I’ve been reading Michael Innes’s mysteries in order, and this is his third. The others have been enjoyable, if somewhat academic detective stories, starring a young John Appleby, and I was looking forward to this one. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the whiplash-inducing structure, peculiar style, and lunatic resolution I found in Lament for a Maker.
Ranald Guthrie, laird of the extremely gloomy castle of Erchany, has two main characteristics: his extreme miserliness, and his fear of death. As he walks through the rat-infested halls of Erchany, he chants the strains of William Dunbar’s medieval dirge — Timor mortis conturbat me — and most of the nearby town of Kinkeig thinks he’s mad. (With reason, you have to admit.) He’s attended by the still more unpleasant Hardcastle couple, and by a “daftie,” Tammas. Two unexpected guests are stranded at Erchany on Christmas Eve (one of whom just happens to be Guthrie’s American heir) only to witness Guthrie’s fall from the top tower in the middle of the night. Was it suicide, accident, or murder?
The structure, to begin with, is reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. There are five narrators, each with a distinct voice, and each offers an opinion on the death of Ranald Guthrie. Innes makes each solution seem quite complete and convincing, until (UNTIL) we receive different information with the next narrator’s account. The first narrator, a cobbler, writes in Scots dialect:
Full of criminal law was old Speirs ever since he started stocking Edgar Wallace for Dr. Jervie’s loons, and would air his views every night at the Arms, with a pack of gaupit bothie billies listening to his stite as if it were the wisdom of Solomon.
The second narrator writes in full-fledged Mitfordese, the third in Pompous Lawyer. The fourth is John Appleby himself, and the fifth… well, the fifth would be telling.
I wouldn’t be complaining about this, ordinarily. In fact, it’s kind of fun (except that it took me quite a long time to get past the Scots.) But Innes piles on one plot development after another as well, and eventually, about two-thirds of the way into the book, I was rolling my eyes rather than turning pages with eagerness. This book is so very ornate that it becomes the Dance of the Seven Veils rather than a nice, cleanly-plotted mystery with some sense of character. One of the key pieces of information is actually delivered by a rat dragging it into the room and then dying. Really? Really? And when the final solution to the mystery does appear, it’s so over-the-top that it eclipses even that little bit of the surreal.
Still, I plan to read more of Innes’s mysteries. You have to admire someone who goes all-out crazy in his third book. Maybe in the next Appleby mystery, there’ll be time-travel, or a descendant of Attila the Hun, or a character with an evil spider monkey for a pet. After this, I can’t predict with any certainty, and that’s not something I often run into with mysteries!