certainly, his early books seemed to promise a great talent for the genre.  That his genius only lasted a decade or so before fading, that his aesthetic values led him to renounce detection and mystery, and that he spent four decades writing slight and trivial works, are sincere cause for regret.

5 thoughts on “Michael Innes: A Critique

  1. Thanks for the overview of Innes’ career. I was actually just starting to investigate buying some books by him, and probably would have made the mistake of buying any lot of 4+ books for a cheap price. This review corrects my course and I certainly know now to be very specific about my first encounters with the author.

    Incidentally, it was this page that had stimulated my interest:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Innes is an acquired taste! I read several as a 13 year old, starting with THERE CAME BOTH MIST & SNOW, then dropped him. Picked him up again at 16, with LAMENT FOR A MAKER, and for the next 2-3 years had him in my top ten. I love his imagination and his wit.

      You might want to check these out, too:
      Grobius Shortling: http://archive.is/VIJkt

      First 3 -4 paragraphs have great commentary about Innes: apenguinaweek.blogspot.com/2011/07/penguin-no-1299-stop-press-by-michael.html

      Liked by 1 person

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