I can’t believe it’s been nearly three years since I read the first of Michael Innes’s Inspector Appleby mysteries. I found Seven Suspects entirely enjoyable and entertaining, and as I said in my other review, it was such a pleasure to discover a new-to-me, prolific, Golden Age mystery author. I have no excuse!
Hamlet, Revenge! takes place at a great country home, Scamnum Court. The Duchess of Horton, known for her patronage of the arts and for her great parties and hospitality, is putting on an amateur production of Hamlet, and she has convinced the Lord Chancellor, a family friend, to play Polonius. Her husband, the Duke, will play Claudius, she herself will be the Queen, and their daughter Elizabeth will be Ophelia. The greatest actor of the day will play Hamlet himself, and the stage direction is being done by a quiet, donnish sort of person who also happens to write mystery novels under a pseudonym.
The fun and conviviality of an amateur production is somewhat marred by a series of mysterious and threatening messages, culminating in a quotation from Macbeth: “There shall be done a deed of dreadful note.” And indeed, that evening, the Lord Chancellor is shot to death on stage, at the very moment that Polonius is meant to be killed by Hamlet’s sword. Appleby is called in to a very theatrical and risky murder of a very public figure, one that took place right under the noses of nearly a hundred spectators. His other brief, one he must keep secret, is to recover vital State documents that the Lord Chancellor brought down with him to Scamnum court. Right up to the end of the novel, we are not sure whether this is a murder mystery, a spy story, or both.
Adding to the pleasure of the complex mystery is Innes’s prose. The entire book is laced with references to Hamlet (you’ll get a lot more out of this if you’ve read the play), and while erudite, it’s never dry. Innes allows himself a lot of humor, too. I think my favorite joke of the book is that there are no fewer than three “I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here today…” grand-climax sorts of scenes, and two of them provide solutions to the mystery that are dead wrong. Thrilling scenes are actually thrilling, and the characterization is spot-on. I especially like Appleby himself, a young CID detective who has unsuspected depths.
This is only my second Appleby mystery, but I enjoyed it both as a puzzle and as a novel: the characters were wonderful, and the writing was rich and allusive. I’m so glad I have so many of these left to read.