Few writers frustrate me as much as Michael Innes does. My first two experiences were so irritating and disappointing that I swore to myself that I would never pick up one of his novels again. I broke that pledge when I stumbled on The New Sonia Wayward which turned out, against all my expectations, to be one of my favorite inverted mysteries. This got me wondering, could I have misjudged Innes?
The Gay Phoenix was the natural book to follow up on that positive experience given that it is also an inverted story. Like The New Sonia Wayward this book begins with two characters at sea (aboard the titular Gay Phoenix), one of whom dies in a way that the other is not responsible. Also like that book this leads to an assumption of a false identity, albeit in a more direct way.
The two men are brothers, Arthur and Charles, who have a rather strained relationship. Charles, the dead man, was the elder brother and had achieved considerable success in the business world, living the jetset lifestyle of lavish spending, eating and promiscuity. Arthur has long resented this, not only because he has failed to find that same success in life but also because his bachelor brother has told him that his money will not pass to him on his death.
When Charles is struck dead by a loose beam, Arthur sees an opportunity and decides to cast his brother’s body over the side of the ship and assume his identity. The two share a similar appearance although he has to make a small sacrifice with the help of a sharp, heated blade to pull the deception off. It seems that Charles’ fortune and lifestyle will be his for the taking and then things take an inevitable turn for the worse…
Let’s start with a positive – Innes may have repeated himself with several elements of this story but Arthur’s plan on how he will pull off this trick is rather impressive and quite ingenious on a psychological level. Unfortunately this section of the story is relayed to us as a tiresome anecdote from an Antipodean doctor at a dull dinner party but while this has its frustrations, it does allow the reader to work to deduce exactly what Arthur is playing at for themselves as at first it seems his actions will be counterproductive.
I also really enjoyed the two chapters that follow in which we follow Arthur as he returns to England and begins spending his brother’s fortune. At this point we suspect that something will go wrong but the nature of the problem will probably surprise the reader, as will the manner in which it is raised.
Innes’ approach here is to cultivate a sense of unpredictability, creating a situation in which Arthur is forced to respond to events he has no knowledge of. At its best this can be very funny, leading to some very memorable moments where he is caught off guard, but it also means that we find ourselves quite far away from anything approaching mystery writing. Innes does not lay any groundwork for these developments and so the reader cannot reason what will happen, they simply have to sit back and see where the story will take them.
Nor can we say that we are in thriller territory. While there is a sequence in which Arthur finds himself in physical danger, most of the rest of the story is talkative as opposed to being action-driven. What plot there is will often be relayed to the reader after the fact in gossipy society conversations which clearly amused the author. Sadly they didn’t do the same for me.
That is not to say that I was completely immune to the book’s sense of humor. Not only did I laugh out loud at a few early wrinkles in Arthur’s plan, there is one very successful comedic sequence later on as Arthur finds himself unexpectedly face-to-face with someone who evidently knows him well, forcing him to try to bluff his way through the exchange. Here Innes lets us live in the moment, following the action as it happens, and the result is a scene that is not only surprising but that builds very effectively to a punchline moment, setting up the novel’s final act.
Increasingly I am coming to wonder if my real problem with Innes’ work lies in his series detective, Sir John Appleby. I have now read three Appleby mysteries and in each of the three I have felt that the character never asserts himself properly on the story, his investigations tending to meander around the actions of others’ rather than taking control of the action. His lack of any official standing here only amplifies that problem.
This case takes place after his career is over with him living in retirement with his wife in the English countryside. This means that his involvement here is in a strictly unofficial capacity, his interest aroused as a neighbor rather than as a detective. Even when he does get involved he remains relatively disinterested in providing a resolution to the affair, seeking answers mostly for the sake of his own curiosity.
As I read this I was struck by the feeling that we have a decent blend of a crime story and a comedy of errors ruined by the unwelcome intrusion of an ineffective investigation. The parts of the story that work best are those in which we live in the moment, following the unpredictable twists and turns as Arthur’s best laid plans threaten to collapse all around him. He is, after all, the more interesting character psychologically and I think it would have been interesting to explore precisely how things turn sour.
Unfortunately Innes’ interest lies in exploring the relationships between the social classes in the English countryside but I found little on offer either illuminating or particularly amusing. When you add in the author’s irritating habit of demonstrating his own superior vocabulary by using words such as otiose and bedizened at every opportunity and dressing key moments with literary allusions, it all makes for a rather frustrating and ultimately quite tiresome reading experience that brought all my bad memories of Innes’ writing flooding back.
While this book does have a few positive moments, I ultimately found it a rather unrewarding experience. It does offer up a few good ideas and moments but when you consider that Innes’ earlier novel The New Sonia Wayward trod a very similar path with far more wit, originality and a clearer sense of purpose I can see little reason to suggest you seek out a copy of this.
Nick Fuller is far more receptive to Innes than I am but he shares my disappointment in this one while Bev at My Reader’s Block appreciated this as a character study and liked Appleby’s wife but was disappointed in it as a detective story.