Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes (John Innes Mackintosh Stewart 1906 – 1994) was first published in 1936 and is the author’s first novel in the Inspector John Appleby series. Innes was an academic; professor of English Language and Letters. This novel was published when he was only thirty years old and while I think it is nearly excellent, there are some minor issues that I think keep it from being a five-star novel. First and foremost the most important point to emphasize is that this is not an entirely coldly serious novel, it is a bit self-referential and it does seek to amuse via subtle wit at the expense of detective novels in general. Not just mystery novels, but also academic life (specifically high-brow British).
Throughout the novel the wit and humor is very subtle and very tongue-in-cheek. Readers who can pick up on subtle nuances and hints are going to have a better time of this one than readers who just like straightforward “whodunits.” In his very first detective novel, Innes includes a character who is a don of a university that also, under a pseudonym, writes detective novels. Including such a character is a mark of confidence and also demonstrates the author’s ability to find amusement in such reflective items.
“To be as clear as I can, sir, I would speak a trifle technically and say that your question had a latent content. The feeling-tone evoked was decidedly peculiar.” And with this triumph of academic statement Slotwiner gave one more ghost of a bow to Appleby and glided – levitated almost, to speak technically – out of the room. – pg. 33, chapter 2, part 3.
This segment, where Inspector Appleby is quickly asking a few questions of the butler, was the first piece of the book in which I laughed aloud. Its the “technically” part. It is even funnier as you read it in context. Like I said, the humor is subtle and tight.
There are sometimes passages like the below that can be used as a litmus test for readers. You will either snort because you find it amusing or you will find it tedious, stupid, and obnoxious:
The ability to smell a rat is an important part of the detective’s equipment. Appleby had smelt a rat – in the wrong place. But he was too wary to take it that a rat in the wrong place is necessarily a red herring: it may be a rat with a deceptive fish-like smell – and still a rat. — pg. 166, chapter 11, part 1
Subtle humor like this, a little wordplay, will either make readers giggle a bit or they will find it impenetrable and wonder why the author is writing “like this.” In any case, in this novel there are plenty of suspects, and as the detective often complains, a lot of “light” on the matter. In other words, there seems to be too many clues and too much evidence. This is kind of a fun twist, again surprising for a first novel, on the detective novel trope – usually, it seems, detectives are missing key clues or are constantly looking for more evidence to prove their theories. The fact that there is an abundance of evidence is a neat element for this genre.
The overall theme of this novel, though, is its academic setting. As I have said many times, most writers write what they know and Innes was definitely an academic. We can know this through his biographical reports, but also because of the very accurate and realistic manner in which he portrays the setting and characters in this novel.
Most of the suspects or persons of interest in this novel are dons/fellows/professors. The ones who are not, are long-time residents and employees of the school. The core group of individuals that are involved are scholars: to be seen as experts in their field and in academia generally. These are men who have dedicated their lives to their profession, in whatever specific field of study that was, and have been granted the titles and prestige to go along with achieving a high level of success.
Immediately upon beginning his investigation, and at several points throughout, Appleby is struck by the fact that this case is not the “average crime” involving hasty, ham-fisted criminals. In this case, the suspects and witnesses are all exceedingly comfortable with being interrogated about details, they are experts in explanations, and they are adept at ratiocination. These are calculating, efficient, and sharp intellects that generally do not make errors and cannot be bullied by a gruff interrogation.
Innes does not give us a weakling for an inspector, though. Turns out, Appleby is a graduate of the school himself. The case allows for a bit of a homecoming, if you will. This little detail gives the reasonability of Appleby to “keep up with” the dons intellectually and also for his moving around campus with the facility that is afforded a member, so to speak.
I enjoyed considering this situation. It is a daunting and interesting scenario to put your detective up against. I imagined some of the minds that I know and knew from all of my schooling and I promise I would not want to have to sift through their witness statements or to have to discover which of them was misleading or something. To have to match wits in such circumstances would be intense – but what a fun theme for a novel!
Innes balances out these formidable intellects with a brilliant and lovely segment in chapter eleven that is, no doubt, quite famous among those who have read it. It is worth, probably, reading the entire book just to come upon this fantastic section. Appleby has gone about to trace the movements of a couple of the dons on the night the murder took place. This involves his going to the suburbs where one is likely to find “scholars of enormous age” who live in quiet retreats. The entire segment is worth reading every single word for because it is absolutely beautifully depicted, but the ultimate point is that Appleby has called on a small villa in which lives Sir Theodore Peek.
Appleby found him in a small and gloomy room, piled round with an indescribable confusion of books and manuscripts – and asleep. Or sometimes asleep and sometimes awake – for every now and then the eyes of this well-nigh ante-mundane man would open – and every now and then they would close. But when they opened, they opened to decipher a fragment of papyrus on his desk – and then, the deciphering done, a frail hand would make a note before the eyes closed once more. It was like being in the presence of some animated symbol of learning. — pg. 169, chapter 11, part 2
Every bit of Appleby’s interview with Peek is outstanding for its witty, realism, erudition, and fun. A perfect chunk of writing – including the end of the segment with its utterly truthful response from Appleby. Anyway, this scene is absolutely perfect and I feel like I have seen it, lived it, and see it coming in the future. The description is totally balanced with the necessary realism and the intrinsic characteristic of humor found in brute reality.
From what I have I have written so far, it should be amply clear that I enjoyed the novel and that it contains several uncommon elements to make it interesting and engaging even among mystery readers. However, I am very sad that I have to refrain from giving it the full five-star rating. The first reason is that it became clear that Innes could not (or would not?) write the character of Dr. Barocho. This character was removed from the “likely suspects” early on (he lacked means and motive, I suppose), however, if we are to believe Appleby is as thorough and diligent as he is meant to be, then we were deprived of an interview with Barocho – although we did have interactions with him. Unfortunately, the interactions made Barocho seem like an awkward character simply because of the fact that he is a “foreign” item in the setting. It is not that he was written rudely, but that he was not given a fair chance at being either a hero or a villain. So why include him at all except to include a foreigner?
Secondly, the ending is paced a little too suddenly. One should have expected the denouement to be a bit of a gather round and explain. However, it seems like Appleby was just a moment ago by the river watching the rowing team and pondering clues. Then, suddenly, denouement. The end. It is not inaccurate or strange, but it is paced too suddenly. This could be a product of it, indeed, being Innes’ first novel and maybe in the following books this is tamed and tempered.
Lastly, the strongest reason for withholding the fifth star, is the motive-cause of the murderer. Pargeter would be dismayed. Its not enough. Its not good enough. Its not worth all of the foregoing. It could be valid, naturally, but it was not proven. It was hung upon like shirt is hung on a hanger. It is not sufficiently nuanced.
So, overall, I am thrilled I read this one. It was a great read and I enjoyed so much of it. I loved spending time at St. Anthony’s with all of these gentlemen and I did not find Appleby to be some retread of any other inspector. I liked the setting and the writing and the crime, but yes, I admit, the denouement needed a bit more work. I would happily read Appleby stories again. Recommended for bright readers, vintage mystery fans, and for readers who do not get frustrated at subtle humor. The reader is not going to be spoonfed – to speak technically.