The Gay Phoenix by Michael Innes

The Gay Phoenix
Michael Innes
Originally Published 1976
Inspector Appleby #30
Preceded by The Appleby File
Followed by The Ampersand Papers

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.

Further Reading

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.

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.