Saturday, August 13, 2011

There Came Both Mist and Snow (1940) by Michael Innes

There Came both Mist and Snow

Another of Innes's family gatherings in an old baronial hall, or baronet's mansion in this case, around a strangely half-hearted crime - not murder, but only attempted murder this time. The house and park are surrounded by an industrial estate, with vast neon signs, factory sirens and traffic noises intruding all the time upon the pastimes of the upper classes. This creates a curious atmosphere, but the book is a curiosity in many other respects as well. This is an early Innes - only his 6th novel - which reads like a late one: it's short, under-characterized, and the ending is more whimsical than satisfying.

Borges speaks of the Ellery Queen mystery structure, in which two solutions are proposed, a convincing but false one, and the even more convincing true solution. Innes seems to have made a speciality of discarding as many solutions as he can manage. In this particular case, there are solutions implicating by turns every member of the house party, with increasingly bizarre motives and murder methods involved. The book is overflowing with extravagantly stressed details which are only too obviously clues planted by a clumsy author - but they are so varied and puzzling that it seems impossible to sort out the direction in which they should be pointing. From this material, a full collection of Father Brown stories might have been produced. After going over a dozen promising if overcomplicated versions of the crime - involving anything from fancy shooting methods to dextrocardia - we arrive finally at the true solution, which uses one and only one clue, completely missed by the reader in the very first pages of the book and connected with the quotation in the title. This is both neat and infuriating; infuriating because there is no real logic substantiating any of the versions, including the final one; the choice between them is made just on the author's say-so. Appleby does not put in five minutes of honest detection here, while at one point going to the length of knocking out an innocent man with a stone for the sake of an anatomical experiment. At another point he falsely reports a man to his family as having been killed by an industrial press and leaving remains 'no more than a few millimetres thick' - which probably gave Innes an idea for a later novel, but which is also a rather shocking instance of black comedy even for this author.

As usual with Innes, there are multiple diversions in this unsatisfactory chronicle. The characters are surprisingly entertaining despite being underdeveloped due to the short length of the book. The narration is in the first person (unusually for Innes), and the narrator, a slightly pompous elderly author perhaps in the Henry James mould, has some priceless exchanges on the craft of literature with his cousin, a scatterbrained mystery writer in the Agatha Christie vein. There is also a parlour game of Shakespeare's bells and a lovely false clue quotation from Yeats:

Bolt and bar the shutter,
For the foul winds blow:
Our minds are at their best this night,
And I seem to know
That everything outside us is
Mad as the mist and snow.


Karyn said...

I haven't read this book, but you touch here on the very aspect that first disturbed me about Michael Innes: this sense of the right solution being only one of many equally plausible possibilities rather than a unique solution that can be logically deduced. Eventually I managed to look past that and appreciate the other worthy aspects of his stories. And frustrating though his lack of consistency is, I try to keep in mind that writing even one brilliant novel is an impressive achievement, and I know he managed that.

polecat said...

Yes, there is this arbitrariness about some of his solutions, which partly may have been due to an intentional spoofing of genre conventions. But aside from that I seem to remember Stewart acknowledging somewhere in his autobiography that plotting and clueing were not his major strengths. And I think he very definitely had a strong inclination towards the fantastic and the bizarre, which spoiled a few of his stories but perhaps enhanced some others.