John Innes Mackintosh Stewart Stewart, J(ohn) I(nnes) M(ackintosh) (Vol. 32) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

J(ohn) I(nnes) M(ackintosh) Stewart 1906–

(Also writes under pseudonym of Michael Innes) English novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, and biographer.

Stewart is best known as the prolific author of intricately plotted detective novels written under the pseudonym of Michael Innes. Through their academic settings and intellectual themes, these works reflect Stewart's status as a retired Oxford don. The main character in most of these novels is John Appleby, a gentleman-detective who solves his cases through a combination of skill and intuition. The series has followed Appleby from inspector to knighted chief of police and into retirement.

Stewart's fiction published under his own name has much in common with the John Appleby series, including scholarly settings and themes, humorous elements, and an interest in the world of art. However, rather than concentrating on art as their subject, as in the detective novels, these works deal with the artist's creative process and his role in society.

Critics admire Stewart's ability to be both suspenseful and insightful in all his fiction. Among the later John Appleby novels are Sharks and Adders (1982) and Appleby and Honeybath (1983); under his own name Stewart has recently published The Bridge at Arta and Other Stories (1982) and A Villa in France (1982).

(See also CLC, Vols. 7, 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Michael Innes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Appleby came into being during a sea voyage from Liverpool to Adelaide. Ocean travel was a leisured affair in those days, and the route by the Cape of Good Hope took six weeks to cover. By that time I had completed a novel called Death at the President's Lodging (Seven Suspects in the U.S.A.) in which a youngish inspector from Scotland Yard solves the mystery of the murder of Dr. Umpleby, the president of one of the constituent colleges of Oxford University. It is an immensely complicated murder, and Appleby is kept so busy getting it straight that he has very little leisure to exhibit himself to us in any point of character or origins. But these, in so far as they are apparent, derive, I am sure, from other people's detective stories. I was simply writing a yarn to beguile a somewhat tedious experience—and in a popular literary kind at that time allowable as an occasional diversion even to quite serious and even learned persons, including university professors. (p. 11)

Appleby arrives in Oxford in a "great yellow Bentley"—which suggests one sort of thriller writing, not of the most sophisticated sort. But "Appleby's personality seemed at first thin, part effaced by some long discipline of study, like a surgeon whose individuality has concentrated itself within the channels of a unique operative technique." This is altogether more highbrow, although again not exactly original. And Appleby goes on to show himself quite formidably educated, particularly in the way of classical literature…. This must be regarded as a little out of the way in a London bobby lately off the beat. And there is no sign that Appleby is other than this; he is not the newfangled sort of policeman (if indeed such then existed) recruited from a university. Research in this volume will show that he is definitely not himself an Oxford man. (pp. 11-12)

What Appleby does possess in this early phase of his career is (I am inclined to think) a fairly notable power of orderly analysis. Had he been a professor himself, he would have made a capital expository lecturer. But I am far from claiming that he long retains this power; later on he is hazardously given to flashes of intuition, and to picking up clues on the strength of his mysteriously acquired familiarity with recondite artistic and literary matters. (p. 12)

What I am claiming here (the reader will...

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Connie Fletcher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The coast of Cornwall is the setting for [The Ampersand Papers], Sir John Appleby's return to crime investigation. The retired Scotland Yard inspector is admiring Treskinnick Castle when the external staircase to the tower collapses and Appleby witnesses an old man plunging to his death…. Appleby senses murder, and his investigation leads him to the core of family enmity and a fascinating literary puzzle involving correspondence between Ampersand's ancestor Adrian Digitt and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Connie Fletcher, in a review of "The Ampersand Papers," in Booklist, Vol. 75, No. 16, April 15, 1979, p. 1274.

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A] veteran writer who sees people clearly and with compassion is Michael Innes, and he brings Sir John Appleby back once again in "The Ampersand Papers."… Any Innes performance is sure to be urbane and amusing, and his latest book follows the pattern. There is plenty of background before Sir John appears (he is witness to the fatal accident), and the background includes a look at decaying British nobility. Mr. Innes has a lot of fun with the mental incapacities of a stuffy old lord, who in a way comes right out of P. G. Wodehouse.

There is also something about literary remains, a subject about which Mr. Innes knows a great deal…. But Michael Innes wears his learning lightly, and "The Ampersand Papers," one of the lighter and less consequential in the Appleby series, is an utter delight.

Newgate Callendar, in a review of "The Ampersand Papers," in The New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1979, p. 22.

