In their article, “Shades of Blue: Oxbridge in Detective Fiction,”Julian Earwaker and Kathleen Becker offer a fine background for the kind of detective fiction writing that Michael Innes, a genuine exemplar of the breed, engaged in, just as many other “Oxbridge” dons were wont to do:
Traditionally, Oxbridge detective writing has flowed from one main source: academia. Plots are inspired by and often structured around the unique architecture of the colleges: the mellow medieval arches, “dreaming” spires, quadrangles and patches of garden and greenery that take the breath away. Quietly but demonstrably asserting the power and privilege that lies within sight but beyond reach of most townsfolk, it is here that the origins of “donnish” detection lie. In the words of one of its foremost exponents, Michael Innes (pseudonym of J. I. M. Stewart), Oxbridge is also a habitat that offers the detective writer “such a capital frame for the quiddities and wilie-beguilies of the craft.”
Exactly why mystery writing, which many academics have traditionally considered a disreputable pursuit at best, appealed to so many of the Oxbridge dons living in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, may never be fully explicated to everyone’s satisfaction. Perhaps the intellectual rigors of academia needed a kind of release valve analogous to that afforded by physical exercise. In fact, Innes’ total lifetime scholarly output was but a mere fraction of his detective fiction; if writing mysteries was a “release” mechanism for Innes, he must have been under incessant pressure, which would have lasted half a century! Earwaker and Becker note the competition between the two major English universities played a role in shaping “donnish” detective fiction, curiously—or perhaps not so surprisingly—to the neglect of the outside world:
For the dons writing Golden Age Oxbridge mysteries, detective fiction was seen as a light and slightly shameful diversion. Donnish detective fiction is often as light on landscape as it is loaded with literary allusion: the Town (the people, social fabric and city landscape) outside the Gown (academia: its people and landscape) being of little relevance. In a neatly English compromise, Innes (an Oxford don himself) has his Shakespeare-quoting, quintessentially English detective-don John Appleby operating in a college midway between Oxford and Cambridge “hard by the otherwise blameless environs of Bletchley.” Appleby first appears in the classic mystery Death at the President’s Lodging (1936). Even in those days, traffic rumbles past and the city’s “grey and fretted stone, sweeping in its gentle curve from bridge to bridge, shudders and breathes as at the stroke of a great hammer upon the earth.”
Uncharacteristically of Innes’ “compromise,” however, Oxbridge appears in none of the stories collected in Appleby Talks About Crime. They are clearly set in England, but in “the Town” and not “the Gown,” almost entirely in the 1950s, and nearly all of them tend to the anecdote. There are no blood and thunder, no angst, no major character development (except by inference). Since most of the stories run to five pages or so (and require about that many minutes to read), the emphasis is necessarily on the puzzle—although the reader will be hard-pressed to solve them himself due to Innes’ tendency to withhold essential facts. To appreciate these stories, simply sit back, let the author’s cleverness be revealed, and marvel at how he has compacted what lesser writers would need sixty times as much space to accomplish (indeed, some of the plots are wonderfully complicated and could easily have been attenuated to book length).
Introduction by John Cooper—An excellent historical overview of Michael Innes’ detective fiction output.
John Appleby by Michael Innes—The author contextualizes his main character:
What I am claiming here … is that Appleby is as much concerned to provide miscellaneous and unassuming “civilized” entertainment as he is to hunt down baddies wherever they may lurk. And I think this must be why he has proved fairly long-lived: and by this I mean primarily long-lived in his creator’s imagination. In forty years I have never got quite tired of John Appleby as a pivot around which farce and mild comedy and parody and freakish fantasy revolve …. He is within a society remembered rather than observed—and remembered in terms of literary conventions which are themselves distancing themselves as his creator works. His is an expatriate’s world. It is not a real world, controlled by actual and contemporary social pressures, any more than is, say, the world of P. G. Wodehouse.
