(creator: Michael Innes)
|Inspector (eventually Commissioner) John Appleby of Scotland Yard was the creation of Michael Innes, the pseudonym of J.I.M.Stewart (1906-1994) who was a lecturer in English at Leeds University, then Professor of English at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, lectured at Queen's University, Belfast, and ended up as a Student (the equivalent of a Fellow in other colleges) of Christ Church, Oxford from 1949 until his retirement in 1973. He had 5 children, one of whom, Angus Stewart, also became a novelist. He wrote novels and books of criticism and essays under his own name, but is remembered too because of the many detective novels he wrote under the name of Michael Innes, the last of which (Appleby and the Ospreys) was published in 1986 when he was 80.
There is an excellent annotated list of all his works on the mysterylist site, where it is pointed out that the great mystery about Appleby is how he suddenly jumped from taking early retirement as a police inspector at Scotland Yard to becoming Assistant Commissioner of Police when he appears as Sir John in A Private View, 1952 (One Man Show in the USA), a rather prolonged story of art theft in which comic arch-dealer Hildebert Braunkopf makes his first (but unfortunately brief) appearance. Appleby subsequently becomes Commissioner before he retires (for the second time). Innes himself simply jokes about Appleby "cutting that unusual path for himself through the C.I.D. to the surprising elevation of Commissioner of Metropolitan Police". No real explanation is offered.
The great appeal of the Appleby books and of the other Innes crime stories, such as the four featuring the slightly nondescript artist Charles Honeybath, starting with the inventive and recommended The Mysterious Commission(1974) lies in the humour and wild inventiveness of the plots, and the memorably oddly named characters, many of them ancient aristocrats in decrepit old country houses, eccentric dons, or, as Braunkopf puts it, from the "voonderble vorldt of art".
There are lots of learned literary jokes (too many?), but it is the sheer exuberance of the comic invention that stays in the memory. As Stewart himself said about himself as Michael Innes, he liked to preserve "a certain lightness of air in his writing: aerating it with such wit as he can command, escaping from the artificial into the fantastic or the farcical". This is the sort of way in which some of his characters tend to speak too! He's best on comic characters, and not so good on chases/dramatic action sequences that can get rather tedious. If you like Braunkopf, as I do, his language is at its most excruciating ("Holme was assinated... He was assinated in a revulsion") in Money from Holme (1964), an amusing story set in the art world in which Appleby himself doesn't appear.
A good book to start with would be the first Innes novel Death at the President's Lodging (called Seven Suspects in the USA). Published in 1936, this sees young Inspector Appleby challenging devious dons in an ancient university about the macabre murder of their President, whose body is found surrounded by little piles of human bones. It offers a really entertaining satirical view of life in an ancient university.
For a wilder plot, I'd suggest The Daffodil Affair (1942) involving the simultaneous disappearances of a split-personality girl from London, a half-witted horse from Harrogate, and a haunted house. Innes himself described this as an attempt to bring a little fantasy and fun into the detective story. And don't miss the bizarre comic inventions of Appleby's End (1945), with the old manor of Dream as well as the surrounding villages of Linger, Sleeps Hill, Boxer's Bottom and Snarl. The location of these imaginary villages is never made clear, but once, when Appleby visits the region's police headquarters, it is suggested that he could run over to Burford or Woodstock for lunch - so the setting would seem to be Oxfordshire, an area that J I M Stewart, of course, would know very well. All three of these books are to be recommended.
The later books featuring Sir John in his retirement (such as A Connoisseur's Case, 1962, known as The Crabtree Case in the USA), may be less dramatic but can still be entertaining, featuring eccentric aristocrats (as in A Family Affair, 1969), and over-the-top rustic characters with comic names (as in Appleby's End, 1945). In some of these later novels, Appleby's undergraduate son Bobby plays a major part - but I find him less interesting than his father.
The only two of his crime novels that I wouldn't recommend at all are Appleby on Ararat (1941) in which Appleby gets most unconvincingly marooned on an absurd tropical island, and Lament for a Maker (1938), in which the story is told by several different participants beginning with the local shoemaker of the remote Scottish village of Kinkeig who writes like this: "Either the sour clout he gave his head on the stairs or the unco conduct of the laird fair upset the daftie Tammas. At the best of times, he was an unchancy chiel, whiles almost sensible-like and whiles clean skite..." Struggling through all this dialect was altogether too much for me.
|The original Gollancz yellow dust jackets on their hardbacks certainly look distinguished - but do not give much idea of the content of the book. The emphasis seems to be on the publisher rather than on the individual book.
This is one of the Penguin paperbacks that also look impressive, with their stylish illustrations.
The Contemporary House of Stratus reprints look attractive too. The same silhouette of Appleby is used on all of them, but it is superimposed on different backgrounds. Unfortunately, though, the phrase "An Inspector Appleby Mystery" also appears on them all, although in this book he is actually Sir John Appleby, London's Commissioner of Metropolitan Police.