Appleby’s End by Michael Innes

I’ve read quite a few of Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby mysteries now; I think this is my sixth, and although I enjoyed it more than my last one, The Daffodil Affair, it doesn’t compare to my two favourites, Hamlet, Revenge! and Lament for a Maker. While I love the imaginativeness of his plots, some of them are a bit too bizarre and outlandish for me, and this is one of them.

The novel opens with Inspector John Appleby falling into conversation with a man sitting opposite on the train. His name is Everard Raven, an eccentric lawyer and writer of encyclopedias who is on his way home to his family’s country estate, Long Dream Manor. When Appleby discovers that he has made a mistake with the train timetable and won’t be able to reach his own destination until the following day, Everard offers to give him a room for the night at Long Dream. Meanwhile, they have been joined by the other members of the Raven family – Everard’s brothers, Luke and Robert, and two younger cousins, Judith and Mark – who are also returning home. They all disembark from the train together at a station which, to Appleby’s surprise, happens to be called Appleby’s End.

The eventful journey is not over yet, however. The horse-drawn carriage which has been sent to transport them from the station to Long Dream Manor gets stuck crossing a river and Appleby and Judith Raven find themselves separated from the rest of the party. Making their own way back to the house, they make a gruesome discovery – the head of one of the family servants half-buried in a snowdrift. When Appleby begins to investigate, he uncovers a possible connection between the servant’s death and a series of strange happenings in a nearby village. Strangest of all is the fact that these occurrences closely resemble plots from the long-forgotten works of Ranulph Raven, the late father of Everard, Luke and Robert. Can Ranulph’s novels really be starting to come true?

The story quickly becomes more and more surreal, as Appleby encounters a woman who believes she is a cow, animals turning into marble statues and rumours of witchcraft and magic. There are characters with names like Heyhoe and Rainbird and villages called Snarl, Drool, Sneak and Linger. At the heart of the novel there is an interesting and clever mystery taking place, but, for me, it gets lost beneath the sheer ridiculousness of it all. I’m sure it was intended to be a parody of rural life, and I could see some similarities with Cold Comfort Farm at times, but the humour didn’t really work for me. The only other notable thing to say about this book is that Appleby falls in love – I think. It’s not a particularly romantic romance – although he and his love interest do spend a night in a haystack together, which leads to a proposal of marriage.

Based on what I’ve read so far, all of Michael Innes’ novels do seem to be a bit quirky, but I prefer the ones that are slightly more serious. I’ll continue to read his books but I hope the next one I pick up will be a better choice for me.

Michael Innes: The Secret Vanguard and The Daffodil Affair

I don’t think you could accuse Michael Innes of being formulaic – each book of his that I’ve read has been entirely different from the last! I’ve read two recently (The Secret Vanguard and The Daffodil Affair) and thought I would write about both of them in this post.

The first one, The Secret Vanguard, was published in 1940 and is the fifth in the Inspector Appleby series. It is set just before the beginning of World War II and is much more of a spy thriller than a detective novel. Our heroine, Sheila Grant, is on her way to Scotland to visit family when she overhears a conversation between some fellow passengers on the train, one of whom is reciting a poem by Swinburne. Sheila, who happens to be familiar with the poem, knows that it has been misquoted and can’t resist saying so – but when she is captured and held prisoner after disembarking from the train, she wishes she had said nothing. It seems that the misquoted poem contained a secret message and that Sheila is now in possession of information which could make her a threat to some very dangerous enemies.

It’s not long before Inspector John Appleby gets involved and begins to link Sheila’s abduction with the recent murder of a minor poet, Philip Ploss, and the disappearance of a scientist who has been working on a secret formula which could help the war effort. There are lots of twists and turns as Appleby tries to track Sheila and the missing chemist through the Scottish Highlands and Sheila tries to escape from her kidnappers, unsure of who she can and can’t trust. Although it’s all very melodramatic and unlikely, I did find it quite a fun, fast-paced read. However, the constant chase scenes, last-minute escapes and cases of mistaken identity became a bit tedious after a while. A good entry in the series, but not a great one.

The Daffodil Affair isn’t a typical detective novel either. Published two years after The Secret Vanguard, in 1942, the war is an influence on this novel too, but I won’t say much more about that as I would be risking giving away too much of the plot.

In The Daffodil Affair, Appleby and his colleague Hudspith are investigating three separate mysteries, none of which are the sort of thing you would expect two Scotland Yard detectives to become involved in. First, there is the theft of Daffodil, an extraordinary horse who seems able to count and to read minds. Next, there’s the disappearance of Lucy Rideout, a vulnerable young girl who appears to have been lured away from home by promises of a trip to the island of Capri. Finally, and strangest of all, an entire house has vanished from a street in London – a house which is said to have been haunted.

These three strange occurrences may seem at first to be unconnected, but links soon start to emerge and an adventure begins which sends Appleby and Hudspith on a voyage to South America in the company of the sinister Mr Wine. All sorts of paranormal phenomena are incorporated into the story, including telepathy, séances, witchcraft, hauntings and possession by demons. Some of the situations in which our detectives find themselves are quite surreal and implausible, but there are darker undertones too, which is where the war influence comes in. I think Mr Wine’s schemes and actions would have been frighteningly relevant to readers in the 1940s.

