Lament for a Maker (Michael Innes)

By Michael Innes

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1938; US, Dodd, Mead, 1938

My review

Innes - Lament for a Maker.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

One of the true classics of the detective fantasy, this, one of Innes’s masterpieces, recalls Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series in its denseness, 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 tongue. The plot is beautifully constructed, every narrative solving the previous narrative’s questions and posing new ones in a manner reminiscent of Carr’s Arabian Nights Murder, yet the final solution comes as a distinct surprise (despite certain resemblances to SPOILER Trent’s Last Case). Wonderful.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 12th June 1938):


When one has enjoyed a detective story to the full in every way, it is not easy to accord it the space equivalent to one’s admiration without accidentally conniving at the escape from her bag of some kitten, or the spilling of some small bean.  So I will content myself with saying, on the detective side, that the simple-seeming and single-seeming plot of Lament for a Maker holds about as many layers of complication as a first-class mystery story could well hold without bursting, and that Michael Innes manages this complication with the lucidity of a master.  My only criticism here would be directed towards some of the minor physical means used to assist the winding and unwinding of this snarl; I expect, for instance, never to meet learned rats of such patience, nor would I dare to hope for such bodily resource when “bushed” in Australia.  On the detective-literary side, I will only venture to record that while reading Lament for a Maker I found my mind slipping back pleasantly, and with no sense of disloyalty, to both Trent’s Last Case and the Master of Ballantrae.  As a maker, an essential story teller, Michael Innes passes without dropping a single mark.  In his last tale, you may remember, he took Hamlet as his inspiration and commentary; now he takes the most human of all the poems of the Scottish Chaucerians, Dunbar’s Lament for the Makaris, and lets it tell him a very dark modern story, the satanic Scottish tragedy of the Guthries of Erchany.  Yet by his protean method of narration, one not to be recommended to a less accomplished writer, he manages to let plenty of concordant laughter into a masterpiece of gloom.


Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 17th June 1938):

“I have always felt,” says that astute if pedantic Writer to the Signet, Mr. Wedderburn, “a curious attraction in romances of detection—a species of popular fiction which bears much the same relation to the world of actual crime as does pastoral poetry to the realities of rural economy.”  A true word.  When Mr. Wedderburn was called away from Edinburgh that Christmas to the snowbound Castle Erchany, however, he must have begun to wonder whether he was living in real life or a romance of detection.  There was the laird, Ronald Guthrie: a miser, with the habit of pickpocketing scarecrows; a poet, too, in his loopy way (hence the title of the book).  There was the sinister castle tower, from which Guthrie had fallen to his death after making a pass at someone with a battle-axe.  There was the ancient feud between the Guthries and the Lindsays, to be ended once for all by the love of young Lindsay for Guthrie’s ward, Christine.  There was the factor, Hardcastle, an unco ruffian if ever I met one.  And there was the affair of the Learned Rats, and their connexion with a distinguished radiologist from Australia.  Mr. Innes gives us in this, his best book, a situation compounded of Aeschylus and Drury Lane melodrama—and gets away with it: he tells the story through the mouths of five of his characters in turn—and gets away with that.  The tiro will be delighted by the colour, pathos and humour of his narrative, the veteran by the consummate skill with which he offers several plausible solutions of the mystery, each one developing naturally out of the last.


Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 18th June 1938):

Mr. Michael Innes’ new book Lament for a Maker is very good of its kind and is magnificently written.  But it is open to the criticism that the background is over-pretentious, the characters unduly eccentric, the complications too involved.  It has the same fault as his Death at the President’s Lodging, in which, if the memory serves, bodies were fantastically wheeled about from staircase to staircase in the dead of night.  Here the tale concerns a laird’s castle in the Scottish Lowlands and the narrative is told in turn by different characters.  This is an increasingly popular device, but there is always the risk of sacrificing unity to ingenuity.  The laird, who appears to be mad, is heard to recite the early Scottish poet Dunbar’s poem written when he was harried by the fear of death, and this supplies the book’s title, maker meaning poet.  Needless to say, the laird is in due course found with his neck broken in his castle.  Since his household includes a couple of morons, and as unwanted suitor belonging to a rival family and the heir to the estate are found on the scene of the crime, suspicion as to the murderer is widespread.  But the complications are so numerous and the background so complex that it is doubtful whether the ordinary reader can be expected to unravel the problem.  Indeed, there is no really adequate clue pointing to the murderer, and it is not surprising that the case defeated a Scotland Yard detective who is dragged into it at a late stage and with small plausibility.


The Times (5th July 1938):

In Lament for a Maker another author falls back on ingredients out of stock—the lonely Scottish mansion, the eccentric laird with beautiful niece and a few (mostly half-witted) retainers.  To Castle Erchany a snowstorm brings benighted travellers, an American girl and a young Englishman.  Later, after the laird has fallen from the tower, come the police.  Mr. Innes, as we know already, is an excellent writer.  There is more than a touch of Stevensonian horror in the macabre atmosphere of the castle and its owner.  Whoever is telling his version of the events that led up to Guthrie’s death, the village cobbler, the Edinburgh solicitor, or the unwilling guest from London, we are content to enjoy the story and forget the occasional creaking of the plot.