Death at the President’s Lodging (Michael Innes)

By Michael Innes

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1936; US, Dodd, Mead, 1937, as Seven Suspects


An extraordinary work by any standards, and arguably the best début of any writer. Innes impresses immediately by being truly intellectual, but not in an oppressive or pretentious manner: post-structuralism and structuralism (although some decades before their invention) are worked in very neatly, with much discussion of the blurring of the barrier between artificiality and reality.  (Innes is, of course, the author who appealed to Borges, and whose characters in The Daffodil Affair muse on the possibilities of their being in a novel by Michael Innes). Here, we have discussions of the murder as a detective story and of the reliability of evidence (“What is proof?”). It is not, however, merely as an intellectual exercise that Lodging impresses, but as an orthodox detective story, albeit a very complex and ingenious one. Innes demonstrates great competence in the matter of maps, keys and the creation of Dodd’s “submarine,” insight in the attempts of his characters to understand their psychology and everyone else’s, and fertility in the invention and handling of such bizarre clues as bath-chairs, blood and bones. The most impressive bit comes at the end, where Innes plays really ingenious games with evidence to show how truth varies for everyone, depending on how much — or how little — they know.


Blurb (US)

If Dr. Umpleby had shot himself, decent manners would have demanded reticence and the suppression of any undue curiosity about the matter, but murder, mysterious murder at that, was felt almost at once to license open excitement and speculation.  The Dean, in particular, was perturbed.  Murder in the sanctity of an English university was bad enough, but such a vulgar, ungentlemanly murder – bones scattered about the room, that grotesque drawing over the fireplace, and poor old  Umpleby’s head wrapped in his gown.

Inspector Appleby took on the case with some misgiving.  After all it would be well nigh impossible to interest a St. Anthony’s professor in anything so mundane as murder.  It only added to his confusion when each of the seven Dons who lived near the unfortunate President’s lodging offered to explain to him exactly why one of their number must be the guilty one.  How he threaded his way through this maze of false clues and subterfuge to the eventual solution is a brilliant story, smoothly written with an ingenious twist at the finish.

SEVEN SUSPECTS, just published in England, has suddenly leapt into prominence and is being hailed as the best “first” mystery since TRENT’S LAST CASE.


Contemporary reviews

The Times (22nd September 1936):

NEW DETECTIVE STORIES

There is some disposition to deny that a book the plot of which is concerned with a crime and its investigation has a right to any very serious appreciation and consideration.  Those who are not so prejudiced will pronounce Death at the President’s Lodging worthy of a place among some of the best recent novels.  The scene is laid in an English university town.  The president of St. Antony’s College is discovered shot dead in his study late at night, and Inspector Appleby is sent down by Scotland Yard to elucidate the murderer.  It is soon evident that one of the Fellows of the college must be guilty, but so evasive and curiously behaved are the late Professor Umpleby’s colleagues that the inspector has great difficulty in solving his problem.

The narrative, except that the concluding scenes are a trifle hurried, is exceptionally well balanced and interest is maintained without the artificial assistance of distorting incidents or “plugging” the idiosyncrasies of any particular person.  The author has a complete grip of his characters.

Times Literary Supplement (George Palmer, 26th September 1936):

It is no disparagement of the old brigade to say that a newcomer who can at once take his place in their first rank is extremely welcome.  For in detective fiction, as in any other genre of literature, there comes a moment when fresh blood is needed not only for its novelty but for its tonic effect as a whole.  For some time now, with all respect to the praiseworthy attempts of the many who have tried their hands, little has appeared, except from the pens of the old masters, which has been above a mediocre level.  A warm welcome should, therefore, be given to Mr. Michael Innes’s book.

The super-critical will probably maintain that the behaviour of some of the Fellows of St. Antony’s College, whose president is discovered murdered one evening in his study, was rather singular, but the author is quite convincing in the explanations he gives of their actions in such unusual and dangerous circumstances.  The precision of his language is as distinguished as his vigour of description.  The account of Inspector Appleby’s nocturnal excursion in the college precincts the first night is one instance of his unusual powers.  It would be unfair to attempt to summarise the plot.  It must be sufficient to indicate that Death at the President’s Lodging is the most important contribution to detective literature that has appeared for some time.