Again this is an entertaining novel, but I found it too bizarre to be truly enjoyable. On the plus side, we do see a lot of Appleby, who has a much bigger role to play than he does in some of the other books in the series. Of these two novels, I preferred The Secret Vanguard, but I don’t think I would recommend either of these as a first introduction to Innes. I would start with Hamlet, Revenge! for a good literary murder mystery or Lament for a Maker if you’re in the mood for a novel in the style of Robert Louis Stevenson with multiple narrators and plenty of Scottish dialect. Those are my two favourites so far.

There Came Both Mist and Snow by Michael Innes

Having enjoyed two of Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby novels last year – Hamlet, Revenge! and Lament for a Maker – I was drawn to this one next, because I liked the title and thought it would be appropriate as we’ve had some snowy weather here recently. Actually, although the novel is set during the Christmas period and there are a few mentions of snow, it doesn’t have a particularly wintry feel and could be read at any time of year.

It begins with our narrator, Arthur Ferryman, arriving at a family gathering at Belrive Priory, the home of his cousin, Basil Roper. The priory has been in the family for generations and nobody feels a closer affinity with its ancient stone walls, formal gardens and soot-blackened ruins than Arthur does. It comes as a shock, then, when he hears that Basil is planning to sell the estate to finance an expedition. As more members of the Roper family descend, along with various cousins and friends, it becomes clear that Arthur is not the only one unhappy with Basil’s decision. When one of the party is found shot while sitting at the desk in the study, there are plenty of suspects and plenty of motives. With perfect timing, Inspector Appleby arrives at the door just as the body is discovered, having received an invitation from Basil. Can Appleby find the culprit before someone else is hurt?

There Came Both Mist and Snow is my least favourite of the three Innes novels I’ve read so far. The mystery itself was well-constructed; Appleby seems to play a bigger role than in the other two books (certainly than in Lament for a Maker, where he only appeared near the end) and I enjoyed following the course of his investigations, with Arthur Ferryman as a sort of Watson character. There are several possible theories which are put forward by various members of the party and all of them seem plausible, which means the reader is constantly being led in the wrong direction. I would never have guessed the eventual solution; the clues aren’t concealed from the reader, exactly, but it’s definitely not something that is easy to deduce for yourself.

My problem with the book was due mainly to the length of time it took to get started. In the opening chapters we are given a lot of information on the Roper family background, the history of Belrive Priory and the changes that have come to the surrounding area as the neon lights of breweries and factories begin to shine into the priory’s ancient grounds. This information wasn’t completely insignificant, but I felt that it could have been woven more gradually into the story so that we could have reached the crime itself more quickly.

I think I would also have found the book more enjoyable if the characters had not been such an unpleasant and uninteresting group of people! I did like one of them – Arthur’s cousin Lucy Chigwidden, who happens to be a crime novelist, which gives Innes a chance to poke fun at his own profession – but none of the others were what I would consider strong or memorable characters.

I was a bit disappointed by this one, especially after enjoying the others so much, but I will continue to read the Appleby mysteries. I have The Daffodil Affair and Appleby’s End to choose from next.

Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes

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.

Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes

My first experience of Michael Innes’ writing came earlier this year when I read one of his short stories in the British Library Crime Classics anthology, Miraculous Mysteries. I knew I wanted to read more of his work, so I was was delighted to have an opportunity to read Hamlet, Revenge! via NetGalley.

Published in 1937, this is the second in his series of detective novels featuring Inspector John Appleby. However, Appleby doesn’t appear until the second section of the novel – the first part is devoted to setting the scene and introducing the very large cast of characters. As with many Golden Age mysteries, the action takes place in an English country house – in this case, Scamnum Court, which has been home to the Dukes of Horton for centuries. The novel opens with friends and acquaintances of the family beginning to arrive at Scamnum to take part in an amateur production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When one of the guests is murdered during the performance, Appleby is called in to investigate.

This is a wonderfully complex mystery, even more so because Appleby doesn’t know exactly what type of crime has been committed. The murdered man was an important statesman whose death could have serious implications for the government, giving rise to fears that spies are operating at Scamnum Court. On the other hand, a series of revenge-themed messages received by the victim and several other guests indicate that this could be a crime of a more personal nature.

Mild curiosity ran round the table.

‘Yes. I had a telegram at the House just before coming down here. Just two words.’

This time Lord Auldearn spoke: ‘Two words?’

‘Hamlet, revenge!’

With a long list of potential suspects – we are told that there are more than thirty people involved in the play in some way – Appleby is kept busy trying to establish alibis and uncover motives, while avoiding the red herrings that are thrown in his way.

After a slightly overwhelming start (due to the number of characters and the detailed background information on Scamnum Court), once Appleby arrives on the scene and begins his inquiries the pace picks up and the story becomes quite gripping. It’s the sort of mystery I love: one with plenty of clues and several possible solutions – although of course only one is correct, and we have to wait until the end of the novel before everything is revealed. It’s also a very erudite and literary mystery; as well as lots of discussion and analysis of Hamlet, there are also a number of other literary allusions and references. If you know your Shakespeare you will probably get more out of the novel, but if not, don’t worry as it isn’t completely essential.

Although this is described as an Appleby novel, much of the story is actually written from the perspective of one of the other characters, Giles Gott, an academic who also writes crime novels under a pseudonym. As Michael Innes himself is a pseudonym (he also wrote using his real name of J.I.M. Stewart), I wondered whether Gott was a way for Innes to project some of his own personality into the story. There seems to be a previous friendship between the characters of Appleby and Gott, whom I have found out also appears in the first book in the series which I haven’t read yet; I don’t know whether he is in any of the others.

I really enjoyed Hamlet, Revenge! and am looking forward to reading more by Michael Innes.

This is book #1 for the R.I.P XII challenge.