Friday, 2 September 2011

My New Literary Crush: Michael Innes. . .

Michael Innes, where have you been all my life?

Well actually you've been lurking in the dark corners of my bookcases - part of a neglected group that was hidden behind another layer on my doublestacked shelves. Fortunately, (or desperately), I've had to cull my overflowing shelves lately and so discovered a few of his novels.  I can't remember when or where I bought them, but I must have read a glowing review somewhere.  And I'm delighted to have found such a treasure among my many unread books.

I love mysteries with a sense of humour and if it's of the academic or bibliophilic type, even better.  Which is why fiction written by authors who were also English professors (as John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, aka Michael Innes, was) are often so deliciously witty.  The New Sonia Wayward had me at the first mention of our protagonist's wonderfully silly and yet appropiate name - Colonel Ffolliot Petticate.  Folly and pettiness are certainly key themes that permeate this comedy of suspense.

In the opening paragraph, Sonia Wayward - Petticate's wife - has just died of natural causes while the couple was sailing in the English Channel. Something of their married life can be gleaned by what Petticate does next. After a careful consideration of how many of the suddenly extra pork chops now available for dinner he should eat, he takes his wife's clothes off, puts on her bathing suit and calmly tips her body overboard. When Petticate returns home to the small English village of Snigg's Green, he lies to his neighbours, telling them his wife is just on an extended trip and can't be contacted.  Sonia was a successful writer of romances and the main breadwinner.  She left an unfinished manuscript which Petticate, worried his income and way of life are about to disappear, tries to finish.  He finds he quite enjoys the writing and believes in his talent. But his nerves are being stretched to the limit;  he is under constant pressure from the police, Sonia's editor, and a famous sculptor to produce his wife, not to mention the unsettling presence of his two sinister servants who simply will not leave the house, even after being fired.

There are certainly shades of The Talented Mr. Ripley (published five years earlier), in The New Sonia Wayward.  Petticate shares Tom Ripley's growing ego, his paranoia, and even at times his touching vulnerability.  But Innes has a far more comic touch and the predicaments that Petticate finds himself in as a result of his lies and deceptions are very funny indeed, especially the last and most fitting one.

I'm hooked.  I have two other Innes books to read - another standalone novel, From London Far, and Hamlet, Revenge!, one of his Inspector Appleby mysteries.  If they prove to be as equally enjoyable, then this is going to be a very long affair.  Innes was quite prolific and the House of Stratus editions are very handsome indeed.


Audrey said...

I've never read him...which is even better, because I love finding new mystery series to read. You've intrigued me!

Marina Endicott said...

Then I think it will be a long affair—From London Far and Hamlet, Revenge! are my two favourite Michael Innes books—although as soon as I say that, others come crowding in, like Appleby's End and The Journeying Boy. Innes is a treasure, one of the very best mystery writers: his cool, brilliant intelligence deepening a darkly funny world view.

Blithe Spirit said...

Thanks for those recommendations. I have Hamlet, Revenge on my shelves and will make a note of those others that you mention. I'm glad he was so prolific - it'll be nice to have lots of books to look forward to.