Fri 29 Aug 2008
MICHAEL INNES – Seven Suspects.
Berkley F1158, paperback reprint, November 1965. US hardcover edition: Dodd Mead, 1937. First published in the UK as Death at the President’s Lodging, Victor Gollancz, hc, 1936. [Other US paperback editions include: Dolphin, 1962; Penguin, 1984.]
Without a doubt, in terms of intelligence and general all-around erudition, Michael Innes has to be ranked in the top five mystery writers of all time. (I don’t know how you’d put this to a test, but I can think of only a handful I might start comparing him to, and the funny thing is, they’re all English.)
In the beginning, though, he seems to have been too intellectual for his own good. Seven Suspects was his first mystery novel, and in spite of the great start and the fine setup, to get through the middle portion of the book involves some awfully tough slogging, at least by contemporary standards.
The great start? Well, it’s not quite a locked room mystery, but it’s the next best thing. And speaking of which, what this edition of the novel needs, more than anything else, is a map, a map of St. Anthony’s College, where the President is found shot to death in his Lodging, with gardens and walls and locked doors all around, and only a limited number of keys with which to open them.
There could hardly be a greater contrast between the two officers of the law involved, deliberately so. The local copper is the prosaic Inspector Dodd, far more comfortable with tracking down a gang of burglars than a shrewd and wily killer who leaves a puzzling trail of enigmatic clues behind.
On the other hand, the nimble-witted Inspector John Appleby, sent down quickly by Scotland Yard, is ideal for dealing with the retinue of eccentric academics who never seem to speak before thinking twice (or thrice) about the implications of what they are about to utter.
Being a native Midwesterner by birth, American style, I have to confess that some of the doings in the aforementioned middle portion of the book, carried out by a small company of carefree undergraduates of the college, were intended to be funny, and to the average Londoner at the time, they probably were. Hilarious, that is, and not two chapters later when it dawned on me what had simply slipped by my (much perplexed) perception at the time.
I also realized, much later in the book, that not a single female appears who has a speaking part, and only one has more than a servant’s role. (This comes close to the end of the tale, and it took Innes’s own observation of the fact for me to notice. Sometimes I really am slow.)
And so, this combination of dry academic humor and a decidedly noticeable lack of authorial interest into Appleby the person — that is to say his personal life, his worries and concerns — it all makes this Golden Age gem far out of the mainstream of the mystery world today.
But gem it is. There are some flaws — it’s a wholly artificial staging, of course — but the comings and goings the night of the murder, who did what when, and who saw what and who didn’t, whose voice that was, and whose it wasn’t, it’s a eye-popper and a mind-blower, and my head is still spinning.
A gem that needs some polishing, then, but for an academic exercise in the pure pleasure of plotting, none of the thousands of mysteries ever published are capable of beating this one.