Saturday, 28 May 2011

Penguin no. C2201: Hare Sitting Up
by Michael Innes

"He undoubtedly hated the Nazis. He found everything hateful about them - with the exception of them hating us. He felt that, in that particular regard, there was much to be said for their point of view." 

"You yourself, don't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?"  D.H. Lawrence Women in Love

The title is taken from the second quote, spoken by the character Birkin in D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love. He dreams of a world free of humanity, but the point being made here is not so much about the dream as the dreamer. For what if someone actually had this dream, and felt it strongly enough to act? When D.H. Lawrence created his character such speculation was idle, but by 1959, when Michael Innes wrote this book, scientists were developing means that could be used to bring it about. The reference is not to nuclear weapons, which would kill all life indiscriminately, but to biological ones, which could wipe out humans, leaving the world safe for all other species. Of course, a person who desired such a thing would be mad. But Michael Innes has one of his characters reflect on how odd it is "that a madman and his fantasies should be so perfectly symbolical of the whole drive of civilization today." 

And so this is the vision being presented: science and technology delivering to the world a bleak and menacing future. Criticism is not levelled at the scientists. They are presented as reasonable individuals grappling with the conundrum that they must develop these weapons in order to protect against the risks that they pose. It is humankind that is criticised, for its self-centred endangerment of other species through hunting and collecting, and for unthinkingly persisting in belligerent practices which threaten its own survival. It presents a new and dismal way of considering the world, in sharp contrast with the pre-war modernist belief that progress and improving technology would inevitably bring a brighter tomorrow.

The book is a mystery novel rather than a crime novel. A man has disappeared and Sir John Appleby is called in by the Prime Minister to find him, for the man who has gone missing is Professor Howard Juniper, the top scientist in a government research station developing biological weapons. Professor Juniper's record keeping is a little lax, and no one knows if biological specimens have gone missing as well. A range of possibilities is canvassed: serious ones such as mental breakdown, espionage or kidnap, and trivial ones such as the need for a holiday and the disinclination to inform his colleagues. The government's immediate concern is ensuring the public is kept in the dark, and so Professor Juniper's twin brother Miles is called in to take his brother's place. To say any more would be to give the plot away.

This is an older, married Sir John Appleby. The story has elements of an adventure novel, but with a reluctant hero who is not that enthusiastic about the chase. Much of humour is farcical, but the author never loses sight of his message. The overall tone of the book is serious and concerned. And I have to comment briefly on the experience of reading a J.I.M Stewart and a Michael Innes in series: as interesting as this short book was, it was impossible not to feel a little disappointed simply by knowing what this author is actually capable of, for Michael Innes reads like J.I.M. Stewart in dilution. And yet these are the vagaries of fortune, his exceptional writing is forgotten and his comparatively mediocre writing persists.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1299: Stop Press
Penguin no. 2533: The Last Tresilians by J.I.M. Stewart

Postscript. There has been a problem with Blogger during the last few days which is affecting the comment and follower systems on some blogs, and unfortunately mine is one of the ones affected. So I apologise to anyone who was intending to leave a comment, and thank those who have contacted me to let me know that it wasn't possible. I can only hope that the problem will be resolved by Blogger soon. Karyn. (Update Monday 30/5/2011: The problems with commenting have now been resolved.)

2 comments:

  1. This is one that I have on my TBR pile...In fact I have about 6-7 Innes books sitting and staring at me reproachfully.

    I've got your latest list updated at the progress site!

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  2. I am the same, I have about 15 Michael Innes' books that I own but haven't read, and I am looking forward to reading every one of them. I'm just waiting to receive Stop Press in the mail; I read a review recently suggesting it is the best one.

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