Stewart, J(ohn) I(nnes) M(ackintosh) 1906–
Stewart is a British novelist, critic, and short story writer. As Michael Innes, he has written crime novels centering on academic and aristocratic characters involved in remarkably intricate plots. In the fiction appearing under his own name, he often considers the artist in society. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
[Michael Innes certainly gave his books a thick] coating of urbane literary conversation, rather in the manner of Peacock strained through or distorted by Aldous Huxley. The Innes books were immediately acclaimed as something new in detective fiction from the publication in 1935 of Death at the President's Lodging, a title with misleading implications for the United States, where it was rather tamely renamed Seven Suspects. The Times Literary Supplement said that he was a newcomer who at once took his place in the front rank and, with the publication of Hamlet, Revenge! (1936), called him "in a class by himself among writers of detective fiction."
There was actually nothing very new about Innes's approach. J. C. Masterman, in An Oxford Tragedy (1933), had produced very much the same kind of "don's delight" book, marked by the same sort of urbanity. But Innes is the finest of the Farceurs, a writer who turns the detective story into an overcivilized joke, by a frivolity which makes it a literary conversation piece with some detection taking place on the side. There is no greater quotation spotter or capper in crime literature than Inspector (later Sir John) Appleby, and few Innes characters of this period will flinch at playing a parlor game which involves remembering quotations about bells in Shakespeare. Appleby, when confronted by the "fourteen bulky volumes of the Argentorati Athenaeus," murmurs: "The Deipnosophists … Schweighauser's edition … takes up a lot of room…. Dindorf's compacter … and there he is." Appleby shows off, not out of sheer pretentiousness like Wimsey or Vance, but from genuine high spirits. The Innes stories cannot compare as puzzles with the work of Van Dine or Queen. Their strength is in their flippant gaiety, and perhaps the best of them all is Stop Press (1939), in which he dispenses with the almost obligatory murder, and keeps the story balanced on little jets of unfailingly amusing talk. (pp. 126-27)
Julian Symons, "The Golden Age: The Thirties," in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.; in Canada by Curtis Brown Ltd), Harper, 1972, pp. 118-32.∗
The outrageous punning on Professor Pluckrose's death (The Weight of the Evidence, 1944), the flamboyant and likable professorial forger of The Long Farewell (1958), and the amusing escapades of the Patriarchs at Oxford (A Family Affair, 1969) testify to Innes's essential reverence for university tradition and innocence. He takes it for granted that his professors' learning is vast, their integrity almost unchallengeable, and their flaws not serious enough to discredit their calling.
A late Innes story seems to reveal a change of attitude. In An Awkward Lie (1971), Innes follows Bobby Appleby, son of the famous quotation-capping detective Sir John, back to his old prep school on the track of a murdered mathematics teacher…. Nostalgia takes over … as Bobby finds the carved desks, muddy football boots, and crumpled candy wrappings unchanged since his school days. When we discover that Overcombe houses a beautiful and good golden girl, an eccentric but sporting old art teacher, two precocious empire-builders named Walcot and Breadon, and finally the world's greatest cryptographer …, we realize that for Innes order, tradition, and British...
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salvation still rest with academe. (pp. 372-73)
Agate Nesaule Krouse and Margot Peters, "Murder in Academe," in Southwest Review (© 1977 by Southern Methodist University Press), Vol. 62, No. 4, Autumn, 1977, pp. 372-73.∗
["Honeybath's Haven"] is a leisurely, traditional British mystery in which page after page is spent establishing character. Not until more than halfway through is there, finally, a murder. There are the required eccentrics and Dickensian types…. The prose is stately and Victorian…. It's all very civilized and, unfortunately, also a bit labored.
Newgate Callendar, "Crime: 'Honeybath's Haven'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 11, 1978, p. 35.
Full Term is the last of Stewart's five Oxford novels, and the closing chapters are full of poignant narrative knottings. Like most of his fiction, it's extremely well-constructed and contains some genuinely funny characters….