A. N. Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Opening a new volume by J.I.M. Stewart always provides one with the reassuring impression that art stopped short somewhere during the leisurely reign of George V. It is like coming off the busy squalor of Piccadilly and pushing back the door of some fusty old London club, where the leather armchairs and the thick Turkey carpets and the dull tick of the old clock seem to belie the existence of the modern world…. [The Bridge at Arta and Other Stories] is as polished and solid as an old mahogany table….

Being one of the most accomplished authors of detective stories in our language, Mr Stewart has no difficulty in concocting improbable and exciting twists of plot whenever he picks up his pen. His delight in Henry James has never prompted him to imitate the Master's curiosity about the puzzling enigmas of human character. His medium is deft caricature, and the division between Michael Innes and J.I.M. Stewart, has, over the years, become so slight as to be inconsiderable. He does not provoke helpless laughter, like P. G. Wodehouse; something more of a chortle, a fruity, slightly donnish smirk is what his stories aim to produce. But like Wodehouse, the world he has created is entirely self-sufficient. The plots hang on lost art treasures, academic jiggery-pokery, macabre twists of fortune in colleges and country houses. And our pleasure in them is neither diminished nor increased by their complete lack of resemblance to anything which any of us would ever have called the real world. The snobbery, for example, of the Stewart world is totally innocent and fantastical. No one here speaks, in Anthony Powell's faintly creepy phrase of 'breaking new ground'. The hierarchy remains as untouchable as that which supports Lord Emsworth. The clever, good-looking plebs go on being plebs. However attractive they may be to males or females of the upper crust, they are happy, on the whole, to leave it that way.

A. N. Wilson, "Gentle Malice," in The Spectator, Vol. 247, No. 7999, October 31, 1981, p. 22.

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Lord Mullion's Secret" is a throwback to the classic British mystery of the 1930's. Charles Honeybath of the Royal Academy, who has appeared in previous Innes books, is here engaged to paint a portrait of the lady of a castle.

Yes, a castle, inhabited by types beloved of British mystery writers of the past. There is a noble family, including a dotty old aunt. There are a disagreeable son, a rather mysterious young gardener of obviously superior breeding and two nice girls. There is a fake miniature substituted for a valuable Elizabethan one. In fact, the book has everything but sliding panels and secret rooms. And the prose matches. "You scoundrel, stop that instantly!" says Honeybath. Lovely.

Newgate Callendar, in a review of "Lord Mullion's Secret," in The New York Times Book Review, February 14, 1982, p. 22.

Bryn Caless

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

J.I.M. Stewart is well known as an academic, a prolific novelist, short-story writer and author of thrillers under the penname of Michael Innes. This time he has his short-fiction hat on, and has produced five stories and a novella (of some sixty pages) for [The Bridge at Arta and Other Stories]…. [All of the stories] exhibit that expertise in construction which is a Stewart hallmark. The first story, 'The Bridge at Arta', is an ironic sketch of a widow meeting her first husband, whom she had divorced fifty years before. It affords Stewart the opportunity for wry reflections and juxtapositions, and although the characters are slight there is enough background interest to retain our attention. The same cannot be said of the long 'The Time Bomb', which takes ages to explode and does so only then like a damp squib…. The next story, 'The Little Duffer', about a boy wrongly accused of arson, is infinitely better since Stewart tries less hard to be clever and gives more time to developing the narrative. 'A Reading in Trollope', which concerns snobbery and family honour, would provide a pleasant diversion without the irritating academic overlay and too insistent irony. The final stories, 'The Chomsky File' and 'The Real Thing', are competent, artificial exercises in applied irony.

Stewart is an able writer, but this collection suffers from several drawbacks. It is too much a performance, an elaborate orchestration of language without consideration of aim or purpose; the characters are too limited—academics or businessmen (and boring as well); and the plots are mere artifices for making philosophical excursions into the lofty. More muscle and less posturing would help the collection away from the banal, the quaint and the 'historical—literary'.

Bryn Caless, in a review of "The Bridge at Arta and Other Stories," in British Book News, May, 1982, p. 321.

Marghanita Laski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[With] Innes one can be confident of an elegant tale which, though easily putdownable without itchy suspense, is almost certain to be picked up again; and so it is with Sheiks and Adders, whose locale is a vulgar garden-party. But how, in such a phantasmagoria of improbability, even such a policeman (or ex-policeman) as Appleby may judge plausibility from reality is not to be known.

