Thursday, 1 December 2011

Battered Penguins XV

I am always happy to read books that tell of murders in English country houses. I understand that the current theory has it that country houses are symbolic of Eden and stories that present the reader with murders that take place in them, complete with investigations leading to the murderer or murderers being brought to justice, are soothing to the spirit, because they suggest that order has been reintroduced into a briefly unstable world. By the end, all is restored to calm, and God - in the shape of the detective - is taking care of things once more.

Possibly that theory does go some way to explaining why I find these kinds of books pleasurable. However, after reading Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes, I realise that, while it is satisfying to see God put back in charge in the final chapter, I also like to get to know a few appealing human characters along the way.

Michael Innes was an English Literature scholar at Oxford University, and I suspect that Hamlet, Revenge! reveals an extraordinarily neatly devised Hamlet-related structure, if you are familiar enough with the play to recognise that it is there. Certainly the setting of the book, a huge house called Scamnum, in which an amateur production of Hamlet is being mounted, is presented from the perspective of a person steeped in literature: "Mr Pope though he went away to scoff in twenty annihilating couplets, came secretly to admire; and Dr Johnson, when he took tea with the third duke, put on his finest waistcoat ... Thirty years before the birth of Shakespeare " et cetera et cetera.

The book only really gets going when a murder occurs during the first performance of Hamlet at Scamnum. From that moment on, Giles Gott, a writer of murder mysteries, joins forces with Innes's trademark detective, Appleby, to solve the mystery. Sadly, to my mind, the introduction of a writer of detective stories into a novel that is a detective story, a device that I suspect Innes thought was marvellously clever, is just one of the ways in which the book fails through being too clever by half.

For Innes's concoction is utterly brilliant, in the way that a really clever chess game is brilliant, but the dazzling ingenuity of its construction, the (quite possibly to others) glitteringly witty ploy of having a mystery writer within a mystery novel - and characters who make veiled references to other fictional detectives as if they were actual:  '"... in my opinion the Duke should send for a detective." "A detective?" said Noel politely from across the table. "You mean a real detective - not like the police?" "Exactly - a real detective. There is a very good man whose name I forget; a foreginer and very conceited ..."' - such things do not provide enough sustenance to make the reader feel especially warmly toward the novel, in the absence of rich characterisation.

The book does have some quite funny moments - one about advertising, the other about the usual readers at the British Library - and  is full of insights and lovely descriptions, such as the ones that follow:

 "Moving about Scamnum ... was like moving in a dream through some monstrously overgrown issue of Country Life"

"Some unidentifiable South London common was slipping past, at once banal and mysterious under the garish London sky. Far to the east a train whistled - the profoundly disturbing whistle of a train in the night."

"'Quite so,' said Gott - and assumed that charming, charmed and tentatively understanding expression which is the Englishman's defence .."

"In the farther park two textures of moving grey were sorting themselves out: mist drifting, eddying, dispersing; sheep beginning to move in the dewy feed. Already the day declared its season; already the scent of the syringas, heavy as orange-blossom, was blowing up from the gardens. The hubbub dawn-chorus had tuned to distinguishable notes: willow-warblers montononously tumbling downstairs, chaffinches as unvaryingly revving-up, and suspense provided only by the wrens, who pleased themselves as to whether or not they should add answer to question." 

It also includes one passage of such amazing prescience that it is difficult to believe it was really written as long ago as 1937:

"Appleby drew deep breaths of June air as he went briskly down the drive. The summer was advanced in this southland country; from somewhere came the scent of the first hay and already the oak-leaves were darkening. Over his left shoulder he looked up at Horton Hill. Across the crown there must be some right-of-way, for no attempt had been made to eject the people gathering there. It was quite a crowd now: idlers in the neighbouring towns, reading the stimulating news in their morning paper, had hurried to get out the car and motor over to see what they could. And soon there would be similar arrivals from London; people 'running down for the day'. And portents these, thought Appleby, of a society running down in another sense: clogged by its own mass-production of individuals who, let loose from a day's or a lifetime's specialized routine, will neither think nor read nor practise any craft, but only gape."

What it doesn't have though is characters one can care much about. The Duke and Duchess are not merely cardboard, but rice paper, the young female love interest appears to have barely any interior life and the cast of extras are caricatures mainly. Of the two male leads, one couches a lot of his interpretations of what he sees within the framework of the ballet he'd been watching before being called back to work, (which, as I hate 'dance', is not a trait that endears the man to me), and the other is perfectly nice but lacks any especially charming or interesting trait, (unless you count the writing of detective mysteries), that might give the reader an insight into his soul or a reason to feel some sympathy with him.

Where Albert Campion, in Margery Allingham's books, remains constantly intriguing and Gervase Fen, in Edmund Crispin's, is consistently absurd, Gott, although somewhat worried about whether he will get the girl he wants to marry, is essentially unneurotic and very self-confident and Appleby seems to be equipped with few emotions. As a resul,t it is hard to feel particularly involved with either of them. Consequently, the book gives readers the sense that they are observing a pretty puzzle clicking neatly into place, a puzzle devised by an academic mind that hopes to entice with country house furnishings but is unable to bring the puppets he's invented into true, lovable life. The repeated arch references to fictional detective novels within this detective novel, although perhaps intended as some kind of mirror to the play within a play in Hamlet, do nothing to add to the work's charm. Although there is a great deal to like and admire in Hamlet, Revenge! - the plotting, in particular, is immensely clever - what is slightly lacking, sadly, is the warmth that might bring such a well-engineered machine to life.

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