What makes it hard to take, especially in the early pages before you get acclimatised, is the ponderous archaism of the style. Pattullo, the narrator, is supposed to be a temporary Fellow, imported only a year ago from his London life as a successful dramatist. But this is a dramatist who thinks stage electricians still talk about rheostats, who refers to people nearby as being 'within bow-shot', whose friends say things like 'This is a damned rum place, Pattullo', and who has a conversation with an undergraduate that goes, 'Junkin is a frightfully good producer, isn't he?'—'He may become one. He's no end enthusiastic.' He even calls Britain, 'The kingdom'. But if you can get past all that, he's a likeable, gallant, unselfish, romantic kind of chap with a good eye for a yarn….
Jeremy Treglown, "Snob Story," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 96, No. 2468, July 7, 1978, p. 27.∗
[On the whole, Full Term] does not contain as many intricate side plots and proliferating confusions as [Stewart's] earlier novels, but the dramatic high points, when they come, are devastating in their effect: Ranald McKechnie, the remote classical don married to the woman Pattullo once loved, at last struck down by his mechanical leaf-gathering and scrub cutting monster; Fiona, with whom Pattullo has been conducting a muffled and elusive affair, finally rejecting his tentative proposal in an enraged out-burst of masterly irony.
To someone new to the series [Stewart's Oxford novels]—and there cannot be many at this late stage—this volume will not be particularly accessible. There are few new faces, and much delving into Pattullo's complicated past….
Full Term is largely concerned with tying up the loose ends of Pattullo's life so far (we find him at the end enjoying vicarious parenthood, so we can be sure he will be carried on into the future), and some lighter threads are left undone. A short visit to Otby finds the three Mumfords, whose disreputable goings on have excited much alarm throughout the series, under siege from Pattullo's discarded wife Penny. Particularly distressing is a glimpse of Cedric reduced to senile amatory ravings. But we are not told how things turn out.
The series has been stretched as far as it can comfortably go: so choked with past incident is it that forward progression has become very difficult…. There is consequently a slight sense of strain throughout Full Term, but none the less it brings A Staircase in Surrey to a satisfactory conclusion, completing what amounts to a celebration of Oxford, unequal in its parts perhaps, but always providing great entertainment, not least in its gallery of eccentric dons and dons' wives. One of the real pleasures for the reader has been in observing the way a character such as Arnold Lempriere (whose memorial service closes the series) has been subtly built up from book to book. The novels have been informative, too—it would almost be possible to extract from the whole work an invaluable guide entitled "Stewart on Oxford Parties", ranging from five-year-olds' birthday celebrations to sherry with the Provost to the full formality of a Gaudy dinner.
Susan Kennedy, "Donnish Delights," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3979, July 7, 1978, p. 757.
J.I.M. Stewart's compilation of stories, Our England is a Garden,… charts the loss of certain English values the author clearly prizes…. Stewart seems unwilling to face the present: when we are told, in the second story (about a don invited to write his autobiography), that 'the best English memoirs, after all, had been written long ago, and he had read pretty well every one of them while still an under-graduate', the implicit attitude is that Culture belongs to the past. No wonder Stewart's Professor Mannering notices that 'a tremendous amount of nonsense is written about literature, even more than is written about history'. We know what literature is, dammit: you read it when you're an undergraduate, and it's not good form to question standards or values. Such attitudes predominate in Stewart's fiction—attitudes too conventional and received to really begin to test your own thinking and prejudices.
Jeremy Tambling, "Nature Study," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2525, August 10, 1979, p. 208.∗
[To turn] to the prim, crusty, Ciceronian rectitude of J.I.M. Stewart's four long stories [in 'Our England Is a Garden'] is to seem to travel sharply backwards in time and downwards in temperature. So jocularly urbane is the archaic narrative, so blandly resting on Edwardian class assumptions, that at times it seems almost to be parodying itself.
Mr Stewart is ironic at the expense of those who live in the past, and his stories—about the downfall of a stately home, the humiliation of elderly academics—show the inevitable enfeebling of traditions. But he has not himself given up to what he calls 'classlessness.'
The stories have, as is to be expected, efficient amusing twists, and they 'do' the vanishing classes expertly: aristocratic landowners (being replaced by cooks' sons), real scholars (being replaced by 'the miserable race of periodical reviewers.') But they are chilling and disdainful pieces, not greatly interested in human beings. As one of his characters remarks: 'All this about feelings remains an intellectual conception.'
Hermione Lee, "Backwoods Messiah," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9808, August 19, 1979, p. 36.∗