Thursday, September 01, 2011

Death at the President’s Lodging (1936) by Michael Innes

Death at the President's Lodging1 Death at the President's Lodging
Innes's first mystery and John Appleby's first case, involving the murder of a college President. Murder, to rephrase Chandler, is here given to the people who never really commit it - to play with. And one might perhaps expect that these unworldly academics would go about it clumsily and absent-mindedly, with much scope for highbrow farce. However, university scholars are often - or at least used to be - possessors of what in the literature of the time was known as 'first-class minds'. So what if actually they are very clever about their murders? And indeed they are - so clever that there is no earthly way to deduce what really happened that night at the President's lodging. How does Appleby solve the crime, then? Well, he finds a witness who just happened to see the whole thing - and 'the whole thing' in this case involves several people hopping around the college with clockwork precision, their movements timed to the minute, dragging around a dead body which, among other things, keeps bleeding profusely long after life has departed. Complexity can be satisfying and it can be maddening, and this is strictly the latter variety. Moreover, the whole book is full of endless recapping by Appleby of what might and might not have happened and who was where at what particular time and whether a number of different gates were locked or unlocked at some moment or other and how ten different keys were changing owners over a period of time. All this, of course, was the kind of stuff then generally expected of a crime novel, so in writing his first Innes was merely adopting a form. If this was the kind of detection he could come up with, no wonder that Appleby in the future relied rather more on psychology and legwork. Even more disappointingly, the characters here are bland and colourless to such a degree that it is quite difficult at times to remember which is which, and still more difficult to care which of them 'did it'. No surprise is produced in the end, and I think Appleby is very shaky on the murderer's motive. In fact, a fascinating kind of motive - academic jealousy - is suggested very early in the book, but absolutely nothing is made of it. All in all, a big disappointment - the poorest Innes I've read so far.

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