The supernatural has no known rules, and nowadays we are comfortable only with rules. If we are to play our stereotyped games or make our engines work or keep fit we must follow the rules. Mr Eliot's later books are successful because everything is subject to rules which the reader knows. There is generally a puzzle which the reader can solve by means of the rules - and that implies that in the little universe of the book the reader is master. The books - though the reader is hardly aware of it - cater for the need of security. Real life is horribly insecure because God is capable of keeping a vital rule or two up his sleeve and giving us unpleasant surprises as a result.Choosing a Michael Innes' novel to read can feel like something of a gamble; choose the wrong one to read first up, and you could be left bewildered, untempted to read another, and unaware of how exceptional his writing could be. The books are so varied, that sampling simply doesn't work: choosing one or two books at random will certainly make you aware that these are books unlike other mystery or detective novels, with plots that are purposefully complex, imaginative and unrealistic, and inherently unsolvable, but they may not reveal what this author was capable of: Michael Innes' brilliance is displayed intermittently. But when they are good, there is nothing to match them: they are a pleasure to be savoured.
Persisting is therefore worthwhile, as it will eventually lead you to such gems as Hamlet, revenge! and The Last Tresilians, but it is also perplexing: how could the same mind that wrote The Last Tresilians also write Appleby on Ararat? With Stop Press I felt I had glimpses of the answer, for alongside the entertaining, though unbelievable, mystery, there was an examination of the experience of a writer. For someone with other interests, literary success can be experienced as a self-constructed trap, and a pressure that never abates.
Richard Eliot is the author of 37 books featuring The Spider, and he plans to write at least a few more. The Spider has had a tortuous career, something reminiscent of G.K. Chesterton's Flambeau, beginning as diabolical, though literary, criminal, altering direction over the years, and now changing sides and engaging in crime-detection. The critics applaud this plastic nature, this subtle development of character. But the truth is that Mr Eliot tires of his creation, and the changes are necessary to keep him interested in his task. Becoming a writer was never his plan; it was embarked on only as a contingency against future school fees, but having started, he finds it is impossible to stop. Other people have become dependent on the continuing stories for their livelihoods: the publisher, the dramatist, the translator, the actor who plays The Spider in the films, and Mr Eliot's cousins and children. The Spider is now an industry, envisioned as an insatiably hungry printing press. Mr Eliot would happily stop that press, but with so many dependents he feels the pressure to continue.
But now it seems that someone else would like to see the press stopped as well. That someone is willing to go to great lengths to create the illusion that The Spider has come to life. Adopting both extremes of The Spider's various permutations, he burgles a neighbouring house, and then steps in as detective to point out the vital clue, ensuring the recovery of the stolen items. The thing has the air of an elaborate joke, but with a sinister element. It is the apparent clairvoyance which most disturbs Mr Eliot: he recognises the events which are being enacted and he is aware they spring from his thoughts rather than his words; these are plot ideas contemplated but never used.
As with Hamlet, revenge! this book retains some of the elements of a Golden Age mystery, but in an exaggerated form. The setting is again a weekend party at a country home, but now with an even larger cast of possible suspects, and a greater number of amateur sleuths. John Appleby's involvement is unofficial: he is invited as a guest of his sister Patricia, and her friend Belinda Eliot, and he retains the air of an amateur throughout. There is very little detecting involved, with a reliance on presentiments and a little acting to find the solution. But it was entertaining, original and ambitious, although perhaps a little long, and there are some lovely caricatures of Oxford tutors and aspiring writers.
However it was the focus on the reflections and motivations of a successful mystery author that provided the most interesting aspect of the book. Boredom, restlessness, the call of other interests and the risks that someone may adopt your ideas to actually implement a crime; each discussion seemed to provide a possible clue as to the reasons behind both the originality and the perplexing inconsistency of quality of these Michael Innes' books.
By the same author:
Penguin no. 1576: Appleby Plays Chicken
Penguin no. 1577: Appleby on Ararat
Penguin no. 1578: The Weight of the Evidence
Penguin no. 1640: Hamlet, revenge!
Penguin no. 2201: Hare Sitting Up
By J.I.M. Stewart:
Penguin no. 1960: A Use of Riches
Penguin no. 2037: The Man Who Won the Pools
Penguin no. 2533: The Last Tresilians (as J.I.M. Stewart)
And another blogger who reviews books by Michael Innes:
A bookish oaf