The New Sonia Wayward by Michael Innes

soniawayward
The New Sonia Wayward
Michael Innes
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.

Blood on the Tracks edited by Martin Edwards

bloodonthetracks
Blood on the Tracks
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2018

The latest British Library Crime Classics anthology is a collection of railway mysteries from the Golden Age of crime fiction. As always editor Martin Edwards has managed to find a mix of different styles and approaches from adventure-type stories to inverted crimes.

Most of the stories in the collection feel like good matches for the railway theme though the links in a couple of cases are somewhat tenuous. For instance The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face is one of the strongest stories in the collection based purely on entertainment value but probably does the least with the train theme.

Among the highlights of the collection for me were The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch and The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman. The other stories are generally of a high standard and most are paced pretty well with just a few falling short of the mark.

The Man with the Watches by Arthur Conan Doyle

A curious tale that features a seemingly impossible crime where the body of a passenger who hadn’t been seen on the train turns up in a compartment while the train is in motion while passengers who were there seemed to have vanished. I didn’t find it the most engagingly written story I have ever read by Doyle though it does have an interesting premise and I appreciated the construction of its solution.

The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace

In this story the detective is being consulted about a seemingly inexplicable death that has taken place in the early hours of the morning at a section of railway. The night watchman is found dead near the tracks with a severe blow to the back of his head. Suspicion has fallen on a young man with whom he was feuding yet the man recounting the tale does not believe he would be responsible though he cannot think of another explanation.

Arguably the story could have been a little more concisely told but the concept is quite clever and logical.

How He Cut His Stick by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

This Dora Myrl adventure sees her consulted about the matter of a theft of several hundred pounds that was being transported from one bank office to another. The clerk responsible was supposedly travelling in the compartment alone but we are let in on the secret of how the robbery was managed. What remains a mystery however is how the thief managed to get off the moving train.

It’s quite an entertaining read and I did find Dora quite a likeable, lively heroine so I would be interested in reading some of her other adventures. The story though is not really fair play in that some of the details necessary are not fully described while the surprise identity of the villain will shock absolutely no one.

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway by Baroness Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner tells Miss Polly Burton about a murder that had been committed on the Underground some time before where the Police were certain that they had identified the killer yet were unable to prove their case. He explains how the murder was actually carried out and why the Police came to their incorrect conclusion about the guilty party.

As with each of the previous stories in this collection, this is a tale recounted but the difference is that all of the action has taken part in the past, meaning that there is no movement or action in the story. To me that led to it dragging a little which is a shame as I thought the way the crime was executed was quite smart.

The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch

A clever little tale that unfolds at a good clip. Mr. Hazell is approached by a school master who had been tasked with escorting a student by train after he was summoned by telegram. During the journey the student steps into the corridor and disappears. The master investigates and conducts a thorough search of the train but the child has vanished in spite of the train not having slowed down or stopped at all since the disappearance.

Whitechurch lays out the information very clearly and it is a pleasure to piece together what has happened. The explanation is quite simple and I appreciated the tightness of the resolution.

The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman

Arguably the first inverted mystery written in English, The Case of Oscar Brodski is a story told in two parts of unequal length. The short opening identifies the murderer and explains the choices that he makes that lead to him taking a life and we see him staging the scene to try to mask his guilt. At the end of this section we are, in effect, challenged to imagine how he might possibly get caught.

The second part reveals that Dr. Thorndyke happened to be travelling on the railway line on the evening of the murder and became aware of the investigation into the death. While he does not have his full laboratory with him, he does have a small green case packed with smaller versions of many of his instruments and his systematically analyses the evidence to build up a picture of just what happened.

The investigation is compelling because the evidence is convincing and easy to follow. Thorndyke may not be the most dynamic investigator but it is interesting to see just how he works and his acknowledgement that his success was down in part to fortunate timing as had he been later on the scene much of the evidence would have not been there.

The Eighth Lamp by Roy Vickers

In this story a signalman agrees to take on the duties of performing final clean up on the platform of a circle line station at the end of each evening. As he extinguishes the last light however he sees a train running through the station without any lights and slowly a dread grows within him about fulfilling those duties.

The story feels tightly written, building a very effective sense of tension and drama. The reader may well guess where the story is headed but I think it is very well paced and packs a strong conclusion.

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah

A Max Carrados story in which the detective is consulted by his friend Mr. Carlyle about a case he is working on to try to determine who was responsible for a catastrophic train collision. The driver swears that he was following a signal while the signalman says that the driver ignored him.