Marghanita Laski, "Feeling Like Death," in The Listener, Vol. 108, No. 2771, July 29, 1982, p. 27.∗

Harriett Gilbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[J.I.M. Stewart] has written, in A Villa in France, an eminently readable, amusing and vacuous novel. A pastiche on the styles and preoccupations of Trollope, Proust and—above all—Jane Austen, it has for its heroine a parson's daughter who, while a schoolgirl, refuses the hand of a dissolute, playwright neighbour; later to marry his tedious brother—an impoverished Catholic academic. Whether intentionally or otherwise, the plot pretty soon deteriorates into something closer to Mary Stewart than Austen—with mysterious wills, and strange young men lurking in foreign villas—while the disappointing denouement shows signs of authorial laziness, or boredom, or both. But then, as Stewart says in passing, when 'reviewed in batches by acrid women' what chance does a novel stand?

Harriett Gilbert, "Lunacies," in New Statesman, Vol. 104, No. 2695, November 12, 1982, p. 33.∗

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Innes is one of those almost relentlessly-literary mystery writers who are "thick on the ground," as he would say, only in England. In "Sheiks and Adders," his usual hero, Sir John Appleby, the retired head of the London police, is given to what might be called arch ratiocination. He goes to a local fete at Drool Court, for example, merely out of a curiosity to know why Cherry Chitfield's father "was being so intransigent over the detail of a particular piece of miming or charade." He is drawn to the fete "by a sense of a small mystery," which is surely the idlest speculation ever indulged in even by a retired English policeman.

Sir John is witty. He notices that when people dress up at a...

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Stephen Bann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If a 19th-century paternity exists for [A Villa in France], it is surely in the mannered accomplishments of George Meredith, who is credited in passing with being the most recent novelist to be studied in the Oxford English School. A Villa in France has that beguiling property—so eminently characteristic of Meredith—of seeming to slide more or less uncontrollably between epochs. This is partly because the characters themselves seem to be based as much on well-known fictional prototypes as on anything specific to period and place: the Rev. Henry Rich is described on the first page as coming 'straight out of Mansfield Park', and it is a matter for debate whether he succeeds in emerging from that...

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Roger Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

J.I.M. Stewart is a retired fellow of an Oxford college and My Aunt Christina is a book of short stories, each with an academic ring. Ostensibly tales of the unexpected, denouements can in fact be easily guessed. As a consolation the collection turns into an Eng. Lit. kit, with allusions made to other works. The Aspern Papers is behind Aunt Christina's secret trove and also 'The Doctor's Son', in which a vicar's annotations are found to be brilliant pieces of textual criticism. The Picture of Dorian Gray is the progenitor of Perley's pictures—by an artist who paints not what he sees but what will be seen. Michael Furey, the singer, is the name of the plaintive voice who sang to Gretta Conroy in...

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Books And Bookmen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If you recall all the epithets that have been used to describe Michael Innes' books in the past and repeat them [about Appleby and Honeybath], you will be pretty near the mark. A country house weekend, a body in a library, a most knowing butler and a houseful of rather eccentric guests would seem to be a recipe for a cliché-heavy whodunnit in the classic mould. Michael Innes does not exactly break the mould but he stands the clichés on their head with a flick of his whisk turns stodge into soufflé. As in Sheiks and Adders we can only marvel at what a long way a little style will make the old ingredients go…. Literature and art combine in the solution as they do in the book's composition. It is a...

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Innes, as experienced mystery readers know by now, is an Oxford don, and his suspense novels give us the kind of pleasures peculiar to Oxford dons. There is so much bel canto in them that the mystery assumes a secondary place, like the libretto of an opera. Yet, it could be maintained in his defense that wit, learning, civility and British eccentricity are all, in a sense, more mysterious than violence or crime.

In "Appleby and Honeybath," there are "lurking miscreants" who "pernoctate," or remain in residence day and night, and detectives who ponder "velleities," which means impulses at the lowest level of volition. When Appleby, who has retired from his position of commissioner of...

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Anna Shapiro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The major ingredients in this staid little novel ["An Open Prison"] are: a proper English boys' public school; a boy whose father is sent to prison; an underclassman who is the grandson of the judge who sentenced the older boy's father; the father's prison break, and the subsequent running away of the two boys…. The story is narrated by Syson, the housemaster of the older boy, Robin, and from the outset clues pop up where there turns out to be no mystery…. As narrator, Syson comments on other people's remarks as being "oddly inconsequential," exactly what the accretion of clues turns out to be. His descriptions of characters are dully equivocal or weirdly at odds with his judgments of them; everybody's reactions...

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