I first read about Michael Innes at Elaine’s blog over on Random Jottings. (This is now true of so many good books I’ve read that I feel I should have a special symbol, like ^ or #, to indicate that Elaine turned me on to an author.) Since I’m a fan of Golden Age detective fiction, I was surprised out of my socks to find that Innes had started writing in the 1930s and had written 30 crime novels over 50 years. How have I not heard of him? With that many novels in front of me (and nearly as many under his real name, J.I.M. Stewart), I thought I’d better start with his first mystery starring Detective Inspector Appleby, Seven Suspects (aka Death at the President’s Lodging.)
This book, especially for a first mystery, was completely enjoyable. It takes place in an academic setting (something I almost always like), and it’s essentially a locked-room mystery: the President of St. Anthony’s College has been killed, and owing to a peculiarity of the college grounds, only the fellows of the college can be considered as suspects, because only they had keys to the area. Of course, as it turns out, only these men had motive, and it’s up to Appleby, whom I found entirely winning, to have the patience and the wit to untangle their secrets.
Innes’s writing was excellent. In this mystery, he’s erudite almost to a fault — you could call it a little bit donnish — and I sometimes find locked-room mysteries to be a trifle dry. But in fact, Innes himself was a don, who taught at Oxford, Leeds, and the University of Adelaide, among other places, so you have to forgive him that. There’s also a strong sense of whimsy (not Wimsey, though) and humor that pervades the novel. For instance, there are three undergraduates, readers of detective novels, who take it upon themselves to solve the crime. After several farcical episodes, they deliver the person they believe to be the murderer to Appleby in a wicker basket! This kind of thing, along with Appleby’s personality, really leavens the slightly too-clever-for-its-own-good plot. This wasn’t Sayers, by a long chalk, but it had a lot to offer. I have a strong feeling that further reading with Innes will be well worth the trouble.