First published: UK, Gollancz, 1976; US, Dodd, Mead, 1977
A small yacht adrift in mid-Pacific, its main-mast snapped, its navigator dead—that’s the highly intriguing (and most uncharacteristic) opening of Michael Innes’s latest story. The dead man is Charles Povey, a maverick tycoon. And there’s a survivor on board: his brother Arthur, who, when at last he is picked up, semi-delirious, is assumed for several convincing reasons to be Charles himself.
As Charles was the wealthy brother, Arthur is very ready to accept the error in identification. He proceeds to enjoy the fleshpots. But of course he also has to have a shot at running Charles’s confused financial empire. And, not surprisingly, there are one or two people who see through the impersonation, and make their blackmailing demands. Arthur is driven to marriage, crime, attempted murder and desperation.
Unhappily for Arthur, he buys a country estate which makes him a neighbour of that greatest of detectives, Sir John Appleby, sometime head of Scotland Yard. Appleby is in retirement now, but he cannot resist a mystery almost on his own doorstep, and he is soon investigating.
Michael Innes, of course, writes with all his urbane wit and seemingly casual brilliance. To mix a couple of metaphors, he is off the beaten track but right on target.
When one reads in the first chapter descriptions of “the dark curled abundant hair below” and of “Charles’s sex,” one would be forgiven for thinking that the “gay” in the title meant that Innes had taken up a new line of fiction. Fortunately, it reverts to straight detective fiction, even though not very good detective fiction. While the book begins promisingly, leading the reader to expect an inverted of the quality of The New Sonia Wayward, the energy and invention soon flag, causing the book to run out of steam and end rather flatly. The villain does nothing but passively respond to the actions of others, and we never see anything of his life under blackmail, except through hearsay. In short, a rather missed opportunity.
Times Literary Supplement (3rd December 1976):
The Gay Phoenix is the fortieth crime novel published under the name of Michael Innes, some of whose work ranks among the best ever written in this genre. His new novel is reminiscent of the earlier ones in many ways; Mr. Innes’s stylised, donnish prose has discussed before such themes as seemingly identical brothers who change places with one another, boats adrift in the South Pacific, paintings by Caravaggio and so on. There is more, or franker, physical and sexual detail than before, but Mr. Innes’s rustics still use archaic vocabulary and his upper classes still converse in literally unspeakable dialogue.