Saturday, 30 April 2011

Penguin no. 1578: The Weight of the Evidence
by Michael Innes

It was soon apparent that Pluckrose had been murdered. A brief inspection of the corpse suggested that the only other possibility was what lawyers call an Act of God - and that of the kind that patently violates Natural Law. Of those concerned perhaps only Professor Prisk considered the fatality so felicitous as to make this explanation plausible. And yet between Prisk and Pluckrose there was, so far as was generally known, no deep-seated occasion of malice. Simply, these two had been required to share a telephone. Such are the antipathies of the cloister.

The unlikely murder weapon: it's something of an institution amongst the Golden Age writers of detective fiction, and here is a book with a plot constructed entirely around the most improbable of weapons: a large, heavy meteorite. This meteorite has somehow been transported to the second story of the tower overlooking the Wool Court of Nesfield University, dragged to the window by the murderer, and then pushed out, in order to land on the recumbent form of Professor Pluckrose in the deckchair below. His fellow academics are shocked by the death, of course, but not particularly distressed. It would seem that Professor Pluckrose was universally disliked.

But such an unlikely murder weapon inevitably raises several questions. Meteorites cannot fall out of tower windows unaided, and so here is a method of removing a rival or hated colleague which is neither subtle nor hidden; it advertises the fact that the resulting death was the consequence of human intervention. And why take so much trouble to procure a meteorite, when the storeroom on the second floor of the tower is so well stocked with heavy items, all equally fatal when dropped on the head of the victim? It says something for Michael Innes' ingenuity that he crafts a plot in which the weapon used is not unlikely at all.

Michael Innes was the academic J.I.M. Stewart. At the time this novel was published he was Jury Professor of English at the University of Adelaide, going on to become Professor of English Literature at Oxford University. He was in a position to know a lot about the internal life of a University, and the quirks and foibles of its academic staff. He has set this story in an English "redbrick" University which he describes in an acutely condescending way:
The provincial universities of England, although often abundantly medieval in point of architectural inconvenience, have little of the organization characteristic of traditional places of learning. The staff - a word which at Oxford or Cambridge might be used of persons employed in a hotel - is not accommodated in spacious common rooms and cosy suites. Sometimes it is provided with a cellar in which the extravagant may drink coffee-essence at eleven o'clock; sometimes there is also an attic with chairs, where meetings may be held; a midday meal is obtainable by those who will grab from a counter with one hand and from a cutlery basket with the other. The scholars live in remote suburbs, often surrounded by two, three, or even four children and a wife;...
And as I read this book I was thinking that surely this must all be meant satirically. The professors are all caricatures; the descriptions are recognisable, but exaggerated, as though in creating them he has sampled from only the worst possible traits: they are ambitious and competitive, vague and pedantic, vain and combatitive, given to hypothesising, to finding amusement in oblique speculations, and inclined to think themselves competent in fields outside their expertise, (and throughout I wanted to engage with the author and contend that my professor is not like this, he is interesting and encouraging, good natured and friendly - why are these qualities not represented amongst this awful lot?) It is notable that his detective John Appleby, young, brash, intelligent and literary, is appalled by everyone he meets. We have access to his thoughts throughout, and his conclusions about the characters that populate this story are always negative. It almost made me cringe: he accepts their hospitality, the glass of brandy or the friendly banter, but invariably his thoughts run to "parasite" or "displeasing young man".

The crime itself, its reason, method and motivation are all confusion from the beginning to the end, and yet the final chapter does give a resolution. It reminded me of the kind of problem you can pose in mathematics in which there are an infinite number of solutions. There are many conceivable solutions to the puzzle of the death by meteorite; the correct one was simply the one that the author chose. There is something inherently unsatisfying in that. But this opinion only reflects my mathematical bias - the notion that the crime novel should revolve around a puzzle for which there is a single solution, or be philosophical in nature.

Nonetheless I found it an interesting book to read. John Appleby takes much of his crime-solving inspiration from literary sources, and the writing is witty and whimsical. But it's not quite Ellery Queen.

Also by Michael Innes:
Penguin no. 1299: Stop Press
Penguin no. 1577: Appleby on Ararat
Penguin no. 1640: Hamlet, revenge!
Penguin no. C2201: Hare Sitting Up
Penguin no. 2533: The Last Tresilians by J.I.M. Stewart

1 comment:

  1. Now, see, I work in a college English Department and I thoroughly enjoy the outrageous caricatures. Are any of the professors in our department so thoroughly unlikeable? No. Self-absorbed? Well....maybe. :-) But I do think that Innes's tongue is firmly in cheek and he's having great fun at the expense of academia. This is one of my favorites by Innes.

    Congratulations on finishing the Challenge! You've got quite an interesting list (I still need to go back and read through all of your reviews). If you'll send me an email at phryne1969 AT gmail DOT com, I'll send you the prize list for the books you have to choose from. No Penguin editions that would fit into your collection I'm afraid--but hopefully there will be something on the list that strikes your fancy.



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