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The Rise of Appleby

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At various stages in my life I have succumbed to the lure of crime fiction, and I have always been a habitué of second-hand bookshops. That was how I came across Michael Innes in the late 1970s, when I bought one of his books in a green Penguin edition. I read it rapidly, instantly loved it and persuaded my wife to read it. From that moment we were Innes addicts.

In the mid-1980s that marriage ended, and the shelf of Innes books disappeared. But some years later, in another second-hand shop, I found a stack of hardback crime novels in their original bright yellow Gollancz jackets. Among them was Appleby’s End (1945) by Michael Innes. And so I began a new collection of the Appleby novels.

Michael Innes was the pseudonym of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart. He was born near Edinburgh in 1906 and went up to Oriel College, Oxford, where he read English and knew Auden and Isherwood. After graduating in 1929, he studied Freudian analysis in Vienna, and then took up a lectureship at Leeds before moving to Australia in 1936 to become Jury Professor of English Literature at the University of Adelaide. It was on the long sea voyage out from Liverpool that Stewart wrote his first mystery story, Death at the President’s Lodging (1936), a book that both launched his career as the crime writer Michael Innes and introduced his most famous creation, Detective Inspector John Appleby.

Stewart returned to Britain after the Second World War to take up a post at Queen’s University, Belfast, then moved to Christ Church, Oxford, where he eventually became Reader in English Literature and then, on retirement, Professor Emeritus. He died in 1994. Throughout this illustrious career, in addition to works on Montaigne, James Joyce, Thomas Love Peacock, Kipling, Conrad and Thomas Hardy, he wrote fifty crime novels as well as various other works of fiction, short stories and an autobiography.

John Appleby is a detective inspector when he first ap

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At various stages in my life I have succumbed to the lure of crime fiction, and I have always been a habitué of second-hand bookshops. That was how I came across Michael Innes in the late 1970s, when I bought one of his books in a green Penguin edition. I read it rapidly, instantly loved it and persuaded my wife to read it. From that moment we were Innes addicts.

In the mid-1980s that marriage ended, and the shelf of Innes books disappeared. But some years later, in another second-hand shop, I found a stack of hardback crime novels in their original bright yellow Gollancz jackets. Among them was Appleby’s End (1945) by Michael Innes. And so I began a new collection of the Appleby novels. Michael Innes was the pseudonym of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart. He was born near Edinburgh in 1906 and went up to Oriel College, Oxford, where he read English and knew Auden and Isherwood. After graduating in 1929, he studied Freudian analysis in Vienna, and then took up a lectureship at Leeds before moving to Australia in 1936 to become Jury Professor of English Literature at the University of Adelaide. It was on the long sea voyage out from Liverpool that Stewart wrote his first mystery story, Death at the President’s Lodging (1936), a book that both launched his career as the crime writer Michael Innes and introduced his most famous creation, Detective Inspector John Appleby. Stewart returned to Britain after the Second World War to take up a post at Queen’s University, Belfast, then moved to Christ Church, Oxford, where he eventually became Reader in English Literature and then, on retirement, Professor Emeritus. He died in 1994. Throughout this illustrious career, in addition to works on Montaigne, James Joyce, Thomas Love Peacock, Kipling, Conrad and Thomas Hardy, he wrote fifty crime novels as well as various other works of fiction, short stories and an autobiography. John Appleby is a detective inspector when he first appears in Death at the President’s Lodging, but in the ensuing thirty-one novels he enjoys a meteoric rise through the ranks to become Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police – and he acquires a knighthood along the way. At one point he retires and then reappears in a more senior position. His changes in rank are not always consistent but his character throughout remains the same – a well-mannered, highly educated and entertaining policeman who scatters his conversation with literary, and especially poetic, references and who relies on instinct rather than police procedure to solve cases. He is the classic intellectual detective, in some ways a forerunner of Morse and Adam Dalgleish, but without the testy intolerance of the former and the angst of the latter, and much more relaxed in his handling of suspects and of the cases that Innes throws at him. The jacket of my Gollancz edition of Appleby’s End, the tenth in the series, includes a short quotation from an Illustrated London News book critic: ‘Quite crazy, lavishly ingenious and extremely good fun’. It is all of that, and much more. The setting is southern England immediately after the Second World War, and the book starts with a railway journey through a landscape where nothing quite works and ancient trains clank along almost forgotten branch lines. It is winter and snow is falling.

Sunday afternoon, which in England subtly spreads itself even over the face of inanimate nature, stretched to the horizon. The fields were clothed in patchy white like half-hearted penitents; here and there cattle stood steamy and dejected, burdened like their fellows in Thomas Hardy’s poems with some intuitive low-down on essential despair; and now on the outskirts of a village the train trundled past a yellow brick conventicle constructed on the basis of hardly more cheery theological convictions. Inside the carriage it was cold and beginning to be fuggy as well. The focus of attention was a large glass bowl rather like those used in cemeteries to protect artificial flowers, but here pendulous from the roof and sheltering gas burners of a type judged moderately progressive at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Flanking this were luggage racks of a breadth nicely calculated to cause chronic anxiety in those below.

Slowly the interminable journey descends into chaos. A series of bizarre, even grotesque, passengers enter the compartment, all of whom turn out to be members of the same family, the Ravens. Having missed his connection and with nowhere to stay on an increasingly wild night, Appleby is encouraged by his travelling companions to leave the train and accept their hospitality.

In due course the train is exchanged for an antique and decrepit horse-drawn vehicle which gets stuck in a flooded river and is then carried away by the speeding torrent, along with John Appleby and Judith Raven, a young and personable sculptress.

After more adventures, including a night in a haystack, John and Judith become engaged. We never really know why Appleby was on the train in the first place but it hardly matters for he is from that moment swept up in a series of strange local goings-on which include vanishing pigs, animals turned to stone, secret marriages, strange thefts and apparent murders, some of which seem to have been predicted in stories written years ago by another member of the Raven family.

It is an entertaining adventure, but also a picture of Britain on the cusp of social change, a time when traditional ways and attitudes were increasingly being challenged by the emerging new orders of the post-war world. Strange customs, oddly named characters (a Michael Innes trait), and absurd and extravagant situations seem to combine to pitch the story to the edge of farce, but somehow it never quite falls over the precipice. Innes’s hand on the tiller is always firm, even though the course being followed is not always clear. In the end, which really only becomes clear in the final paragraph, John andJudith are married, starting a new strand for future books that leads eventually to their son Bobby taking over some of the sleuthing. So despite its title, Appleby’s End also marks a beginning.

Though little enjoyed today, Innes is one of the great names from a golden age in British crime fiction, when imaginative and convoluted plots, interesting characters and a highly literate prose style were de rigueur, along with civilized, well-spoken and intelligent detectives who took it for granted that their frequent literary, historical and artistic allusions would be understood. This age may have passed, but its legacy is still there to be enjoyed.

During the upheavals that followed a recent move, I rediscovered my copy of Appleby’s End, still in its original, though now rather torn, yellow Gollancz jacket. I reread it at once, and all the old pleasure and excitement came flooding back. It was still, as the reviewer had said in 1945, crazy, ingenious and extremely good fun. Then I dug out my green Penguin copy of Death at the President’s Lodging, to enjoy once more John Appleby’s first appearance, the Oxford college setting, the Shakespearean references, and the complexities of a still almost incomprehensible plot. They don’t make them like that any more.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 38 © Paul Atterbury 2013


About the contributor

Paul Atterbury lives in Dorset, where he spends far too much of his time writing books about railways. When not thus engaged, he appears on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.

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