Originally Published in 1964.
Sebastian Holme was a painter who, as the exhibition catalogue recorded, had met a tragic death during a foreign revolution. Art dealer, Braunkopf, has made a small fortune from the exhibition.
Unfortunately, Holme turns up at the private view in this fascinating mystery of the art world in which Mervyn Cheel, distinguished critic and pointillist painter, lands in very hot water.
My relationship with Michael Innes has been a fairly frustrating one. He is certainly an author who is capable of frustrating me like few others can. At his best he can be witty and clever while the situations he creates are often imaginative and explore interesting ideas yet it is hard to escape the feeling that he was a mystery fiction writer who had little interest in writing mystery stories.
Money from Holme was a later, standalone effort from Innes that might be considered an inverted crime story. It begins with Mervyn Cheel, an art critic, attending an exhibition of Sebastian Holme’s paintings. Holme had been an up-and-coming artist who had been living in Africa when he had been caught up in a revolution and was killed. Much of his work was destroyed in the violence and so the values of his remaining small body of work have rocketed and his celebrity has grown. During the show however Cheel is surprised when he notices a man he is certain is Sebastian Holme attending the show.
Cheel soon learns that Holme did not actually die and so he devises a scheme that he believes will make him rich. Were Holme to return to life in the public’s mind then the prices of his work will inevitably fall. Cheel persuades him to remain dead and work to reproduce the destroyed works of art so that he can try to quietly sell them to collectors as though they were the originals.
Given the nature of Cheel’s plan, I think it is fair to question whether we should really consider this an inverted crime novel at all. As Mervyn Cheel points out at several points in the novel, it is hard to say if he is guilty of any great crime at all for much of the book. He is, after all, trying to sell works that are authentically by the artist he claims them to be, even if the circumstances he describes are not accurate.
Certainly the criminal aspects of this novel are not Innes’ focus. Instead, the most interesting aspect of Money from Holme is its discussion of various aspects of the art world. This touches upon an artist’s relationship to his subject, the commercial realities of art trading and the role of the art critic. Innes’ insights into this world are not exactly unique, nor are they necessarily profound, but the situations the characters find themselves in are clever and they are often explored with wit.
Having now read several Innes inverted stories I have noticed that each has involved a variation on a common theme – the idea of identity substitution. The approach taken here is a little different but it is interesting to see him continuing to play with these sorts of ideas. While Innes had been playing with related themes, each book feels quite distinct.
The treatment of the art world struck me as a little reminiscent of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Don’t Shoot Me (the novel which inspired the movie Mortdecai) with the protagonist finding himself in ludicrous situations often of his own devising and borne of his own personal weaknesses, working himself into deeper trouble. Bonfiglioli’s novel is a sharper and funnier read but both books possess an irreverent tone that did a lot to endear them to me.
The jokes that did not land for me were those related to the fictional African nation of Wamba. I can understand why Innes chooses to create a fictional African country rather than locating his action somewhere real – particularly given the rather fluid nature of politics in that decade – and there is some light exploration of British foreign policy but any subtlety is masked by the general presentation of that information, such as the “gag” that the country’s capital is Wamba Wamba. It is not untypical for this era of writing but it is disappointing.
One of the most curious decisions Innes makes is to emphasize how unpleasant his protagonist, the art critic Mervyn Cheel, can be. For instance, early in the book we learn about how he has previously forced his attentions on a woman. His disrespectful attitude towards women is largely treated as a matter of comedy, particularly his proclivity to pinch their bottoms.
While I think we are meant to take this as evidence that he is an unpleasant, unprincipled sort it seems rather odd to see him treated as a bit of a rogue rather than a villain at points in this story. Certainly those moments didn’t strike me as being as sharp comedically as Innes’ discussion of the art world was.
One consequence of Cheel not being a particularly pleasant or likeable character is that we can take some pleasure in his downfall. Although Innes’ story isn’t particularly complex in terms of its structure or plot, the ending he devises did feel fairly satisfying because of how well it reflects the other themes of the story. Dramatically it feels pretty appropriate, providing a fitting and gently comedic resolution to Cheel’s story.
Money from Holme is not a classic work of crime fiction by any means. Even if we ignore some of the problems I have with its dated sense of humor, the plotting is fairly light and Innes’ focus is on developing his comedic situations rather than a tightly structured story. Still, the themes and ideas Innes explores are interesting and quite clever, even if the approach taken is sometimes rather lacking in subtlety.
If you forget that this is described as a crime novel and instead enjoy it as a rather absurd adventure with some crime elements then I think you will likely get a little more out of this. Certainly I enjoyed it more than The Gay Phoenix. For those looking for an inverted crime story by Innes, I would still recommend you look at The New Sonia Wayward instead.
The Verdict: A sometimes amusing but dated artistic caper story with weak mystery elements.