Sunday, 31 March 2013

Penguin no. 2080: Silence Observed
by Michael Innes

Sir Gabriel had died in an enormous and cavernous room like a mausoleum. One end was taken up by tall windows which proved to be only of the slightly subterraneous order. The other was occupied by a vast historical painting by John Martin. It was called The Destruction of Carthage and depicted a huge harbour crowded with grappling vessels, surrounded by colossal moles crammed with improbable pylons, cenotaphs and fortifications, garnished with three or four hundred drowned, stabbed, crushed or dismembered human bodies and illumined throughout by a lavish display of fireworks diversified by skyward-roaring flames. All this now made a kind of backcloth to one additional corpse, that of the late Director of this imposing institution.

This is an older John Appleby: he is now 53 and Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and therefore the most important policeman in the country. But while this new role has brought respect and recognition, it has also distanced him from the excitement of investigative policing. His seniority tends to preclude a direct involvement in solving cases, for any move to step in would be interpreted as suggesting a lack of faith in his staff. His tasks are now mostly administrative, and he finds himself kept informed of the progress of investigations rather than taking an active role in solving them.

But when two murders are committed in London less than twelve hours apart, both sharing certain similarities which suggest they may be associated, he finds himself drawn into the investigation through the possession of information which has inadvertently come his way. The murdered men had both been involved in some capacity with the world of collecting, one dealing in books, the other an expert on painting. And both men seem to have been taken unaware, each dispatched by a bullet through the back of the head.

Trenchman was the first to be killed, and he seemed a most unlikely candidate for murder victim. He was the owner of a dusty and disorganised secondhand book store located close to the British museum, and he had specialised in old leatherbound volumes of past centuries, which made robbery an unlikely motive for the killing. But Appleby had learnt something more about Trenchman earlier that day while trying to pass a quiet moment at his club.

His fellow member Gribble, a collector of forgeries, had been brimming with enthusiasm over a recent acquisition which he understood to be a Manallace forgery of some verses by Meredith. Appleby had watched as Gribble's excitement had turned to consternation when he spotted a small detail which established without doubt that his newly-acquired forgeries had themselves been faked. Trenchman had been the dealer, but Gribble was not considered a suspect in his death: no one in the collecting world would be tempted to murder by stakes as low as the one he had paid. They are more likely to be tempted to silence, to ensure that no one would ever hear of how they had been duped.

And it is this tendency for keeping quiet which Appleby notes is so conducive to the fortunes of forgers and fraudsters. The story turns on what is real and what is faked, and how it can be known with certainty, and there is perhaps some amusement that in the perversity of the collecting world some forgeries can be more valuable than the originals, and others completely worthless . When he asks around his club discreetly, in his capacity as head of Scotland Yard, he hears many variations on the same basic story of deception, with some members well aware they have been had, and others continuing in ignorance of their error. He suspects the criminals he seeks have something of a sporting instinct - money may be one incentive, but they are clearly entertained by their ability to outwit these successful old men.

I found Silence Observed to be one of the better Michael Innes' titles. He maintains the momentum by telling his story efficiently. There is no character introduced who is not integral to the plot, and similarly no surplus event is described, and no unnecessary conversation recorded. Appleby's every action, both conscious and inadvertent, provides another piece of information which helps him draw the separate threads of this complex plot into a cohesive narrative. And this he does with calmness and authority. Like most of the Michael Innes titles I have read, this is a thriller, but it is one which almost seems to take on the characteristics of the protagonist. There is no deviation into farce, and Appleby always seems in control.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1286: Death at the President's Lodging
Penguin no. 1299: Stop Press
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. 1960: A Use of Riches (as J.I.M.Stewart)
Penguin no. 2037: The Man Who Won the Pools (as J.I.M.Stewart)
Penguin no. 2201: Hare Sitting Up
Penguin no. 2533: The Last Tresilians (as J.I.M.Stewart)


  1. This is a very good review. I really want to re-read the Appleby books, and there are so many of them. Good to know that you enjoyed this one. Thanks.

  2. Great review Karyn. I've loved the Applebys I've read so far, and it's nice to know the later ones are still good!

  3. I still haven't got round to reading any of the Appleby books, and I must, You make them sound so good.



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