(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Long after he had begun to enjoy fame as the mystery writer Michael Innes, an amused J. I. M. Stewart observed that it was an early English instructor’s intentionally disparaging remark that led him to try his hand at detective fiction. As a young man, he had been castigated for having the sort of imagination associated with popular rather than serious novelists. Death at the President’s Lodging (1936), renamed Seven Suspects in 1937 so as not to confuse an American audience, was written to amuse rather than to edify during Innes’s long voyage from England to Australia, where he was to spend a decade teaching students about the “important” works of literature as jury professor of English at the University of Adelaide. The rapidity with which Innes put together a whodunit replete with the Jamesian characterization, genteel setting, and literary allusions for which he continues to be known offered early promise of an extraordinarily prolific and often-distinguished career.

Death at the President’s Lodging

Even a casual glance at Death at the President’s Lodging suggests that it is not surprising that the work was published under the pseudonym Michael Innes. More than a traditional police procedural, this first novel is characterized by its humorous and often gently critical look at a variety of academic types. Those unable to appreciate adventure fiction by those of some popular reputation (as a student, Innes had been condemned for being too much like his favorite Kipling) would likely have looked askance at an academic who publicly made use of his position to satirize both his vocation and his colleagues. Sometimes criticized for its cumbersome mechanics (the plot hinges on the comings and goings of an eccentric group of dons through a minutely described academic quadrangle), Death at the President’s Lodging makes clear from the outset that Innes is primarily concerned with exploring the possibilities inherent in language itself. The novel introduces John Appleby, a Scotland Yard police officer who matures, ages, and rises in consequence along with his creator and who may be presumed to act as a voice for Innes/Stewart. Quiet and unassuming, possessing not a hint of the flamboyant, Appleby charms the well-read reader with his erudition. He in fact injects a new kind of mystery into a time-honored format. To enjoy a typical Innes mystery, a reader must be able to recognize quotations from a variety of literary sources, discover irony in the use of place names, surnames, and titles, and find pleasurable a slow pace and formalities of vocabulary and phrasing evocative of the nineteenth century. Published in its final form in 1937, as Great Britain was once again on the brink of war, Death at the President’s Lodging, as is true of most of Innes’s subsequent efforts, casts an amused eye on the narrow concerns of a select group, one that manages to remain untroubled by world turmoil.

As Innes himself acknowledged in a piece written in 1964 for Esquire, his thrillers are less topical and more understated than typical examples of the genre; indeed, they are “of the quiet Missing Masterpiece order: very British, very restrained.” Designed as entertainments, they purposefully limit a reader’s attachment to any one character and scrupulously avoid dealing directly with specific and pressing social or political concerns. Mysteries, Innes holds, are not the place to explore complex motivations and make readers aware of deep psychological truths. They ought not aim at facilitating the formation of new values or prompting the rejection of old ones. Rather, they should be a source of...

(The entire section is 1509 words.)