Originally Published 1960
I am never saying never again.
Last year I swore off Michael Innes having felt disappointed with Lament for a Maker and There Came Both Mist and Snow. I had found both books smug, tiresome and pretentious and I was thoroughly frustrated with the lack of a good mystery plot. I was absolutely adamant that I would never be reading one of his books again.
Yet here I am.
The New Sonia Wayward caught my eye when I noticed that it sounded like it might be an inverted crime or mystery. This is either a well-established weakness or enthusiasm of mine depending on your view of the sub-genre and while I remained wary of Innes, I thought the premise sounded quite intriguing.
The New Sonia Wayward is not a story of a murder but rather the attempt by someone to pretend that someone did not die. This premise is unusual but not unique – Henry Wade’s Too Soon to Die has a similar starting point though where that book takes a dark turn, The New Sonia Wayward is a much more light-hearted experience. Think of it as a sort of highbrow Weekend at Bernie’s where every now and again characters make allusions to Keats and Wordsworth to remind you how intelligent they are.
The novel begins with Colonel Ffolliot Petticate wondering what to do about his wife’s unexpected death aboard their boat. The retired army surgeon carries out a quick examination and believes she must have died of an embolism. This, we learn, is inconvenient for the Colonel as he is entirely dependent on his wife’s royalties from her romance novels and he is concerned about how he could survive without that income.
Realizing that she has left a half-completed manuscript he hatches a plan to complete it himself. After draining the best part of a bottle of whisky he decides to dress her corpse in a bathing costume and tip it overboard before heading back to port. He intends to explain his wife’s absence away by suggesting she has left him to travel the world. He is a skilled writer himself and while he considers that type of writing beneath him, he knows enough of her style to think he can pull it off.
This is just the starting point for a novel that is frequently unpredictable, taking many strange and unexpected turns. There are several reversals of fortune, misunderstandings and poor judgments, each of which further complicate Colonel Petticate’s position and put him in more danger of discovery. These moments are often quite amusing, sometimes verging on the farcical, and a large part of the fun of this book lies in seeing Petticate’s flustered and ineffective reactions to each of these fresh developments.
Innes structures his story cleverly, breaking it into three sections, each of which see Petticate confronting different challenges and culminating in a moment that will significantly change his situation.
The more incredible of these moments is that first twist that occurs while he is on board a train and has a conversation with a neighbor. I don’t want to spoil what happens as it is entertaining and puzzling but I will say that I think this is the only element of the novel that didn’t exactly work for me as it prompts a development that simultaneously manages to be highly unlikely while also seeming to signpost a late plot development. I think the book does enough with this idea to justify its use but it certainly wouldn’t work in a more conventional mystery and I did appreciate that he gets it out-of-the-way early rather than using it at the point he needs it to introduce a story element later in the novel.
Innes’ story does not rely much on mystery elements or structures and it is striking how Petticate doesn’t set out intended to harm anyone. I think this is part of the reason that the character is ultimately quite a sympathetic and likable figure in spite of some of the things he does or contemplates doing in the course of the story. Part of it is that he is a deeply proud man who, in the best traditions of farce, frequently makes a fool of himself but attempts to retain his sense of dignity and control over his situation.
Take for instance his completion of his wife’s manuscript. Petticate is, we realize, quite a skillful and confident writer in his own right and more than up to the task of writing something quite readable. He has a decent grasp of the genre he is writing and knows enough of his wife’s style to be able to make a good approximation and yet he can’t help but try to improve on it out of a sense of his own pride. He soon realizes that even if he is successful at passing his work off as hers, he will have to spend the rest of his life writing material he detests which gives his situation a rather bittersweet feel.
I have complained before about Innes’ tendency for dense literary allusion and while there is certainly a bit of that present here, I was happy to find he did so with a much lighter touch than I had seen him use previously. Often these references are used to illustrate Petticate’s pretensions or to make sly digs at the publishing industry which Innes clearly knew so well by this point.
What impresses me most about the book though is that Innes pulls everything together to deliver an ending which feels comedic, fitting to the situation and gives us a clear resolution. This runs contrary to my usual experience of comedic mystery and crime fiction. Usually I find that those sorts of books will get off to a strong start but run out of steam as they near the end and the author feels the need to wrap things up. The New Sonia Wayward feels quite different, becoming increasingly funny and sharp as it winds towards its conclusion.
