Appleby’s Answer by Michael Innes

Appelby's AnswerPriscilla Pringle is the successful author of a number of ecclesiastical murder mysteries and is rather proud when she is joined in her carriage by someone reading a copy of her book, Murder In The Cathedral. But when she strikes up a conversation with Captain Bulkington (great name), after taking a peek at his belongings first, it seems that he is no ordinary traveller.

He offers her £500 to co-write a mystery novel with him, and he has very precise ideas about who should be the victim… Meanwhile, Sir John Appleby, on holiday with his wife, stumbles across the events taking place. What exactly is going on at Bulkington’s house? Is he really just preparing his two guests for a place at Oxbridge, or a more sinister purpose? Who pulling the strings? And who is to be the victim?

Michael Innes  aka J I M Stewart is another name that’s come onto my radar since my revived interest in the Golden Age and with regards to Innes, everyone recommends Hamlet, Revenge as the go-to book. But (even though I’ve got that one) I found a bunch more of Innes’ work in a bookshop the other day in Welshpool (Treehigh Sales – no online store unfortunately, but a cracking selection of new and old books with a hefty crime section) and thought I’d take a look at this one. In part because it’s short – 150 pages.

I mentioned Innes as Golden Age – he wrote 33 Appleby novels (and 4 short story collections) between 1936 and 1987 – this one dates from 1973. And there is a sign of the times as well – if you recall the dodgy bit I mentioned in my review of Last Bus To Woodstock, then there’s a similar bit here, where Appleby dismisses an event as not important. Very odd reading it today that a policeman would dismiss a potential rape but this was written nearly forty years ago.

Anyway, the book itself is… odd. Innes was a delightful writing style with a real wit stretching throughout the book and the plot is certainly different from a standard murder mystery. It’s much more of a “what exactly (if anything) is going on” and as it’s such a short book, it’s very hard to say anything about it.

I think the easiest way of summing up if you’d like the book is this. A bizarre but clichéd event (such as slipping on a banana skin) is related to Inspector Appleby by Miss Pringle. He believes her because “no author would make up something like that happening”. Ho, ho, Mr Innes. A hint of the meta- about that. It made me smile and probably decided which side of the fence to come down on.

So, yes, I enjoyed the book despite its oddness. I’m very interested to try something a little more standard from Innes, as I did like his writing style. I’m sure some people will hate this one – it’s available as an ebook, but it’s not cheap – but it’s Well Worth A Look.

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25 comments

  1. Innes was very smart, very erudite and I have never managed to become a real fan. I have most of his books from the 30s and some from the 50s and plan to try him again. It’s odd because I really should like him more. He was a huge influence on Edmund Crispin (that pseudonym and the name of his detective, Gervase Fen, are both hommages to Innes’ work), and I love his stuff!

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      • I’m a big Crispin fan, but I’ve never read Innes. Should one start from the beginning with him, or are the books standalones? Are the short stories better than the novels, or vice versa? Which books are best? Any recommendations for where to start appreciated.

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    • I do have a sense of wanting to read more to see if I like him or not. Also to see if the oddness of the plotting in this one is typical or atypical. Maybe I’ll look at Hamlet, Revenge next…

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    • It is odd when it feels like an author should tick all your boxes but doesn’t. I’ve recently come to the same conclusion with Paul Halter, who on paper (as it were) ought to be my favourite author, but I just don’t enjoy any of his books. Did you ever get round to reading The New Sonya Wayward? That might be more up your street.

      When it comes to Innes and Crispin, I have the opposite reaction to yours. I love Innes so much that I can even read his clearly rubbish books, but Crispin just leaves me cold. (Same with Douglas Adams, who doesn’t seem too far removed from this style of plotting, especially when he’s in Dirk Gently mode.)

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      • In terms of plot oddness… there aren’t any Innes books that I’d call “normal”, although the level of eccentricity can vary hugely. Hamlet, Revenge! is probably the most normal, while most of the WWII ones are so odd that I could only really recommend them to die hard fans. The earlier ones also tend to use the oddness more in service of the mystery, or at least a particular idea, whereas later ones almost feel like stream of consciousness plotting.

        When it works, it’s brilliant. The solution to the impossible crime in What Happened at Hazelwood, for example, is utterly bizarre and I think completely unique to Innes, in both the sense that no-one else has used it, and no-one else COULD use it. It only works within the narrow confines of Innesian eccentricity.

        But something like The Daffodil Affair, with its psychic horses and bizarre South American supervillain hideout, is probably too weird to be worth bothering with (although even then there’s some mystery interest – it contains the most plausible solution to a “vanishing building” impossible crime that I’ve seen).

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      • Not in fact real NEW SONYA but it’s there on the TBR looking balefully at me – as for Crispin and Adams, well, humour is such a delicate thing. I just remember finding APPLEBY’S END a real chore to get through and it put me off – and that was many, many years ago.

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      • I can certainly sympathise. Even I don’t much like Appleby’s End, so the fact the Doc quite enjoyed it is a good sign for him REALLY liking the earlier ones.

