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

Book Review by Sylvia D: Michael Innes’s Death at the President’s Lodging (1936) was the first of many novels and short stories featuring detective, John Appleby, eventually Sir John Appleby, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Writers often give their detectives a particular hobby; P D James’s Adam Dalgleish writes poetry, Susan Hill’s Simon Serailler is a water colourist. Appleby is a literary detective which perhaps isn’t surprising given Michael Innes is the pseudonym of John Innes MacIntosh Stewart (1906-1994) who ended up as Professor of English at Oxford University.

The novel itself is set in St Anthony’s, the college of a prestigious university which lies mid way between Oxford and Cambridge and turns out to be Appleby’s own college. The body of the college President, Dr Umpleby, who has been shot through the head, is found in the late evening in his study. There is a macabre touch in that the body lies next to a skull and a heap of ancient bones and two death heads have been scrawled on the paneling.

This is one of those closed whodunits, like a country house murder mystery, as different parts of the college are locked off in the evening and only certain academics have keys which would allow them into the relevant area – there’s a helpful map at the beginning! The narrative is quite dense and I found you really had to concentrate as so much was focused on who was where when to very tight timing. (Do so many people really remember what they were doing to the minute?)

Appleby finds himself with too much information which tends to contradict itself and he contextualises it in a literary framework,

Why had Umpleby met his death in a story-book manner? For that his death had been set in an elaborately contrived frame seemed now clear: . . . He had died in a literary context; indeed, he had in a manner of speaking died amid a confusion of literary contexts. For in the network of physical circumscriptions implicitly pointing . . . to so-and-so there was contrivance in a literary tradition deriving from all the progeny of Sherlock Holmes, while in the fantasy of the bones there was something of the incongruous tradition of the “shocker”. Somewhere in the case, it seemed, there was a mind thinking in terms both of inference and of the macabre. . . . A mind, one might say, thinking in terms of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe, come to think of it, was a present intellectual fashion, and St Anthony’s was an intellectual place. . . .

In the tradition of so many detective stories, Appleby is catapulted in from London and juxtaposed against the local police Inspector Dodd. Dodd is methodical, sticks to procedures and likes facts, ‘Dodd, heavy, slow, simply bred and speaking with such a dialectical purity that a philologist might have named the parish in which he was born, suggested an England fundamentally rural still – and an England in which crime, when it occurred, was clear and brutal, . . .’ Appleby, on the other hand, is essentially intuitive, he had ‘a contemplative habit and a tentative mind, poise as well as force, reserve rather than wariness . . .’

Appleby senses an underlying tension amongst the dons and it gradually emerges that they nearly all detest Umpleby and might have reasons for killing him; an alternative title is Seven Suspects. This plethora of possible suspects certainly keeps one guessing until the final denouement. Again in the traditional way, the showdown comes when Appleby gets everyone together and requests all those dons who could have been the killer to make a statement. Everyone accuses someone else! At the same time the real murderer (another of the dons whom no-one has realised isn’t present) is being arrested and killing himself off. It emerges that all the other suspects, having stumbled across Umpleby’s body have had their own hand in which happened immediately after the killing which didn’t even take place in his study – hence the mass of conflicting evidence. Faced with the body of Umpleby, each of them was responding to the fear that they personally would be accused of the murder.

The Spectator reviewer quoted on the front of my Penguin Classic Crime edition (1988) is quoted as saying, ‘Mr Innes writes like an angel.’ I find it hard to believe that an angel would write with such a sardonic tone and poke so much fun at academics – depicting them as ultra-intelligent, but cold, pompous, egotistical and even childlike in their reactions. This results in poor characterisation and I found by the end I was still trying to distinguish who was who. The plot really is very convoluted. This novel could probably do with a second reading but I don’t really feel tempted!

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