It is, in my opinion, one of the most entertaining inverted crime stories I have read so far and I would consider it more successful than other humorous inverted mysteries such as The Murder of My Aunt or Trial and Error. It is witty, cleverly plotted and I really enjoyed the manner of the ending which feels a perfect culmination to a very amusing tale. Highly recommended.
22 thoughts on “The New Sonia Wayward by Michael Innes”
Very glad you’ve found an Innes that you like.
As am I! 😁
Well, hell, this sounds pretty darn good. Do I want to be tempted back to Innes? Five-times bitten, twice shy…
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You might as well be bitten a sixth time ! 🙂
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Heh – I know what you mean. I mean, I read it and wrote this review and even then my instinct is to scream not to do it…
The book is really fun though and the rare case where the literary stuff he likes to include actually works. The mystery element isn’t there but this is a really entertaining ride.
More successful than Trial and Error and The Murder of my Aunt??!! Those are strong words Aidan! Sure in times gone by people would have duelled over such matters.
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I enjoyed both too but I think they each ran out of steam a little as they neared their conclusion. As comedic inverted stories go, I can’t think of a better one I have read so far.
Oh, Trial and Error runs out of steam by the halfway point!
Gosh my duelling schedule is filling up!
I don’t deny that T&E is well written in places, but my gosh it takes aaaaaages to do very little. Much like another Berkeley book I read recently…
I recall enjoying this one . . . but, with a couple of exceptions (e.g., Appleby’s End), I enjoyed Innes in general. I keep meaning to reread some to see if I can work out why everyone else despises him!
I will say that my previous experience with him was one of frustration and annoyance that he comes up with really promising scenarios but doesn’t seem interested in developing them as mysteries. I felt a little like Charlie Brown running at the football only for Innes to pull it away mid-kick. It may just be the two books I chose.
One of the odd things about this book is that many of the issues I had with Innes’ style in those previous reads are present here. There isn’t much of a mystery plot, Innes sets up some things that never pay off and there are repeated literary allusions and discussions. I just think all of those elements feel more appropriate to the story he is trying to tell here and so I was entertained rather than frustrated.
I expect I will return to Innes again now but still a little warily. I know he wrote at least one other inverted story so I am bound to read that at some point and then I may give Appleby another try…
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So, I said to myself this past summer, why not hunt up some mystery blogs, and get recommendations.
Crofts, Crofts, Crofts, and more Crofts.
You can imagine my consternation. Or, at least, my baffled, incredulous amazement.
Well, I said, at least they aren’t peddling Michael Innes.
Hey, I am as baffled as you are that I am peddling an Innes story given my past experiences. I can only say that I have confidence that he will once again disappoint me in the future.
I read this one a couple of years ago and enjoyed it more than most of the other Innes books I’ve read. My main criticism was that I couldn’t believe that Petticate, however great his financial need, would embark on an enterprise so unlikely to succeed, but I guess without his doing that there would be no book! It might have helped if there’d be more of a “How could I have been so stupid? Oh, well, what’s done is done, no choice but to press on” element to his thoughts.
I agree that the literary allusions are a lot less thick on the ground here than in the Appleby books and in this, TNSW reminds me of the non-mystery novels Innes published under his real name, J.I.M. Stewart. I have not read a lot of them, but from what I have seen, it seems to me that as Stewart, he was a lot less eager to impress the reader with his erudition than he was as Innes.
Someone on Amazon compared Petticate to a John Cleese character. Petticate is a lot shorter than Cleese, but it would have been a good bit of casting if someone had made a movie of this in the 80s.
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I think a lot of Petticate’s problems begin with his heavy drinking which affects his judgement and causes him to underestimate others. I think his pride is the other factor – he believes that he is smarter than everyone else based on education and class and he looks down on them. I think you see that in his interactions with his wife’s agent and in his attitudes to her writing. I think it is as much about proving something about himself as it is the money.
I do wonder if Innes himself had similar feelings about his own genre works – as I think you intimate, it sometimes feels like he is trying to prove something with his Appleby stories (at least those I have read).
I wish this had been adapted. It is far funnier than Malice Aforethought and I think more unpredictable too!
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Maybe someday it will be! 1960, the year this was published, is now almost six decades in the past… and lots of people like period pieces.
Also, good insights into Petticate’s possible motivations.
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