- By Michael Innes
- First published: UK: Gollancz, 1939; US: Dodd Mead, 1939, as The Spider Strikes
Michael Innes was the finest stylist in the genre since G.K. Chesterton; he is its Mervyn Peake in his Baroque imagination, the lightness of his fancy, and the density and precision of his language. Most detective fiction prose is functional, or (more charitably) transparent; one savours, one lingers over Innes.
Stop Press, Innes’s fourth novel, is a jeu d’esprit in the line of Thomas Love Peacock or early Aldous Huxley. It is a straight novel of a fantastical, literary kind (perhaps a semi-criminous cousin to Nightmare Abbey or Crome Yellow) – its resemblance heightened by the Penguin edition, which lends it the respectability and the cachet of the Great Tradition. (Take it or Leavite, one might say.)
But there is (let us warn the reader) no murder, and the problem is abstract: a fictional character has apparently come to life to persecute his creator. Instead of violent death, Innes provides witty characterization, literary allusion, and metaphysical badinage. Its closest antecedent is perhaps Sayers’s Gaudy Night, a murderless comedy of manners; there, however, the anonymous letters give form and definition. Innes amuses himself, creating denizens, painting scenes, and showing his characters at talk and tea.
“The Spider”, a criminal turned Robin Hood turned detective, à la Saint, seemingly escapes from Richard Eliot’s pages; he burgles neighbours, investigates his own crimes, leaves sinister messages, throws bombs, and behaves swinishly, while Eliot’s manuscripts rewrite themselves. Then too there are academics competing for a codex, and arms dealers masquerading as the Friends of the Venerable Bede. There is a young diplomat as circumlocuitously circumspect, as magnificently, wordily bland, as Sir Humphrey (no relation) Appleby; eccentric old ladies born the year Wordsworth died, living in a permanent Victorian twilight; and writers of grimly Hardyan rural novels. And it all hinges on the anatomy of the camel.
The plot is extremely subtle, the reasoning very fine, even abstract (tendentious, the disaffected might say). But the pleasure of Stop Press is less in the detection than in the wit.
“From the point of view of literary texture, of the capacity of the text to sustain repeated rereading with enhancement rather than diminishment of aesthetic pleasure,” George L. Scheper (Michael Innes, 1986) writes, “Stop Press is virtually without parallel in detective fiction. It is a novel proportionally far less dependent than most mysteries on sheer plot – on ingenious crime and ingenious solution – than on the richness and subtlety of the prose and wit of the dialogue for its effects.”
There is the famous description of the dogs, “latrant, mugient, reboatory”. There is a clever structural homage to Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock, each section of the book beginning with a glorious description of the sun. (See Scheper.) There are metaphysical discussions on writing and the power of words to create, with reference to Swift; on whether vital literary characters like Iago or Mr. Micawber are more real than everyday types we see rarely; and on whether the real world and the world of dreams can collide and cross. There are excursions into morbid psychology: Winter’s explanation of paramnesia casually explains Wordsworth’s natural mysticism, the Platonic theory of reminiscence, and the doctrines of reincarnation. (Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, too, one might surmise.)
There is also the Shoon Collection, one of the finest of all libraries in detective fiction – here is the whole of Shakespeare; here are Milton, Cowper, Byron, and Shelley (bought with profits from supplying African labour to central Arabia), Coleridge and Wordsworth – while a guest walks off with Keats’s Poems of 1817 and a first edition of the Rubá’iyàt of Omar Khayyám. (A library of lost works – perhaps in a museum of the lost – would make a splendid setting for a detective story. On the shelves are Homer’s Margites; Suetonius’s Lives of Famous Whores, Physical Defects of Mankind, and Greek Terms of Abuse; and the plays of Agathon, while allghoi khorkhoi slither through the corridors and the emela-ntouka frolics in the swimming pool.)
Stop Press was lauded on both sides of the Atlantic. The Times Literary Supplement declared it “unquestionably the best detective story published for many months”; in America, Saturday Review named it one of the seven best detective stories of 1939. More recently, Julian Symons judged it perhaps Innes’s masterpiece, while Scheper considers it the best country-house mystery ever written.
