In similar way, as I was with Ngaio Marsh, I was surprised that Michael Innes (pseudonym for J. I. M. Stewart) was still publishing novels in the 1980s, more readily associating him with the Golden age era. I have already read 10 Michael Innes, a mixture of John Appleby (Innes’ most well-known fictional creation) and non-serial ones, (my favourite to date being What Happened at Hazelwood (1946)). Yet this has been my first Innes novel to feature his other serial detective, Charles Honeybath, who is a widowed artist and I got my copy from the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop in Paris.
This mystery novel concerns Lord Mullion and his family, who to fill the family coffers open their castle to tourists every Wednesday and Saturday. A hint, that like Marsh, Innes was not especially adept or confident setting novels in contemporary times, appears on the very first page, with the open day helpers being referred to as gentlewomen of the village. Therefore this novel does have a time warp quality, not specifically being set in a previous era such as the 1930s, yet still harking back to a bygone age. Honeybath, a school friend of Lord Mullion, comes to Lord Mullion’s castle in order to paint a portrait of his wife. Also staying at the castle is Lord Mullion’s children; the garden and gardener loving Patty (Patience) who is 21 years old, the politically minded Boosie (Lucy) who is 18 years old and Cyprian who is currently studying at Cambridge. There is also Lord Mullion’s Great Aunt Camilla, who is regarded as mad; ‘never married, and that’s no doubt what made her a bit difficult in middle life. But since going out of her mind she’s been no trouble in the world’. On first glance this kind of comment can be perceived as a residual negative attitude towards single women, linking back to the more Victorian attitude that women need a husband in order to remain sane. However, as the novel progresses, Camilla becomes a much more important figure and there is a lot of mystery surrounding her, especially concerning her time abroad in her youth. Camilla, often gets confused about where she is and what decade it is and she tends to live in the past, which arguably mirrors the novel as a whole, which does not feel like it is set in the 1980s. Swithin Gore is also a key part of the mysteries which occur in this novel. He is a gardener’s boy, with ambitions and hopes to go to college.
Interspersed within the narrative are direct statements to either the reader or comments which consciously declare that what the reader is reading is fiction (a style demonstrably adopted by Edmund Crispin). At times this can be quite entertaining, ‘he was, perhaps, dimly conscious that he had (like the reader) some odd ideas lurking in his head about the young man,’ however at other times it is a little laboured and unnecessary, highlighting suspicious circumstances too overtly.
Lord Mullion’s Secret (1981), is a rare detective novel, in the sense that it does not feature a murder, a trend which I associate more with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. However, what we have instead are several puzzling circumstances:
- What did happen to Camilla whilst she was abroad as a young woman?
- Why has someone replaced a Hilliard miniature with a fake?
- Who removes two of Camilla’s watercolours?
- Why is the Vicar so perturbed?
- And above all how do all these circumstances interlink?
Elements of the Gothic are briefly included into the atmosphere of the novel, with Camilla sleep walking around the castle, referenced both as a ghost and as the woman in white (also a sensational novel written by Wilkie Collins in 1859). All roads may lead to Rome, but in Lord Mullion’s Secret (1981) all mysteries lead to Camilla. Lady Mullion jokingly in the early part of the novel refers to Camilla as ‘a kind of dea ex machina’ and Honeybath replies ‘to reveal the truth of thing and generally clear matters up?’ Honeybath was not entirely correct, as whilst living Camilla does no such thing, but it is in her death where the mysteries are resolved, with Innes deploying a twist, which to a small extent is hidden in an early part of the novel. In true Innes style this novel concludes on a light-hearted and comic note.
Rating: 3/5 (Although the characters are highly entertaining at times and the dialogue funny, due to the lack of a murder in the novel, there was also a subsequent lack of tension and drama, with the mystery not being as gripping).