        I think New Sonya Wayward is much more likely to be up your street. Briefly: cowardly man fantasizes about killing his romance novelist wife, accidentally does kill her, then stupidly tries to cover up the death and get at her money by finishing her latest work in progess (that’s Chapter 1, so it’s not much of a spoiler).

        It’s a shame he didn’t write it earlier in his career, when I think he’d have done the idea and the clever conclusion more justice, but it’s a nice dark thriller, and a lot more focused than other late Innes. It’s non-Appleby, which helps. Appleby’s a bit of a blank slate even in the good ones, which is weird given how good Innes is at nuanced characterization.

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      • To be honest, the next Innes will depend on what’s on the shelf. I enjoyed this for what it was but I can see the oddness getting tiresome quite quickly. Anyway, the next will be Death At The President’s Lodging, Hamlet Revenge or A Night Of Errors. Definitely not convinced enough, especially in light of your wariness, to invest eight quid in an ebook… (Appleby’s Answer cost me 50p)

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      • Of course, in which case I’d strongly recommend you don’t pick A Night of Errors first. It’s strange enough that it could possibly put you off reading the other two.

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  2. Wow. This one is incredibly late Innes. So if you liked this one I think there’s a good chance you’ll love the early stuff. After the early ones, there’s a real drop off in mystery quality in favour of eccentricity (not that the early ones AREN’T weird, but they’re also meticulously plotted) and the metafiction becomes more prominent (again, the early ones have metafictional elements, but it’s done with a point rather than just a wink).

    There’s also a lot of recycling of ideas, so I think it’s worth reading the first four before reading TOO many of the later ones. It’s not as blatant as Christie, but there’s a good chance you’ll find one of his best ideas turning up in a sub-par form, which could spoil his masterpieces.

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  3. I’d put in my bid for my favorite Innes: Lament for a Maker. It’s an impossible crime mystery, the characters are memorable, the atmosphere is Gothic (the mad and miserly laird stalking through his unheated and unlighted castle chanting Dunbar’s great poem, a touch of real tragedy) told in Moonstone fashion by a succession of narrators, each peeling another layer off the mystery. Hamlet, Revenge! is very good, but Lament is, to me, in a class by itself.

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  4. From an American reader: I love both Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes…in fact there are very few Innes books that I haven’t read and/or thoroughly enjoyed. And yes, sometimes they are a bit weird, and some utterly stretch one’s credulity as well as the plot and details. Somehow, they mostly work however. And that is without considering the names of some of the places (Long Dream Manor) or characters: Hoobin, Ranulph Raven, etc. Maybe I love them because I regard the books more as a good story (the narrative can be very erudite) than as a credible mystery. I love Gervase Fen but he can be a bit of a stretch too. Freeman Wills Crofts, AEW Mason, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L Sayers, EC Bentley, R J Knox, Ngaio Marsh — there are so many fabulous writers (many either OP [very undeserved] or difficult to find) of that period. I have a huge pile of stacked up books that I’ve saved and cherish (treasure actually) and an equally large pile yet to read. Here are some more names: Patricia Wentworth, Patricia Moyes, Margaret Erskine, Michael Gilbert, Manning Coles, , I could go on forever.

    Check out some of the Golden Age Mystery websites and you’ll find a great bunch of books.

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  5. I am currently in the middle of a Michael Innes binge and in fact my Friday Forgotten book is one of Innes’ better known works (at least I think it is), OPERATION PAX. Now the truth is I haven’t yet read APPLEBY’S ANSWER but it sounds as if ‘odd’ is the operational word again. Innes is very odd and perhaps that’s what I love most about his work. He’s not for every taste and a few of his books don’t work for me, like the very well known HAMLET, REVENGE, which I barely finished. But some of his lesser known books appeal to me just fine. THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY (not an Appleby book) is another of my favorites. As is THE SECRET VANGUARD which was my first Appleby book. Good to read someone else’s take on Innes – didn’t know about him influencing Edmund Crispin, but now that I think of it, yeah – makes sense.

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  6. I find it somewhat interesting that everyone makes the connection between Innes and Crispin, and yet I don’t think I’ve seen Nicholas Blake mentioned in this company. Because to me, they seem quite similar – Blake was also a highbrow (and daddy to Daniel Day-Lewis to boot), there’s some oddness and quirky humour and everything seems very intellectual. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but at least it’s always interesting.

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    • Thanks for mentioning Nicholas Blake (Cecil Day Lewis if I remember correctly) who wrote great mysteries. There are so many really good (and sadly, out of print or forgotten) mystery writers that I was having a hard time remembering them. I have shelves of old mysteries that I treasure and Nicholas Blake is prominent in the collection.

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  7. There are some lists of best Michael Innes (J.I.M. Stewart) Appleby books and I worked from those and read what I could find. I really enjoyed most of them but Sonya was not a favorite here. I am going to look for another to read. For some reason I don’t remember titles much but do remember the horse in Daffodil – almost slapstick wasn’t it?

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  8. Just to add to your problems, Innes also wrote some fine “straight” novels under his own name of J.I.M. Stewart and some very good literary criticism too.

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    • I’m aware of both of these, although they’re not problems as I’ve no inclination at the moment to read more. One day, probably, but I seriously doubt I’ll ever choose to tackle the Complete Innes based on my experiences so far

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