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, hardcover, 1936. [Other US paperback editions include: Dolphin, 1962; Penguin, 1984.]

MICHAEL INNES Seven Suspects

   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 very tough slogging, to use the vernacular, 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 (Berkley) 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.

MICHAEL INNES Seven Suspects

   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 perfect 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, but not to me. To the average Londoner at the time, they probably were — and maybe even hilarious. (It took me a chapter or two of such antics, but I did finally get into the spirit of things.)

   What is also true, as I came to realize toward the end of the book, is that not a single female appears who has a speaking part, and only one who’s in the book at all has more than a servant’s role. (In all truthfulness, it took Innes’s own observation of this patricluar 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 in 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, very very few of the thousands of mysteries ever published come even close to topping this one.

— August 2002, slightly revised

NOTE:   I started reading this book last night and got through the first chapter and part of the second before saying to myself, “this story is awfully familiar. I think I’ve read it before.”

   I did some checking, and yes, not only had I read it before, I’d written a review of it and eventually posted that review on this blog. This is a re-run, in other words, perhaps the only the second time I’ve done so. The original post was almost ten years ago, so if you remember it, your memory is obviously a lot better than mine.