Monday, July 04, 2011
From London Far (1946) by Michael Innes
When I was first reading everything by Innes that I could find about 25 years ago, I remained completely unaware of his interest in art (or psychoanalysis, for that matter). Now it turns out that the majority of his books are overwhelmingly concerned with the art, artists, artistic sensibility and all the related issues down to optics and physiology. The Last Tresilians, a Stewart novel, contains the most profound insights into the mystery of artistic perception that I've encountered anywhere in literature. But some of the Michael Innes thrillers - like this one - under the guise of a crime or adventure story also touch upon the subject in a manner not at all trivial. The book concerns the post-WWII theft of European works of art on a massive scale, and the best part of it is set on the coast of Scotland amid some splendidly eccentric characters in the Stevensonian vein (but funnier). There is also a sort of mystery interwoven with the thriller plot: the thieving gang kidnaps and notably mistreats an eminent psychoanalyst - to what purpose? This gives Innes a lot of scope to engage his other pet subject, although his attitude to it seems at the least ambiguous; the psychoanalyst is an 'unsound philosopher', in the words of the protagonist. Some of the proceedings are hilarious: the shrink is followed around by some furniture-removal vans, but since it is an impossible thing, he is driven to deny that he sees them. After he is kidnapped, he also denies the fact because he attributes it to a mere persecution mania due to overwork. And the way how part of his story is related is completely priceless, so not to be revealed. Brain physiology holds the key to the solution of the mystery - exactly as in the other 1946 Innes novel, What Happened at Hazelwood. Moreover, From London Far alludes to the major (musical) clue to the murder in the other book, and Money from Holme, just recently read, refers to the clue of this one, a painting by Masaccio. There are other serious subtexts in the book: some Greenian moral complexities are not at all lost upon the reader, even if treated lightly.
The beginning of the novel is literally explosive yet somehow slow to involve, but once the action gets to Scotland it's hard to put down.