Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Old Hall, New Hall--Or "Treasure, Treasure...Who Get's the Treasure?"

 Old Hall, New Hall (1956) by Michael Innes (J. I. M. Stewart)

Colin Clout has returned to his alma mater in search of job. Not that one has been advertised, he's just sure that one will magically open up for him. And, lo and behold, it does. He maneuvers his way into the Shufflebotham Fellowship--the only requirement of which is to take on a few students in a subject called "Higher Literary Form" and to write a biography of a subject that will be given to him after acceptance. It winds up that he is appointed to write the biography of Sir Joscelyn Jory (circa early-mid 1800s), of the Jories from whom the buildings for the university had been purchased. Clout doesn't expect the research to be riveting (but then neither does expect it to be too onerous). But...

It seems that Sir Joscelyn and his brother Edward had gotten themselves into an epic wager. Joscelyn was an amateur archaeologist in a way--digging up things to bring home. He had designed a mausoleum which was to serve as sort of museum for his collection. Edward was a collector of sorts as well--a collector of feminine beauty all round the world. Friends of the brothers had egged them on in a wager where each brother was to produce the finest specimen from their collection that they could and Sir James Dangerfield (first of the friends) was to judge whose was better. Joscelyn was supposed to have produced a fabulous treasure and Edward a beauty like never seen before. But odd things happened, a swap was supposed to have taken place, and, to cut a long story short, the treasures disappeared. So...

Instead of biographical research, Clout, the Jories, various academics and hangers-on are all on a hunt for the fabulous treasure. Clout thinks he's working with Olivia Jory (descende, a lovely young woman whom he met on his first day back and with whom he's fallen in love. He has a rival in George Lumb, another academic type who had also wanted the Sufflebotham position. There's an American academic wandering in and out of the picture. Professor Gingrass, the man who hired Clout, wants to find the treasure for the prestige. The Jories want to find it--but the question is whose descendants should get to have it? Joscelyn's--because he produced it--or Edward's--because of the rumored swap? Soon the entire grounds are riddled with holes as Professor Gingrass arms the undergraduates with picks and shovels and a mandate to find the treasure!

This is not, in my opinion, one of Innes's successes. There is too much build-up to the action (such as it is). It takes way too long to get to the treasure-hunting and even then the hunt isn't particularly exciting. There's a bunch of digging, but the actual discovery of the treasures takes place completely off-stage. He makes an effort at academic satire, but it doesn't really come off. The writing is dense and convoluted--the only defense of it could be that he was making fun of dense, convoluted academic writing but it doesn't really approach good parody. He has done much better with his commentary on academic life in The Weight of the Evidence, Death at the President's Lodgings, and to a certain extent The Open House (which does odd and elliptical rather well).

Optional reasons for my lack of enthusiasm for this particular Innes academic-oriented "mystery." Possible spoilers ahead....

1. This is Innes as his most whimsical and elliptical and I just wasn't in the mood. Or I'm getting too old for this nonsense.*
2. I've just gotten tired of Innes's whimsy and elliptical style.
3. The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
4. There really isn't much of a mystery here and, though deaths are mentioned, there are no murders.'s really obvious that the "villain" of the piece is really the "villain" of the piece. (Quotes because even the villain isn't really all that villainous.)
5. Clout, Lumb, Olivia, and Sadie (our main four) are all pretty annoying people.
6. The "twist" regarding one of the treasures was heavily telegraphed...I'm surprised that Clout was surprised.
*7. Nonsense alert...Clout and Lumb's rivalry is meant, I think, to be funny. Looking at it from this side of fifty, I'm appalled at how quickly they adjust their sights from one young woman to the next. If I'm Sadie, I certainly wouldn't be flattered.
8. All I could think about when Clout met Olivia and immediately fell in love with her while sheltering her under his umbrella was the song "Bus Stop" by the Hollies. "Bus stop, bus goes, she stays, love grows under my umbrella." Except it didn't--love didn't grow, not matter how much Clout deluded himself about Olivia's interest in him.

I've given it two stars...but it's possible I'm being generous. ★★

First line: It didn't seem much to have changed, Clout's authentic University, during the four years he had been away.

It hasn't come to them yet that they may need books. They think getting a degree is a matter of attending lectures and writing down as much of them as they can remember afterwards. (Sadie Sackett; p. 45)

It was clear that Professor Milder had evolved principles of discourse which approximated his conversation to the behaviour of bodies in outer space. Once launched, there was no reason at all why it should ever stop. (p. 91)

And English gentleman cannot, of course, steal. But it seemed to me only too likely that Joscelyn's acquiring of these costly objects had been not unattended by some measure of legal irregularity. (letter from Sophia Jory; p. 118)

Last line: But they glowered at each other from time to time as they walked.


Deaths = 3 (two natural; one hanged)

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