Saturday, 27 August 2011

Penguin no. 1286: Death at the President's Lodging
by Michael Innes

One of the nicest of academic fantasies is Zuleika Dobson, that pleasing narrative of Max Beerbohm's in which an entire undergraduate population, despairing of its heroine's affection, casts itself into the fatal waters of the Isis. The great touch, it will be remembered, comes at the end. Life goes on undisturbed; that night the dons file into the halls of their several colleges as usual; and at the high table dinner proceeds, in complete unawareness of the deserted benches where armies of perished undergraduates had sat.

This was Michael Innes' first detective novel, written during the voyage he took to South Australia in 1936 to become Jury Professor of English Literature at the University of Adelaide. It is a delightfully entertaining if absurd story, written in the tradition of the Oxford college murder mystery initiated by J.C. Masterman only three years earlier with his book An Oxford Tragedy. And it is a comparison with the earlier book that reveals just how creative and imaginative Michael Innes could be in developing his complex plots.

The similarities between the murders in the two books must be other than coincidental. Even allowing for the fact that they are set in the same environment, and therefore describe the same routines and attitudes, there are more parallels than you would expect: it seems as though Michael Innes purposefully adopted a similar premise in order to establish a point of departure between the sober and conventional approach of Masterman and his own fairly whimsical one. In these early novels he makes plain his rejection of the contrived and artificial nature of contemporary detective fiction, of its implausibility with respect to the real world, of its requirement for all-embracing neatness. And while he eschews these aspects, he offers solutions which are themselves completely unrealistic, plausible only in the context of the fictional world he has created. But he does it in a way which is nonetheless satisfying, and that seems something to marvel at.

The story begins after the murder has occurred, as Appleby arrives at the Oxbridge college of St Anthony's in his yellow Bentley to begin his investigation. Earlier that evening the unpopular academic Dr Umpleby had been found dead in his college rooms, shot in the head. The college is locked at night, with after hours access limited to those in possession of a key; it is this constraint which serves to define the possible suspects. There is little concern for the dead academic, but the Dean is very concerned to prevent a scandal. He is also sure that no one within the College could be involved. And so the late night death of an unpopular and unmourned academic by gunshot in a sealed college, together with the aversion to publicity: these are the features that the murders in An Oxford Tragedy and this book share. But here the elements are exaggerated, and Michael Innes adds the scattering of some ancient bones around the dead body, and a group of suspicious academics keen to implicate each other, to make his story more grotesque.

By confining his story within this closed environment of academics, a world completely without women and largely without undergraduates, he is able to explore particular elements of college life: the introspection, the eccentricities, and the academic rivalries. However, the element on which he particularly focuses is the assumed superior intelligence of the person who performed the murder, the idea that a murder committed by an academic has the essential attributes of being planned by someone with insight and forethought. The police are not portrayed as competent, but Appleby is something other: a University-educated man accepted by the academics as one of themselves.  And in this novel he reveals more about his method of detection than is seen the other books, where he simply seems to know intuitively what has occurred. Here he reflects on what he has observed: knowledge is shown to come through contemplation.

The plot is so expansive and complex, and incorporates within it so many sub-plots, that the eventual solution is unforseeable. But it was very amusing to see him offer up such an outrageous idea to neatly round off this enjoyable mystery.

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. 1640: Hamlet, revenge!
Penguin no. C2201: Hare Sitting Up
Penguin no. 2533: The Last Tresilians by J.I.M. Stewart


  1. This one is next on my Innes list. The general set-up sounds also very similar to The Weight of the Evidence.

  2. I read this a while back, Karyn. Thanks for a great review. I'm not sure that when I got to the end of the actual book, I really cared anymore who had murdered whom.

    But any Innes is better than none. :)

  3. Hi Peter,

    The mocking of the academics is much gentler here than in The Weight of the Evidence. This seemed a much more conventional detective novel than any of the other books of his that I have read. It simply becomes increasingly absurd as the end approaches, but in a way that I found entertaining. I'll look forward to reading your review.

    And Yvette,

    There has only been one Innes book that I have really disliked: Appleby on Ararat. I wonder now if I was simply unprepared for it, or if it is as bad as I remember. I'm looking forward to seeing it reviewed on A Bookish Oaf to see what another Innes enthusiast makes of it. But with that one exception I agree that any Innes is better than none.

  4. It sounds more complex than the title would suggest. It sounds similar to other detective storys that have come since this was written although its not a genre I read very often

  5. Hi Jessica,

    I hadn't reflected on how bland the title is, but you're right, that title doesn't advertise the unusual developments in the story in any way. Anyone who has read Michael Innes would have some expectation of what to expect, but of course this only works in retrospect; as this was his first novel it must have surprising at the time.



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