Thursday, 16 June 2011

Penguin no. 1640: Hamlet, Revenge!
by Michael Innes

'All over the world today are we not facing a rising tide of ideological intolerance, and are not violence and terrorism more and more in men's thoughts? And this dressing-up of the lawless and the primitive as a ruthless-because-right philosophy or world-picture or ideology that must and will prevail - is this not something to haunt and hold naturally unstable men, whatever their particular belief may be? The modern world is full of unwholesome armies of martyrs and inquisitors. We bind ourselves together by the million and sixty million to hate and kill - kill, as we persuade ourselves, for an idea. Are we to be surprised if here and there an individual kills simply because he hates - and simply because he hates an idea?'

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


  1. What a fascinating review! Makes me want to read the book again, as I can't remember much about it. I really enjoyed reading your essay and analysis.

  2. Thanks, Maxine. I don't imagine I've helped you remember too much about the book here, as it's not a plot that can be easily discussed without giving too much away. I encourage you to re-read it; I would love to hear someone else's view of his books.

  3. One of the truly great msytery novels. Probably Innes' best.

  4. I read Oxford Tragedy years ago. Are you liking it?

  5. Michael,

    Stop Press has been recommended as even better, although I haven't managed to find that book yet. And if you like this, I encourage you to try The Last Tresilians (written under his real name), if you can find it. It is an exceptional book.

    Oxford Tragedy is rather sedate in comparison with Hamlet, Revenge!, and the narrator comes across as a little self-obsessed. But I am halfway through and still interested.

  6. Oxford Tragedy I remember as being a bit stuffy.

    P.S. I am John McNab on flickr. :^)



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