May 092012

In my review this week of Appleby's Answer, by Michael Innes, I note that it is probably not the best choice for a reader unfamiliar with the series of novels about Sir John Appleby. Between 1936 and 1986, Appleby appeared in 32 novels and more than twice that number of short stories by Innes.

The novels generally share certain qualities. They are traditional mysteries, with clues to be followed and considered, although Innes sometimes conceals them from the reader until nearly the end of the book. They are all written with a good deal of sophisticated humor. Perhaps reflecting Innes's real life as a professor of English literature, the books do have (and occasionally suffer from) a surfeit of literary quotations - some of which even I, as an old English major, find hopelessly obscure. But I find that this adds to the overall atmosphere of the books, rather than detracting from them.

Innes's plots can also be fairly bizarre. Some of the stories really border on surrealism, though Innes does manage to make them intriguing, if the reader is willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good mystery.

The question, then, is where to begin with Appleby and Innes - where to find a book with as little distraction and as much pleasure as possible.

I invariably recommend my own personal favorite, Lament for a Maker. It was the third outing for Appleby, written near the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, in 1938. It is written after the fashion of Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone - the story is told by a series of narrators, each of whom picks up the plot and unravels some of the tangled mystery. Set in the Scottish Highlands, it features a mad and malevolent Scottish laird, a miser, who wanders through the halls of his decrepit and unheated castle with a candle, reciting the eerie words of the medieval poet William Dunbar's "Lament for the Makers." The story features an apparently impossible murder, a memorable setting, and marvelous characters and, I think, it contains some of Innes's finest writing.

If you would rather read some of the Appleby short stories, there is a fine collection published by Crippen & Landru called Appleby Talks About Crime with 18 previously uncollected (in book form) Innes short stories. You will get a good taste for Appleby and Innes in these stories.

Beyond that, check the backlist page of this blog for earlier reviews of Innes books - including some which do not feature Appleby at all. There are many more waiting on my to-be-read (or really to-be-reread) shelf, so I'd better get to work.

May 072012

Certainly there is nothing unusual about a mystery writer getting into a conversation with a stranger who is reading one of her novels - even if the reader clearly is not happy with what he is reading. It becomes a good deal more unusual, though, when that stranger tries to hire the writer to come up with a plot for a murder mystery - a plot which that stranger may be intending to put into action against a neighbor. That raises all sorts of questions. Fortunately for author Priscilla Pringle, there is "Appleby's Answer," by Michael Innes. It is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to it by clicking here.

"Appleby's Answer" is another in the long series of mysteries by Michael Innes featuring John Appleby - now retired as Commissioner of Metropolitan Police. He finds himself pressed into service in the investigation of what may be a significant criminal plot - or perhaps something even more sinister. Certainly that chance reader encountered by Priscilla Pringle, a man named Captain Bulkington who appears to run a tutoring establishment for the rather slow-witted sons of the very rich, appears to be up to some kind of mischief - but what, exactly is going on? Is he planning the murder of a neighbor? There will be a fair number of surprising twists and turns in the story before it is resolved with Appleby's ultimate answer (not to mention a rather malevolent goat).

This book dates from 1973, which makes it one of the later entries in the Appleby canon. While it's enjoyable, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who is new to Appleby and to Innes - there are better books to introduce you to the author and his characters. But if you're already an Appleby fan, as are most who encounter his books, you'll find this an enjoyable romp with some wicked satire about mystery writers in general. For e-book readers, it is available as an e-book for the Amazon Kindle.