After reading Hamlet, Revenge! recently, I have been wanting to read more by Michael Innes, so I was pleased to find his next Inspector Appleby mystery, Lament for a Maker, available through NetGalley. Having read the previous book in the series I thought I knew what to expect from this one, but I was wrong – this book has a very different feel and structure and despite being published in 1938, it’s not a typical Golden Age mystery novel at all.
The title is taken from a 16th century Scottish poem by William Dunbar (the word maker, also spelled makar, means a poet or court poet). The Latin refrain Timor mortis conturbat me – fear of death disturbs me – is repeated throughout the poem and sets the tone for Innes’ novel.
This is such a complex, convoluted mystery it’s difficult to know where to begin, but the best place to start is probably with the crime itself – assuming that a crime has actually been committed, of course! Ranald Guthrie, the miserly laird of Erchany Castle has been killed falling from the ramparts of his own tower on a cold winter night, but was he pushed, was it an accident or could it have been a suicide attempt? If it was murder, then the culprit seems obvious: Neil Lindsay, the young man who wants to marry Ranald’s niece and whose family have been feuding with the Guthries for generations. There is much more to the situation than meets the eye, however, and as the story unfolds more suspects and possible scenarios begin to emerge.
The novel is written from the perspectives of five different characters who each take it in turns to narrate their part of the story. My favourite was the first, Ewan Bell, a shoemaker who lives in Kinkeig in Scotland. It is Ewan who sets the scene, introduces us to the other main characters in the novel and describes the events leading up to Guthrie’s death – all in his own distinctive voice, complete with plenty of Scots dialect!
“If an unco silence had fallen upon nature with the snow those weeks there were plenty of human tongues in Kinkeig to make good the deficiency. The less work always the more gossip, and there must have been even more claiking than usual about the meikle house.”
The second narrator is Noel Gylby, a young Englishman who appeared in Hamlet, Revenge! He is visiting Erchany Castle with his American girlfriend and immediately his narration (which takes the form of letters) has a very different feel from Ewan Bell’s:
“Diana darling: Leaves – as Queen Victoria said – from the Journal of my Life in the Highlands. Or possibly of my Death in the Lowlands. For I don’t at all know if I’m going to survive and I don’t know – I’m kind of guessing, as my girl-friend here says – where I am.”
And there are several more! Lots of authors have written books with multiple narrators but I haven’t come across many (apart from Wilkie Collins) who actually succeed in giving each narrator a unique voice of their own. This is one of the best attempts I’ve read for a while. It’s not just the style and structure which make this such an enjoyable novel, though; the mystery itself is also a good one, with twist following upon twist as the end of the book approaches.
As for Inspector Appleby himself, he doesn’t appear until two thirds of the way through the book when the mystery is already half solved and theories have been suggested. Although the novel is clearly set in the 1930s, there are times when both the story and the book itself feel as though they belong to a much earlier period (it reminded me very strongly of The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson and it seems I’m not the only one to make that connection). This makes me wonder whether Innes may really have wanted to write a historical mystery but couldn’t as he needed to make it part of the Appleby series. That would explain why Appleby makes such a late appearance, almost as an afterthought.
Anyway, I loved this one. Thanks to Ipso Books for the review copy.