“A Small Peter Pry”—Thanks to his wife Judith, Appleby solves a case of art forgery and murder. “The Author Changes His Style”—Why do a press clipping, stolen stories, and a vengeful lover move a novelist to suicide? Appleby connects the dots. “The Perfect Murder”—When Appleby hears of the death of a research scientist, he is only mildly interested; but that will change drastically when he learns that the poor fellow was in perfect health when he died. The Inspector has good reason to suspect “an untraceable poison unknown to science.” “The Scattergood Emeralds”—Appleby recounts the curious case of the stolen jewels, their dopplegangers, and a burglar who enjoys more good luck than burglars are entitled to. “The Impressionist”—An artist dies when he hurtles through an open window clutching a bust of Venus and is crushed on the rocks below, an apparent suicide. Appleby’s knowledge of artistic technique clears up the mystery. (This story has an Ellery Queen-style challenge to the reader.) “The Secret in the Woodpile”—When a psychiatrist’s charred body is found in his burned-out house, his brains blown out, the Inspector doesn’t have a clue to go on at first; but when an unusual surname surfaces, his inquiry will lead him into a nearly fatal encounter with an insane egoist trying to deceive the world about his talents. “The General’s Wife Is Blackmailed”—Appleby is the junior member of the Mystery Club, and in that capacity helps his fellow members elucidate the problem of a young wife who incautiously opens herself up to blackmail. “Who Suspects the Postman?”—At a Yuletide party being held in one of our stately homes, an invaluable Chinese vase goes missing. On the advice of Father Christmas, Appleby goes in pursuit of the guest posing as the postman; but Appleby knows, despite the false trail that’s been laid for him, where the blame really falls. “A Change of Face”—Appleby and the Mystery Club members deliberate on the rather entertaining account of one of their number, a plastic surgeon, becoming involved in an attempted coup in a small European country. “The Theft of the Downing Street Letter”—One of the Mystery Club members is a detective fiction author; he presents in outline form an idea he’s had for a story and challenges his friends to spot the clue that will solve it. “The Tinted Diamonds”—Appleby discusses with his fellow Mystery Clubbers the instance of the woman in a photograph he’s brought with him; she has blue hair and blue jewels to match. What she didn’t know about her diamonds when the picture was made would, if she found out, turn her blue as well. “Jerry Does a Good Turn for the Djam”—At the Mystery Club dinner Appleby recounts the time an international crisis blew up when a foreign potentate was holding a press conference and was shot, only to vanish later from the hospital; all of which just goes to show that one man’s joke is another man’s tragedy. “The Left-Handed Barber”—The Mystery Club member who is a professional artist remembers the time his mother-in-law thought she had discovered an original Leonardo da Vinci drawing among her possessions. One thing led to another and, by mental associations, our artist came to conclude that a robbery was very likely to occur; the association that led him there was, oddly enough, how artists represent shadows in their work. “The Party That Never Got Going”—Appleby and wife Judith are in Italy attending a party along with the rich and famous when the lights go out and a shot is heard; when they come back on, the host is found dead. To complicate matters, Appleby knows that just about every person there has a motive—needles in haystacks, indeed. “The Mystery of Paul’s ‘Posthumous’ Portrait”—An artist takes a commission to paint a “portrait” of someone said to have died years ago, using his sister as a model. All seemingly innocent enough, but an alert Appleby suspects fraud might be involved, and he is quite right. “The Inspector Feels the Draught”—On a rainy day, Appleby pays a visit to an old university science tutor who has recently married a much younger woman. The fact that the scientist is as crotchety as ever, plus subtle changes in air pressure, lead Appleby to suspect foul play is afoot. “Pelly and Cullis”—At the very moment the verdict in a trial is being delivered, one of the jurors is found to be dead—poisoned, as it’s later learned. Appleby, now in retirement, decides to assist the local inspector with the case, the conclusion of which entails discovering dark secrets—and a large dose of irony. “The Man Who Collected Satchels”—Why would a grown man steal a boy’s schoolbook bag? As the Mystery Club members mull it over the answer becomes clear: to get hold of a book just about any child might have, one of no importance at all—unless the boy’s father happens to be a high government official.
Appendix: The Short Stories of Michael Innes
Afterword by Dr. Margaret Macintosh Harrison—A charming glimpse of Michael Innes, the man, by his daughter.
Other short story collections by Michael Innes available on Amazon.com:
Appleby Talking (1954)
Appleby Talks Again (1956)
The Appleby File (1975).
For brief appraisals of Innes’ other detective fiction by the late Wyatt James, go here.
The GADetection Wiki has an entry about Innes and reviews of some of his books.
Earwaker and Becker’s article about Oxbridge is here.
Crippen & Landru offers many fine reprints of detective fiction once thought irretrievably lost.