Observer (Torquemada, 4th October 1936):

A NEW DETECTIVE CLASSIC

In the course of first reading Death at the President’s Lodging, I conceived myself to have found two faults in it: an unfair delay in bringing on the evidence of a certain delightful old dodderer, and the evocation of laughter for its own sake in a few tragic places, a coruscating on thin ice over too dark waters.  But after a second reading I am inclined to welcome this maiden novel as a pure classic of detective fiction, not vulnerable at any point.  Those particular pieces of evidence show themselves on further consideration, as confirmatory rather than crucial, and Mr. Innes’s humour, on better acquaintance, proves that it can conduct itself with ripe responsibility though never shown a bridle.  Three special excellencies will, I think, strike the reader of this rather uncomfortable University murder, whether he is reading for a first or a second time, it contains the soundest study yet given us of the reactions of sensitive brains to unnatural death; two of the interviews conducted by its urbane detective, with Sir Theodore Peek and with Professor Curtis, are worthy of Max Beerbohm at his incorrigible best, and the intrication of misunderstanding is as good as, and a little reminiscent of, that in Trent’s Last Case.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 10th October 1936):

Death at the President’s Lodging is proclaimed by Gollancz as “the best ‘first’ detective story that has ever come our way”.  Mr. Michael Innes, the newcomer, writes with intimate knowledge of the Senior Common Room and the detective shelves in the library, but with no other qualifications that I could discover.  The scene of Death at the President’s Lodging might well be Oxford or Cambridge, but is actually some indeterminate University in the vicinity of Bletchley.  The learned President of St. Anthony’s College is found shot in his library at 11 p.m. when all the College gates are locked.  Which of the Fellows has assassinated him?  There is a folding plan of the College at the end of the book to help you follow their nocturnal movements, but it is of minor importance compared o a time-table of their restless activity which you will have to compose for yourself.  As for their states of mind, no diagram could do justice to their donnish complexity.  Mr. Innes seems to think that the only task of a detective author is to hide his criminal from the reader at all costs, no matter what outrages to human nature that obligation may involve.  In consequence his story soon becomes sticky, and then unbelievable, unless St. Anthony’s is really the pseudonym of a lunatic asylum and the dons are the star patients.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 30th October 1936):

Dons and beaks, there is no doubt about it, make capital murderers.  Fiction, crime-fiction in particular, has accustomed us to the highly spiced dishes of malice and uncharitableness served up at High Tables, to the steamy atmosphere of sedition and privy conspiracy pervading Common Rooms.  In actual fact, all the blood feloniously spilt in our academies of learning during the last hundred years would probably go into a medium-sized ewer.  But that is unimportant.  The tradition is the thing; and detection-writers are only following in the irreproachable steps of Lord Tennyson, who—it will be remembered—spoke of “don or devil” in the same breath.

Mr. Innes, postulating a university midway between Oxford and Cambridge—at Bletchley, to be precise—kills off Dr. Umpleby, President of St. Anthony’s, and surrounds the corpse with bones.  The Fellows of this college are very strong on anthropology; so Inspector Appleby has plenty of suspects to start with.  Appleby, by the way, is a graduate of St. Anthony’s, and quite one of the most intelligent, charming and cultured detectives on the books.  He needs to be, too: for he is pitting his wits against some of the most formidable brains in England, and—as we learn in the sequel—half the Common Room have something to conceal.  Death at the President’s Lodging is the most brilliant first novel I have had the luck to read.  It is perhaps too complicated to become a classic in this genre.  But Mr. Innes commands such a battery of wit, subtlety, learning and psychological penetration that he blows almost all opposition clean out of the water.

News Chronicle:

A brilliant newcomer.

Daily Mail:

Deserves a place among those few murder stories which can be read with equal pleasure as a problem in detection and a novel about credible people…  This is a first-rate detective novel which will give the most exacting reader some very agreeable intellectual exercise.

Lettice Cooper (Yorkshire Post):

Unusually brilliant and ingenious piece of work.

  1. P. Hartley (Sketch):

Challenges comparison with ‘Gaudy Night’.

Scotsman:

One of the best detective novels.

London Mercury:

In its own line not inferior to ‘Trent’s Last Case’.

Birmingham Post:

Altogether a brilliant piece of work.