Friday, 18 March 2011

Penguin no. 1577: Appleby on Ararat
by Michael Innes

"It was characteristic of the Hermitage guests that they were subject at times to a species of endemic gloom. The trouble was that a Good Time is not really possible; all that can be achieved by the most determined pursuit is a series of Good Times with gaps in between; and on the island these gaps - should one fail to skip them successfully - were apt to widen into yawning crevasses of boredom or nervous unease."

It was Fleur Fisher's review of the first Inspector Appleby mystery Death at the President's Lodging that had me scanning my shelves in search of one of Michael Innes' crime novels. For she had described exactly what I was looking for: 'a classic mystery, shot through with intelligence and wit'. Something reliably interesting and with an Oxford setting sounded perfect.

But I chose my Innes crime at random. And having based my expectations on this single enticing review, I was completely unprepared for the story which I found myself reading. Nothing could have been further from a classic mystery. This is an adventure story with surreal elements: it is farcical, unbelievable, exaggerated. Could it be that something more than mere crime-solving was required of Appleby during a time of war? Here he is transported to the other side of the world to take on Nazis and U-boats. There are a few murders but they feel extraneous to the real story, operating more as signposts to indicate that all is not as it seems. And the detection seemed only a side issue as well. The overall solution was fairly easy to work out; the mystery was in the details and only because they were purposefully obscured.

There is nothing realistic here. Each additional step in the plot relies on the most unlikely thing happening. An ocean liner is torpedoed, and the café in which Appleby and a few others are sitting proves to be sealed and waterproof, a substitute vessel enabling them to survive the sinking. They survive it with equanimity, with no particular thought for those who have perished, and no particular elation at their own good fortune. Adrift in their inadequate craft on the enormous expanse of the Pacific ocean, with barely any manoeuvrability, they wash up on the shores of a tiny mountainous island, christened Ararat in reference to the story of Noah. The book continues in this vein, embedded with literary references, but with the twists and turns of the plot unconstrained by any requirement for plausibility.

The story progresses through a series of distinct stages. At first they are shipwrecked and helplessly adrift. Then they are alone on a remote tropical island, Robinson Crusoe-style, drawing together as a group, fending for themselves in the wild. When one of their number is murdered they regard each other with suspicion. But the idea that the island is uninhabited proves mistaken: instead it is a haven for wealthy pleasure-seeking individuals looking to escape the war, and some languid archeologists with elaborate plans for a dig. The number of possible suspects multiplies. And finally they return to the ocean, but this time they are not helpless. They avenge themselves on the catalysts of their adventure, and strike a blow against their country's enemy.

The characters in this story are no more believable than the plot. They are paper-thin, invariably identified with a single characteristic - their nationality, the colour of their skin, their torpor, their occupation. A kind of mischievous humour runs through the book, perhaps not always in the best (modern) taste, centred on sudden shifts in the characters' behaviour. There are times when they throw off these one-dimensional characterisations, and temporarily embrace their opposite: the cultured negro contemplates cannibalism; the strait-laced English woman abandons her clothes, and envisions a future with herself cast as Eve.

There is a place for this kind of fantasy, but I don't think it is in a Penguin book with a green spine, and I was never going to find this satisfactory. It seems to me that the best crime and mystery novels are exercises in logical thinking - a search for a solution subject to a set of constraints. When anything is possible the search and the solution are without meaning.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1299: Stop Press
Penguin no. 1578: The Weight of the Evidence
Penguin no. 1640: Hamlet, revenge!
Penguin no. C2201: Hare Sitting Up
Penguin no. 2533: The Last Tresilians by J.I.M. Stewart

4 comments:

  1. I had heard of Michael Innes for the first time quite recently and was going to search out something by him. I guess I'll give this one a miss. At least it has archeologists though, I love archeologists in mystery novels.
    Joanne

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  2. I wonder if I had picked this up expecting something ludicrous and farcical - as I might if it was by Evelyn Waugh - would I have appreciated it more? But then Waugh's exaggerations seemed to have a point; if a point was being made here I missed it completely.

    I plan to read more of Michael Innes, but next time I won't choose at random. I'll find one of these Oxford based mysteries. Although it is interesting to find that his scope was so wide.

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  3. Oh, nice blog Karyn...do you want help finding any of these. My local second hand bookshop has a couple of bookshelves devoted to old Penguins. Maybe lots of shops do that but this one is very noticeable.

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  4. Is this in Canberra? I have found a number of the books in little towns off the Hume Highway when we've travelled, but I don't remember finding any in Canberra. I'd love it if you sent me the bookshop's details - there's an email link in the sidebar - and I'll follow it up.

    Many thanks

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