A Private View (Michael Innes)

By Michael Innes

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1952; US, Dodd, Mead, 1952, as One-Man Show.  Also published as Murder Is an Art, Avon 1959.

My review

Minor Innes, but thoroughly entertaining. It is a mixture of farce, thriller and detective story, set against an art background, enabling Innes to use a stolen Vermeer as the novel’s Macguffin, and to incorporate such characters as the shady art dealer Hildebert Braunkopf, the highly effeminate critic Mervyn Twist, the revolting criminal Steptoe, and the moral fanatic Lady Clancarron, as well as some of the characters from Hamlet, Revenge! (Scamnum Court is now open to the public), and the grief-struck amnesiac lover of the victim. Humour is excellent, both black (Limbert’s blood dripping through the ceiling onto Zhitkov’s statue) and bawdy (“He was busy with his privates!”); also a farcical fight in a Chelsea junk shop. The book is complex and well-plotted, with a mystery cleared up in every chapter, and another introduced to take its place.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Julian Symons, 25th April 1952):

It is now a good many years since Mr. Michael Innes made his triumphant entry into the field of detective fiction: a fact of which his publishers have just given a welcome reminder by reissuing one of his best detective novels, Hamlet, Revenge!  This, Mr. Innes’s second book, was published in 1937, and appreciation of its unstrained gaiety, occasional wit, and agreeably flippant academicism remains fresh to-day.  Yet there are dangers plainly visible in this attempt to make bloody murder the basis for a conversation-piece by Mr. Aldous Huxley out of Thomas Love Peacock.  Murder may well be successfully interpreted in terms of Kafkan fantasy, but hardly ever as sophisticated comedy or farce; and Mr. Innes himself has been the most notable victim of the feeble frivolity and thunder-footed humour of what has become known, however unjustly to its nominal master, as “the Michael Innes school of detection”.…

The work of the master is of course much better [than Katharine Farrer’s The Missing Link & Simon Oke’s The Hippopotamus Takes Wing]; but still, A Private View is not one of Mr. Innes’s more successful books, nor is the theme one that offers the happiest use for his talents.  The opening, in which a large picture is stolen almost from under Sir John Appleby’s nose at a posthumous exhibition of the work of a young artist named Gavin Limbert, is brilliantly done; but the book fades into a preposterous comedy-thriller dependent on interlocking coincidences.  Can it be believed that two sets of thieves are after the picture for wholly different reasons, one set desiring it as a genuine Vermeer, while the other…  Here certain unwritten laws covering indiscreet disclosure of important information to the reader must intervene; but it may safely be said that the weaknesses of A Private View spring from the fact that Mr. Innes himself shows little belief or interest in the plausibility of his plot.