But Stop Press may be an acquired taste; some readers might very well hate it (particularly those who read little but detective fiction, and who read only for plot). Even the late Wyatt James (“Grobius Shortling”), an Innes enthusiast and a man at home with 18th century literature, detested it. The TLS acknowledged: “It may not be everybody’s cup of taste, for it is leisurely and highbrow.” Barzun and Taylor considered it “immensely entertaining in small doses, but only if one relishes the [Henry] Jamesian prose and the literary or historical parodies and allusions.”
Those who enjoy Stop Press will, however, enjoy it immensely; as high-spirited highbrow comedy, it is not entirely unsuccessful. For my part, I would rather read this than a dozen standard detective stories.
William Lyon Phelps crowns Michael Innes “The King of Mystery Writers”
Richard Eliot’s mystery stories always enjoyed a very substantial success. His plots were invariably sound and the Spider, his principal character, pursued his adventures with an engaging nonchalance. The author’s thirty-eighth thriller was well under way when the Spider suddenly came embarrassingly to life and performed a series of increasingly sinister exploits in Mr. Eliot’s own house, exploits which the author had thought of making his character undertake in previous books and then had abandoned.
Michael Innes, who has written so brilliantly in SEVEN SUSPECTS, HAMLET REVENGE! and LAMENT FOR A MAKER, gives us a masterpiece of witty deduction. Conceived with intelligence and a fine sense of the satiric, this new mystery novel has brisk narrative pace and a mounting atmosphere of suspense.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 4th November 1939):
Mr. Michael Innes’s Stop Press is unquestionably the best detective story published for many months. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, for it is leisurely and highbrow. Moreover some readers may object to nearly 500 pages without even a—but that is unfairly to disclose the plot. Yet for careful, dignified and at the same time unfailingly witty writing it would be hard to beat and the characterisation—with possibly one exception—is admirable.
The exception is Mr. Eliot, the writer of thrillers whose fictitious creation “the Spider” suddenly comes to life and starts playing practical jokes on him. There is always a certain risk of tediousness in detective story writers electing to make their central figures detective story writers and in this case Mr. Eliot is not a sufficiently lively character to disarm the critical. But this is more than compensated for by the other characters, notably two excellent denizens of an Oxford Senior Common Room. One of them is the tutor of Mr. Eliot’s son and at his invitation goes to a house party to try to resolve in an amateur way the mystery of the living Spider. He soon retreats, however, before the presence of a professional, a detective from Scotland Yard who also comes to the party to give the benefit of his sagacious advice in the course of a busman’s holiday.
The novel requires close reading and it may be that the detective resolves his complicated problem by an undue proportion of highly ingenious guesswork. But the problem is not all. The host of entertaining characters, ranging from the dons to an arms manufacturer who carries out his “nefarious” activities through a body known as the Friends of the Venerable Bede are worth the reading alone.
The Times (2nd January 1940):
OXFORD COMMON ROOM
Mr. Michael Innes has produced a book remarkable at least for one thing—it has no murder in it, if we except the death of a pig. Stop Press is an erudite and curious novel, not perhaps for all tastes, but certainly not to be missed by connoisseurs. Richard Eliot, middle-aged author of best-selling crime novels, is the victim of a series of macabre practical jokes which suggest that his central character, “The Spider”, has actually come to life. The story moves between an Oxford College Common Room (drawn with a delightful irony) and Rust Hall, the Eliot home, until, among the sham-Gothic splendours of Shoon Abbey, residence of an armament king, Inspector Appleby unmasks the joker. In the words of Mr. Eliot’s favourite and much quoted author, the book may be summed up as: —
“A mighty maze! but not without a plan.”
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): The idea of this long book is that the fictional “Spider” of Richard Eliot’s criminous and other tales comes to life to plague the Eliot family—a collection of eccentrics full of malice and greed. The plot is enormously complex. The conversations are amusing but long-drawn-out (457 pages), and the work of Appleby and his sister, who come in late, is rather nebulous. To sum up: immensely entertaining in small doses, but only if one relishes the Jamesian prose and the literary or historical parodies and allusions.