First published: UK, Gollancz, 1940; US, Dodd, Mead, 1941
Innes’s first thriller: a homage to Buchan’s Thirty-nine Steps, and just as dull. Although it opens well, with the murder of a particularly harmless and wholesome poet, Appleby and detection are soon replaced with the story of Sheila Grant, a heroine on the run in Scotland. Appleby does very little until very late in the book, when an outrageous transvestite battle takes place. Poetry is used by spies to convey secret information before witnesses — an idea Innes seems to think is novel, but has been used before, and is not up to the standards of either Sayers or Bailey — or, indeed, of Buchan.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 6th October 1940):
I confess to being allergic to Mr. Innes and find his donnish obliquities almost as irritating in The Secret Vanguard, which is really a thriller, as I do in his detective stories. His fans, however, should be in raptures, for he provides a Buchanish spy-chase over Scotch mountains, all conducted in his superior High-Table style, the style that makes the sub-rector twitter like a grasshopper. Appleby gets on the trail through the murder of a Georgian poet who had stumbled on vital clues in an exceedingly funny scholastic library. Meanwhile, Scotch heroine, Sheila—very Scotch, fay even—gets kidnapped into the thick of it. In the centre of this whirling nebula is plot to nab genius British physicist on walking tour. Very exciting, full of most painstakingly described violent action, which is a new departure for Mr. Innes.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 19th October 1940):
I have left Mr. Michael Innes’s thriller to the last, as it is not in any sense detection. But for sheer excitement and picturesque melodrama The Secret Vanguard will delight everyone with a taste for such things. Mr. Innes’s talent for pastiche serves him faithfully, even gloriously, in this most hackneyed branch of fiction. Every step of The Thirty-Nine Steps he treads again with the punctiliousness of a don and the fidelity of a Scotsman. And if one Scotsman, John Buchan, could set himself to compose the super-thriller of the last war by mixing the right ingredients in the proper quantities, so can Michael Innes for this war. Only it is perhaps a pity to use exactly the same ingredients.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 19th October 1940):
In the fashionable game of making art and literature serve the ends of crooks and sleuths, Mr. Innes ranks as a master. Novelists who use apt quotation as mere ornament are outmoded. The idea now is to test the reader’s culture more and more in the manner of the cross-word inquisitor. In order to race a detective-novelist to his solution you have to know the poem or painting mentioned, and these are likely to grow more and more obscure. The task may sound forbidding, but stories of this type have become better entertainment than the others. By the new means Mr. Innes is able to begin with a murder that does look simply baffling. One cannot guess why Ploss, the minor poet, should have been neatly shot in the middle of the night on his gazebo, and it does not help to be given the clue that it had something to do with a poem. Even Appleby, Scotland Yard’s most erudite detective, needs the help not only of scholarly friends but of his kind author before he makes any headway, and then another crime, an abduction, has to have something to do with a poem before he can discover what kind of criminals he is tracing. At this point “The Secret Vanguard” transforms itself from a detective story into a thriller. Yet in the midst of death-or-glory adventures art is still all-important.