Aspects of the solution are rather clever and the concept and themes of the story feels far more modern than you might expect given it was written in 1914. That being said, I did find the way the story was told a little dry.

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face by Dorothy L Sayers

Lord Peter is travelling on a train when he hears about a strange case of a man found strangled on an isolated beach wearing just his bathing costume with nothing to identify him. There are just one set of footprints leading to the body though lest you think this an impossible crime story, Lord Peter solves that within a few paragraphs (it’s a good explanation too).

The story is quite cleverly constructed and has a fairly unconventional ending. Based on entertainment value it is one of the strongest stories in the collection though I might grumble and point out that the train setting is quite incidental and used in just a fraction of the story.

The Railway Carriage by F. Tennyson Jesse

Jesse’s final story to feature occult sleuth Solange Fontaine is really more of a rumination on themes of crime, redemption and capital punishment than it is a traditional detective story. I am not particularly fond of supernatural elements in my crime fiction so this one was perhaps not for me though I think the revelation at the end is quite chilling.

Mystery of the Slip-Coach by Sapper

A story in which a gambler and moneylender is found shot dead within a train carriage with a broken egg near them. This story can boast a devilishly clever solution but you may well wonder whether it could actually work in practice and why on earth anyone would conceive of such a ludicrous way of killing someone.

The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts

Having believed myself done with Freeman Wills Crofts’ inverted stories, I continue to be delighted by finding new short stories in these collections. This one is a good one, focusing on an accountancy clerk who is intending to kill a man on the railroad tracks.

The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage by Ronald Knox

A very acceptable Sherlockian pastiche which sees the detective consulted by the servant who voices her concerns that her master intends to commit suicide. Holmes travels down by train only to find that during the journey he disappears. What I do think it captures well is Doyle’s ability to set up a seemingly complicated scenario and then to have Holmes reduce it to something quite simple and understandable but while it entertains, there is nothing special to set it apart from the countless other Holmes pastiches.

Murder on the 7.16 by Michael Innes

Forget trying to solve this one yourself – its brevity means it is a little lacking in clues – but the story is a clever one, even if Appleby could never prove it with his evidence. The director of a film is found dead inside a reproduction train cabin on set.

The Coulman Handicap by Michael Gilbert

Detectives attempt to track a woman who they believe is involved in fencing stolen goods but manage to keep losing her. Unfortunately I found the premise less than thrilling and it struck me as one of the weaker entries in the collection.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. Blood on the Tracks is already available in the UK and will be published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press on July 3, 2018.

There Came Both Mist and Snow by Michael Innes

ThereCameBothSnow
There Came Both Mist and Snow
Michael Innes
Originally Published 1940
Inspector Appleby #6
Preceded by The Secret Vanguard
Followed by Appleby on Ararat

Last month I had my first taste of Michael Innes’ work when I read Lament for a Maker, a novel that I found a thoroughly frustrating read because of Innes’ decision to write a third of it in Scots dialect. In spite of that though I thought the murder mystery plot was quite clever and so I resolved to give Innes another chance.

There Came Both Mist and Snow is a story set at Christmas in which a family gathers to celebrate the season together. We soon learn that members of the family harbor resentments towards each other and that nearly every member of the party have become fanatics about shooting revolvers on a range that has been constructed on the grounds.

I suspect you can guess what happens next.

A member of the party is found shot at a desk. Fortunately Inspector Appleby happens to arrive on the scene as a guest and is available to lend a hand in looking into the incident. Quickly he decides to recruit the narrator as a sort of reluctant Watson figure to his Holmes and they begin their investigation, soon realizing that the details of the crime may not be as straightforward as they first appeared.

While There Came Both Mist and Snow may not have been written in dialect, I found it to be similarly frustrating to read. The first ten chapters are particularly rough going and show signs of an author determined to let the reader know that they are Very Smart. Having now read a fair number of Golden Age novels, I am always prepared to hit the dictionary to lookup a word that may have fallen into disuse or check on one of those obscure classical allusions that every child would have picked up on in the 1920 and 30s but there are some words used here that would have been archaic or pretentious even then. Examples include valetudinarian, cicerone, hypnogogic and badinage.

Other examples of random, frustrating literariness include an extended scene in which characters take turns giving Shakespearian quotations relating to bells in a sort of impromptu contest which even the characters find tiresome. While I know there are readers who love this sort of dense, literary material, it really detracted from the experience for me.

What makes these sorts of things so frustrating is that Innes, when he forgets about being literary, is often quite an entertaining writer and comes up with some lovely, witty remarks or memorable turns of phrase. For instance, using ‘he had the mental habits of an industrious but unimaginative squirrel’ to describe a character. And once the shooting takes place the book does gain a much-needed sense of focus and direction.

