Penguin no. 1640: Hamlet, Revenge!
by Michael Innes
With such an intriguing title, this was the Michael Innes' book I most wanted to read, and so I was very pleased when I finally came upon it last Thursday, the only numbered Penguin on the shelves of a small suburban secondhand bookshop. It was a lovely moment; as the older Penguins have started to disintegrate, and the remaining ones have become more collectible, it is typical these days to leave a bookshop empty handed, and I inevitably start to wonder if it I'll ever find the small number that I don't own but particularly wish to read. And so this is one more found, and the fourth Michael Innes' crime novel I have managed to read in the last few months. Individually, they are a little hit and miss, some better than others, but considered as a group it is impossible not to notice how dissimilar each book is from the others. I continue to marvel at J.I.M. Stewart: at his ability to articulate ideas, and at his creativity. Although there are elements these books share, each one has a different setting, a different approach and a different tone. When writing as Michael Innes, he didn't write to a template.
Hamlet, revenge! was first published in 1937, and while it conforms to the conventions of the Golden Age crime novel, with a series of murders committed during a weekend house party in an isolated country home, the concept seems subverted through exaggeration. For Scamnum Court is built on a scale that dwarfs Blenheim Palace, with an extensive staff and a large number of guests. There are threats, all unclear and undirected, quoting lines taken from Shakespeare or referring to his plays. And then the first murder, committed during an amateur staging of the play Hamlet, at the moment when Hamlet runs a sword through Polonius, concealed behind a curtain in the Queen's room. The actor playing Polonius is shot, so that the stage and backstage areas define a contained space that limits the possible suspects. But Hamlet is staged with an extensive cast and so 31 suspects remain.
It is not uncommon in these Golden Age crime novels to come across a passage in which the fictional detective mocks the whole concept of the detective novel and the simple solution. Every Ngaio Marsh novel I have read has such a passage, and they always make me cringe. But in this book it is done subtly and with humour. Appleby discusses his thoughts throughout with his friend Giles Gott, an academic with interesting ideas on Shakespeare, who writes crime novels under a pseudonym, and who is present at Scamnum Court to supervise the production of the play. And of course it is impossible to think of Gott as other than the author, and so it is as though we have access to the thoughts of both Michael Innes and John Appleby. He puts in lots of little asides, such as suggesting Gott scan for the singular piece of evidence that will nail the solution, such as the sliver of foreign loam or the unusual cigarette, but he uses it for more than this.Through this device he explores the psychology both of the murderer and of the detective, and the limitations of the methods of detection, the random quirks that obscure evidence, and the idea of a sleuth in love with his theory. This book questions the whole Sherlock Holmesian-concept of the sleuth as genius. This is a humble John Appleby, aware of his limitations, and wishing, as we all do, for a sharper brain and a little more intelligence.
I have acknowledged in the past my fondness for the mathematical eloquence of an Ellery Queen novel, with its logical problem and unique solution. But in mathematics we model the world and enable that unique solution by simplifying things, and Ellery Queen is no exception. This novel takes the opposite approach: it embraces the complexity. There is a solution, but it is one of many that are possible, and so it cannot be deduced. But the journey from crime to solution is an interesting one and it can be enjoyed, and it comes with lessons on Hamlet and its interpretation, and a questioning of the direction the world is taking. The more I read Michael Innes, the more I want to read.
Also by Michael Innes:
Penguin no. 1299: Stop Press
Penguin no. 1577: Appleby on Ararat
Penguin no. 1578: The Weight of the Evidence
Penguin no. C2201: Hare Sitting Up
Penguin no. 2533: The Last Tresilians by J.I.M. Stewart
Michael Innes was the pseudonym of an Oxford academic, John Innes Mackintosh Stewart (1906–1994), who wrote about forty crime novels between 1936 and 1986. Stewart was born in Edinburgh and educated at Oriel College Oxford. He married Margaret Hardwick in 1932 and had an academic career taking in the Universities of Leeds (1930-5), Adelaide (1935-45), Belfast (1946-8) and Oxford (1949-73), with visits to US universities included. Many of his novels, including his first, have an Oxford setting. Stewart also wrote many novels and literary studies under his own name. He was known as an eccentric lecturer and served as a wartime fire warden during his stint at the University of Adelaide.
Innes's detective novels are rich in allusions to English literature and to Renaissance art. Both the plots of these novels and the motivations of characters within them are influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis. The best-known of Innes' detective creations is Sir John Appleby (originally Inspector John Appleby) of Scotland Yard. Another series character is the painter Charles Honeybath. Sadly, Innes's later stories were often short on detective interest and more like light-hearted thrillers in the style of John Buchan.
Trivia: Stewart's book Character and Motive in Shakespeare is quoted in Chapter 12 of The Bachelors of Broken Hill by Arthur Upfield: The evil which may rise up in a man's imagination may sweep him on to crime, particularly if, like Macbeth, he is imaginative without the release of being creative.
