Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Battered Penguins - The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes




This charming book could be described as Michael Innes's 1940 updating of Buchan's 39 Steps. Set mainly in the Highlands, it features Innes's genial policeman, Appleby, but the protagonist is actually a young woman called Sheila Grant. Quite by chance she gets caught up in trying to foil the plans of a secret vanguard of Nazis , when she overhears a piece of poetry - Innes was really a professor of English at Oxford, so this is entirely appropriate - being muttered on the train to Inverness.

I really enjoyed the book, which had a number of surprisingly exciting twists and turns. I had Innes down for a writer of cosy whodunnits but, while this is definitely reassuringly Golden Age in atmosphere, (gallant men, plucky women  that sort of thing, not a speck of grit or a trace of interesting social mix anywhere in its pages), it is also exciting. I suppose I should point out that I don't get out much, so it doesn't take a great deal to excite me. All the same there were nail biting moments, in my (sheltered) view.

I also very much liked the fact that the central female character was given a good deal of initiative - and even allowed to wield a gun in self-defence. I also enjoyed the evocation of a wonderfully empty, (wonderful for the tourist; rather a drawback for those characters trying to get help as they evade the baddies, of course), rural Scotland - and also  of  a world in which constant self-censorship in the interests of not inflaming minority sensitivities was not yet deemed necessary.  Innes writes beautifully and is capable of comic turns as well as philosophical and pastoral musings. In this regard - that is, the comic - I rather liked the  scene in which Appleby and a cohort of other males have to dress up to look like Women's Institute members  and then find themselves needing to give chase to the Nazis: 

"Gathering up their skirts, they went pelting after him"

The green-minded may be a bit shocked by the wanton use of petrol to set fire to pristine moorland so that our heroes and heroine can make a quick get away, under cover of flame and smoke. Nowadays this kind of environmental vandalism would trigger outrage, but The Secret Vanguard is not at all a nowadays kind of  book. It has a single  purpose: to give  a white English-speaking  middle class reader about an hour and a half of very light diversion. Speaking as a pretty much paradigmatic example of its target audience, I reckon it perfectly fulfils that aim


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