Hamlet, Revenge! (Michael Innes)

By Michael Innes

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1937; US, Dodd, Mead, 1937


2000

Michael Innes wrote four masterpieces in rapid succession at the beginning of his career. This is the second, set at one of England’s Stately Homes, and featuring the memorable onstage murder of no less a person than the Lord Chancellor while acting in Hamlet. Naturally, international implications are rife, and the P.M. is worried, so a very young Appleby is sent down. Everything in the book is a sheer joy — a delight, making this genuinely intelligent novel a book to be read slowly — to be savoured. As is common with Innes, it is much more than mere mathematical ingenuity. Innes was a novelist. The cast is huge – twenty-eight principals – but the characters are distinct. The detection is first-class: in-depth, but entertaining, and never dull. The detection culminates in a brilliantly Innesian solution at the end of Part Three. That and the ensuing events are a dazzling firework display — the firework display of the electric eel.


Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (George Palmer, 3rd July 1937):

The Lord Chancellor of England is murdered, behind the scenes, during an amateur performance of Hamlet produced at Scamnum Court, the ancestral seat of the Duke of Horton.  The motive may have been revenge, or an attempt to steal a valuable document.  Such a foundation to a story might easily have degenerated into melodrama, but Mr. Michael Innes possesses a rare faculty of control and realistic treatment which he displayed in his first detective novel, Death at the President’s Lodging.

The complications of the plot in Hamlet, Revenge! and the number of suspected persons calls for more than usual attention on the part of the reader.  And it may be there are some signs of a slight lack of balance between the detailed, earlier portions of the narrative and the more hurried dénouement.  But the parallel activities of Mr. John Appleby, of Scotland Yard, and Giles Gott, the amateur, are described with such precision and clarity that excitement is maintained to the end.  They have to examine a large variety of characters, including a lunatic artist of advanced years, a politician, an Indian student (who is also murdered), a gossip writer, a Russian dancer, the twin daughters of an American lady, and the inventor of a remarkable instrument for recording the human voice.  This by no means inclusive list may give an idea of the ambitious nature of the plot.  Hamlet, Revenge! confirms the fact that became clear in his first book, that Mr. Michael Innes is in a class by himself among writers of detective fiction.

The Times (6th July 1937):

SOME FRESH BLOOD

The elation of a detective pouncing on the clue that completes his case is as nothing compared with that of the detective-story reader who comes unexpectedly on a new and first-class murder mystery.  Not the mediocre rehash of the old ingredients, not the merely competent addition to the long list of books the theme of which is homicide and detection, but a story which instantly and certainly raises its author to the envied level of the half-dozen novelists who are admittedly responsible for the classics in this branch of fiction.

On the strength of his second book Mr. Michael Innes takes his place among such without fear of repudiation.  Second books, unlike second thoughts, are not always best; inspiration sometimes flags.  Hamlet, Revenge! however, excellent though it is as a story of murder, is considerably more than that.  The author’s mise-en-scène is Scamnum Ducis, where the unconventional Duchess of Horton has planned an amateur performance of Hamlet with a large and distinguished cast.  Before the night of the play odd threatening messages are received by various members of the house-party, and during the performance Polonius, played by the Lord Chancellor himself, is shot by an unknown hand.  There is a suspicion that enemy agents have been at work, for the Chancellor carried with him a highly confidential document.  The police are called in, the detective being John Appleby, one of the new college-trained members of the force.  Before his investigations are ended there are other subjects for a coroner’s inquest.  These are the bare bones of a murder plot out of which Mr. Innes has constructed a brilliant novel of manners.  The writing is assured and lively with wit.  Add to this a flawlessly constructed murder and an admirable and quite breathlessly thrilling dénouement, and we have fresh blood in the field of crime fiction with a vengeance.  The Olympians must “move along, please”, to make room for Mr. Innes.

Observer (Torquemada, 11th July 1937):

HANDMAIDS TO MURDER

Ever since the days of Sherlock’s fiddle the muses have produced gracious local colour in detective stories; but it is only during recent years that the arts have become serious handmaids to crime; have provided, that is, not only the setting for murder, but the very soil from which it springs.  There have lately been published four mysteries deeply involving art and the artistic temperament; three of these are, in their different ways, superbly successful, and the fourth is likely to become popular for its faults.

After reading Michael Innes’s second detective story I am quite proud to be quoted on its dust-jacket in praise of his first one.  I spoke of Death at the President’s Lodging as a new detective classic; I can only call Hamlet, Revenge! a more than worthy successor even to a classic.  There is but one species of reader who will be dissatisfied with it—that species which contains the less generous of the practitioners in the same kind of writing.  Is it fair, they will be tempted to ask, that one writer should be armed so cap-a-pie, should have an excellent English, a gift of controlled yet vivid characterisation, the power of marshalling a whole army of actors, the prestidigital skill of a Christie, and the fine scholarship of—an Innes.  The author is, in fact, so genially at home with the Elizabethans, and we are consequently so much absorbed in Giles Gott’s unique production of Hamlet at Scamnum, that monumental home of England, that we almost resent the first murder when it takes place on page 90.  It is the Lord Chancellor who is shot, just a few seconds before he is due, as Polonius, to be stabbed behind the arras.  Anonymous threats have preceded this carnal, bloody and unnatural act, and another and more pitiful murder follows it.  The very pleasant Gott helps Appleby, his friend from Scotland Yard, in the consequent investigations, and also, being a secret thriller writer, his over-ingenuity considerably assists Mr. Innes in his task of leading us to the topmost confine of the garden.

Spectator (Rupert Hart-Davis, 30th July 1937):

Hamlet, Revenge! is a first-rate piece of work, intelligent, well-written, elaborate and exciting.  Rather a lot of talk, perhaps, but mostly good talk.  Highly recommended.

Douglas West (Daily Mail):

If he can keep in future to this level Mr. Innes need not fear comparison even with the acknowledged masters of the murder mystery.

E. R. Punshon (Manchester Guardian):

Mr. Innes leaves no domain of human knowledge unillumined by his comments.

John Brophy (Daily Telegraph):

A detection story of a new, astonishing, and delightful kind…  The author’s ingenuity and wit are seemingly endless…  He has packed into ‘Hamlet, Revenge!’ enough brilliance to dim the lights of Piccadilly Circus for a fortnight.