Wyatt James on Michael Innes
Innes was a later "Golden-Age" Detective Story writer, and probably the quirkiest and most erudite. Under his real name of J.I.M. Stewart, he was a Professor of English Literature, at Oxford among other places. His principal detective was John Appleby (later Sir John) of Scotland Yard, a well-educated man of humble origins who ended up as Commissioner. Appleby was a 'new cop' -- that is, a person of intelligence, tact, and intellectual interests. Some would say too much as he can be very obscure and obfuscatory. The characters in these books spout off erudite quotations and allusions to poems that even English majors in America would know only in that they might have heard of the author (of course, kids do that sort of thing now with rock music songs and phrases); no doubt this is due to the obsolescent British form of education that emphasizes memorization. That is what makes these mysteries so entertaining, but only if you can stand that sort of thing. The plots tend to be convoluted, low-keyed but fantastic at the same time; a characteristic device for covering up the solution is to have the suspects speak so allusively as not to make much sense -- they are always hiding some guilty knowledge even if they are not the true villains. However, the situations are often so imaginative and both witty and funny that the stories become addictive.
A comment on John Appleby's career. Like Sherlock Holmes and unlike Hercule Poirot, the detective not only ages but has a developing private life that is alluded to throughout -- but not always consistently. The biggest mystery about Appleby is how, having taken early retirement as an Inspector, he is not only a knight but an Assistant Commissioner not more than five years later. His family and background is sporadically mentioned (an aunt, his humble rural upbringing, a 'radical' youth stage, his time on the beat as a constable, his education -- whether at Oxford or St Anthony's is confusing). Appleby apparently has a love affair with a married woman in Ararat. His wife, his sister, his son all play prominent roles in one book or another. There are also many recurring characters (and back-references to prior adventures), such as the Duke of Horton and Scamnum Court, although Appleby has no single Watson or Lewis. His personality and appearance must mostly be generated in the reader's mind, since he is often a reflective surface via which the mystery is conveyed.
"Mr. Innes is the most adeptly and allusively elephantine wit presently committed to the English language." -- New York Herald Tribune
"The initial crime is like to be a matter of simple passion such as we can all without difficulty understand; the further crimes elaborated from it tend to the extravagance and fantasy -- as also the ingenuity -- of dreams. From all this there emerges a good working rule. Find the simplicities of the case -- those elements in it which make simple sense in terms of the elementary human passions. Take this as a centre and dispose everything else as best you can round about it. Don't be seduced into taking as a centre any of the secondary elaboration, however obtrusive and startling it may appear." -- Sir John Appleby, A Night of Errors
Nick Hay has posted a review of Stewart's autobiography, Myself and Michael Innes, here.
Death at the President's Lodging aka Seven Suspects (1936)
Hamlet, Revenge! (1937)
Lament for a Maker (1938)
Stop Press aka The Spider Strikes (1939)
There Came Both Mist and Snow aka A Comedy of Terrors (1940)
The Secret Vanguard (1940)
Appleby on Ararat (1941)
The Daffodil Affair (1942)
The Weight of the Evidence (1944)
Appleby's End (1945)
From London Far aka The Unsuspected Chasm (1946)
What Happened at Hazelwood aka What Happened at Hazlewood (1946)
A Night of Errors (1948)
The Journeying Boy aka The Case of the Journeying Boy (1949)
Operation Pax aka The Paper Thunderbolt (1951)
A Private View aka One-Man Show aka Murder is an Art (1952)
Christmas at Candleshoe aka Candleshoe (1953)
Appleby Talking aka Dead Man's Shoes (1954)
The Man from the Sea aka Death by Moonlight (1955)
Old Hall, New Hall aka A Question of Queens (1956)
Appleby Plays Chicken aka Death on a Quiet Day (1956)
Appleby Talks Again (1956)
The Long Farewell (1958)
Hare Sitting Up (1959)
The New Sonia Wayward aka The Case of Sonia Wayward (1960)
Silence Observed (1961)
A Connoisseur's Case aka The Crabtree Affair (1962)
Money from Holme (1964)
The Bloody Wood (1966)
A Change of Heir (1966)
Appleby at Allington aka Death by Water (1968)
A Family Affair aka Picture of Guilt (1969)
Death at the Chase (1970)
An Awkward Lie (1971)
The Open House (1972)
Appleby's Answer (1973)
Appleby's Other Story (1974)
The Mysterious Commission (1974)
The Appleby File (1975)
The Gay Phoenix (1976)
Honeybath's Haven (1977)
The Ampersand Papers (1978)
Going It Alone (1980)
Lord Mullion's Secret (1981)
Sheiks and Adders (1982)
Appleby and Honeybath (1983)
Carson's Conspiracy (1984)
Appleby and the Ospreys (1986)
Appleby Talks About Crime (2010)
- The Scattergood Emeralds aka True or False? (1954)
- A Small Peter Pry (1954)
- The Impressionist (1955)
- The Perfect Murder (1955)
- The General's Wife is Blackmailed (1957)
- The Left-handed Barber (1957)
- A Change of Face (1957)
- The Theft of the Downing Street Letter (1957)
- The Man Who Collected Satchels (1957)
- The Tinted Diamonds (1957)
- Jerry Does a Good Turn for the DJAM (1958)
- The Mystery of Paul's "Posthumous" Portrait (1958)
- Who Suspects the Postman? aka In the Bag (1958)
- The Inspector Feels the Draught (1958)
- The Author Changes His Style aka News Out of Persia (1958)
- The Party That Never Got Going (1959)
- The Secret in the Woodpile (1975)
- Pelly and Cullis (1979)