Friday, October 17, 2014

Appleby's Answer: Review

Rather a tiresome man. But it does seem extravagant to propose to murder him. (p. 84)

But it begins to look like that may be what is in store for Sir Ambrose Pinkerton in Appleby's Answer by Michael Innes (John Innes MacKintosh [J.I.M.] Stewart; 1973). It all begins with Priscilla Pringle, well-known author of clerical  murder mysteries, and a train ride with Captain Bulkington. Miss Pringle notices with pleasure that Bulkington is reading one of her novels. When the captain realizes he is sharing the compartment with the author herself, he tries to interest her in collaborating with him on a novel and offers her 500 pounds to do so. But the longer he talks, the odder she thinks he is as he tries to pick her brain on various devious murder methods and she parts from him at the train station without promising anything.

She and her fellow author, Barbara Vanderpump, discuss the incident on the way to the Diner Dupin, an annual banquet for detective novelists where a certain retired Scotland Yard man by the name of Sir John Appleby will be the honored guest and special speaker. Miss Vanderpump, having more romantic leanings in her fiction, suggests that the captain might be romantically inclined and it wouldn't hurt to indulge him--"it might be a matter of doing something kind." Miss Pringle is none too sure about that, but resists her friend's suggestion that if she feels that disturbed about the captain then she ought to share the incident with their distinguished guest.

Next thing we know, Miss Pringle ventures into the captain's territory, ostensibly because she has heard that the last rector of the village died under mysterious circumstances and she wonders if there might be background material for her next novel. She meets up with the captain and actually strikes a deal with him to discuss--by post--possibilities for a murder mystery. As things advance, she soon learns that very similar incidents are happening to Sir Ambrose Pinkerton, despised neighbor of Captain Bulkington. Sir John, who comes upon portions of the story by chance, is also curious about the odd events in Long Canings and helps the local Inspector--Graves by name--to unravel the lethal puzzle.

Innes's situational humor and witty prose are the high points of this novel. The fun he pokes at detective novelists (and to an extent romantic novelists) alone is worth the price of admission. And there is a great deal of enjoyment to be had in Miss Pringle's visit to Long Canings's church services (the great battle of Hymn 203 vs. Hymn 302). There is, unfortunately, very little detecting going on here. Sir John and Lady Appleby are delightful characters, but most of his insights into the goings-on at Long Canings would seem to be inspirational and intuitive rather than deductive. There are very few clues to point the reader in the direction of his reasoning. But the twist at the end is a good one nonetheless.

The book succeeds because of Innes's descriptive powers and his finely drawn characters. The understated rivalry between the Misses Pringle and Vanderpump; the contrasting characters of the Captain's two tutoring charges; the interactions between Miss Pringle and various of Long Canings's inhabitants; and the interplay between Sir John and Lady Appleby as they encounter the folk of Long Canings as well. This all makes for a delightful read and more than makes up for any deficiencies in the mysterious quality. ★★

This fulfills the "Pseudonymous Author" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card.

1 comment:

fredamans said...

I'm not sure if I would get into this one or not. Great review!