I first learned of Golden Age British mystery writer Michael Innes back in the 1990s, from San Francisco Chronicle columnist and Innes fan, Jon Carroll. Carroll’s enthusiasm for an Innes novel called The Journeying Boy coaxed me to open its paper door.
I got a good kick out of The Journeying Boy, a vim and vigorous chase adventure that roamed through England’s green at a colorful and witty jog before roaring into a ripping action climax involving a plane dive-bombing a boatful of nasty villains.
Some years later, I opened up another Innes mystery and now visit his books annually. He was the fecund author of over 50 mystery novels, plus short stories and numerous mainstream novels written under his real name, John Innes McIntosh (J.I.M.) Stewart.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Innes was educated at Oxford. His books are flavored with brave and rather unfashionable erudition, a genre now called the “donnish detective.” They are impish, arch and witty, sometimes to a fault. (Innes also authored biographies and academic studies of such literary thunderbolts as James Joyce and Thomas Hardy. He also seems to have known J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.)
His literary legacy carries on circuitously through Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels and the subsequent TV series, all of which are set in Oxford. His prose is stylish, unfolding in long, winding sentences clustered with winking asides. Reading him can take a little patience. But while literary allusions abound, you keep smiling, tittering, chuckling, occasionally guffawing.
Like all super-prolific authors, Innes’s output is checkered: some books are successful (Journeying Boy; A Private View, about the very public theft of a Vermeer painting; Hare Standing Up, about nuclear war); some not (The Bloody Wood, Man from the Sea).
Happily, Appleby’s Answer, (Dodd Mead, 1973) counts as one of his funnier, more entertaining novels.
We board the story on a London-bound train. Miss Priscilla Pringle, a spinsterish and moderately successful “cosy” writer, is on her way to a meeting of the Crooks’ Colloquium (based on the legendary Detection Club, of which Innes was a member). It should be a relaxing, forgettable trip, but for the strange man who shares her compartment, one who turn out to be a most unlikely fan.
Colonel Bulkington is a Colonel Blimp type, a retired soldier of questionable means and evasive manner. He treats Miss Pringle’s mysteries as though they were intended to be instruction manuals. They debate the tenuous relationship between crime fiction and crime fact. As he takes his leave, the colonel suggests the two of them collaborate on a murder mystery.
This strangers-on-a-train episode sparks a strange fever in Miss Pringle. Bulkington may be a trifle mad, but, she thinks, she may be able to turn his lunacy toward her own profit and finally write that elusive breakthrough bestseller. And so she starts her own descent into the swamp of folly.
Miss Pringle tracks the colonel down to the West Country village of Long Canings (“named after an interesting rural pursuit”; the novel steams with such clever double entendres.) She finds him living in a derelict mansion, tutoring a pair of delinquents, and waging a secret war on a wealthy neighbor.
Of course, Miss Pringle finds herself rapidly losing control of the situation as Bulkington ensnares her in his nefarious plot against the vulgarians next door. Clever as she thinks she is, Miss Pringle’s no match for the colonel.
Luckily, retired Scotland Yard man John Appleby, Innes’s constant detective hero, happens on the scene, accompanied by his Watson, his equally able and witty wife, Judith. Appleby sets things aright, snatching Miss Pringle from Bulkington’s evil clutches in a cliff-hanging—and awkwardly contrived—climax concerning a grouchy goat and a deep well.
I wouldn’t call Appleby’s Answer top drawer, but it’s a fun read much of the way. It casts a puckish eye on English country manners and mores. Innes relies more on witty dialogue and plot than descriptive prose. For example, we never get an idea what Appleby looks like—Tall? Short? Thin? Fat? David Niven or John Nettles? “Draw your own Appleby” seems to be the rule here. There’s also some painful and unlikely slapstick involving a horse and an automobile.
Appleby’s Answer shouldn’t be the first Michael Innes novel you read. (Start with The Journeying Boy.) It may be an “old” book, but the past has its way of enhancing the now. It can even put the new, the shiny, and the shallow to shame.
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield