‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,’ as Albert Einstein famously stated and today’s read is partially an instance of this. I am not a big Michael Innes fan. I would go so far as saying I am not even a small Michael Innes fan. But I was given this book by family, pleased they had found a vintage mystery whilst on holiday that I had not read (which in fairness is no mean feat these days). So I decided to give it a try. After all I recently had two reasonably good reads from Allingham, an author I am also lukewarm about.
The premise for this book by Innes seemed intriguing and not too barmy. A biochemist named Professor Pluckrose is murdered at Nestfield University, having met his end one morning after sitting in a deck chair beneath a tower, only for a meteorite to land on top of him. Yet this meteorite is not fresh from space and has been propelled by a human force. Inspector Appleby is there from the get go investigating with a local policeman called Inspector Hobhouse and they soon uncovers mild and intense animosities towards Pluckrose from staff on campus. Appleby also has the unenviable job of interviewing these staff members, who are not the most cooperative bunch, omitting important information and talking in cryptic allusions being only minor offences.
On this general synopsis the mystery does not sound all that bad and with it being set within a university campus, Innes is on home turf and is able to add a great deal of verisimilitude to the setting. It ought to be a good novel. But it really really isn’t…
Firstly there is the issue of the pacing. It’s even more atrocious in that it is reflected in the structure of the story itself. Appleby meanders and potters about for 80% of the book before any useful information for solving the crime occurs, mostly found by Hobhouse. Equally it takes until very near the end of the book to realise it is a story set pre WW2. This is all a shame really as the plot line is relatively sane for Innes and he does give us an unusual manner of death. Yet it is a plot which is wasted as the story never properly comes to life. In the hands of someone like Sayers or Carr this story could have been something. Appleby’s lines of investigation are fairly random and he doesn’t even examine some parts of the crime scene until day 3 of the investigation. Alibi checks don’t really come in to it until 40 pages from the end of the story and Appleby’s deductions on the case do feel like they are plucked out of thin air. When the solution is finally reached it has lost impact by the boring run up and then in itself it is not that interesting a solution.
The second main problem is his writing style. It is frequently indecipherable when it comes to character dialogue. His attempts to capture academic wit fall flat as a consequence. Innes’ style is invariably long winded, his long descriptive sentences making me lose the will to live and generally make me lose concentration. Yet ironically despite all this description of place and character, there is very little sense of character personality. I don’t feel I ever get to know anyone in the book. His literary allusions are overdone. You begin to feel sympathetic towards poor Inspector Hobhouse and end up quite agreeing with him when he says to Appleby that ‘I sometimes think you’re bit off it.’ Additionally this might be a good or a bad thing but Innes equally also has a bizarre turn of phrase when it comes to describing animals. Some I grant you don’t seem too bad such as ‘narcoleptic doves’ and ‘guerrilla cats.’ But I think most readers will be scratching their heads as to why Innes felt the need to include this particular bovine detail: ‘But those cows, faintly steamy still beyond a hedge, were a picture of Arcadian innocence.’ Faintly steamy??
So on that final disturbing note I’ll leave you… Unsurprisingly this is not one I suggest everyone rush out and buy on Amazon Prime or something.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Book (on the back cover)