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.