The crime itself did at least hold some interest for me, in part because the victim is not killed by the gunshot which is something of a novelty in crime fiction and also because the circumstances of the shooting are not clear. Appleby’s job investigating this crime is complicated because it is not clear that the person shot was the intended victim and this does lead to some interesting theorizing and discussion about the different possible explanations there could be for what had happened.

This could have been the recipe for a memorable crime story but the elements just didn’t click for me. I think that may reflect that I simply didn’t find the cast of characters interesting or memorable. It often felt to me that the author was more interested in providing witty commentaries on their artistic inclinations and pretensions than in establishing them as credible killers. Appleby’s investigation seems to meander and the ending, with features several different theories being offered, dragged and disappointed.

Having now given Sir John Appleby and his creator two chances to impress me, I feel I can say with some confidence that these stories are simply not for me and I am unlikely to try any others. If you enjoy denser, more literary reads this may be of interest and worth investigation.

Review copy provided by NetGalley.

Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes

LamentforaMaker
Lament for a Maker
Michael Innes
Originally Published 1938
Inspector Appleby #3
Preceded by Hamlet, Revenge!
Followed by Stop Press

Ranald Guthrie, the laird of Erchany, is widely considered to be mad by those who live on his lands. He is a miser who lives in seclusion and his behavior seems to be increasingly erratic.

Late one night he is observed falling from the highest tower of his run-down castle and is found dead in the snow below. Did his madness drive him to commit suicide or was his death an act of murder?

If that seems like a very general summary of the novel it reflects how difficult it is to write about it without spoiling it heavily. The book is an oddity, being constructed of several sections written from the perspectives of different characters that often overlap in the events they depict, casting them in different lights as we learn more information.

This is an interesting approach in theory and its success will likely depend on how much you like the characterizations of the different narrators. I will certainly credit Innes for managing to create several distinctive voices and personalities for these narrators and I did appreciate that each takes on a slightly different style reflecting that character’s outlook.

Now, I should say at this point that I have never really cared for the idea of writing in dialect. I accept it when it happens and will certainly admit that it can convey a strong sense of place or character but it is also an unnecessary obstacle for the reader. In Lament for a Maker, the entire first third of the book is written in Scots dialect and although I lived for years in Glasgow and had a Scottish grandmother, I found deciphering the text to be a chore. It is not that it is impossible to decipher – Innes is good at situating dialect terms in a context where their meaning is generally quite clear – but it slows the pace down for anyone who is not familiar with the terms.

What makes this approach all the more frustrating is that while almost all of the characters involved in the story and narrating sections are Scottish, none of the other characters narrating do the same. It may have added mood and atmosphere but I think more selective use of Scots terms could have had the same effect and made the work more accessible.

Once we transition to the second narrator I found it much easier to engage with the work and to follow what was happening. The story’s structure mean it is constructed less like a traditional whodunit and more as a haunting, highly literate Gothic mystery told by a series of narrators who simply do not have the complete story. It is an interesting approach to take and I did find many of the answers provided to be quite surprising and satisfying.

Erchany is a compelling setting for a story and I did find the descriptions of its crumbling architecture and the infestation of rats to be extremely effective at setting the scenes and creating a haunting atmosphere. At times the narrative seems to skirt on the edge of the supernatural in some of the elements it employs though in the end the story is quite rational and driven by its characters’ psychology. I certainly would describe myself as being generally satisfied by the solution.

The book’s chief problem is that its stylistic and structural choices dominate the storytelling, creating a book that delivers plenty of atmosphere but which suffers from a lack of clear storytelling focus. I gather that this is not the typical sort of structure that Innes would create, so if you are curious to sample his work I would suggest that you may want to start with one of his other stories.

There is one other thing I should mention which is, again, an example of how this book is somewhat atypical. You may be puzzled how I managed to write over six hundred words without commenting on the story’s sleuth, Sir John Appleby, who would go on to appear in many other stories. The reason I haven’t commented on the character is that their role in this story is extremely minimal and, when he does appear, he hardly makes an impact.

The lack of a strong presence for a sleuth does not diminish the mystery or its solution. This is a clever tale and one that has a lot of personality. I am not sure, on reflection, whether I would have wanted this to be my first experience of Innes’ style if I had known how different it is from his other works. Still, it builds atmosphere masterfully and I did respect Innes’ skill at creating several distinct narrative voices. While I won’t be rushing to read any further works by Innes, I am sure I will return to him at some point.

Review copy provided through NetGalley.