Whilst browsing in one of my local charity shops recently, I passed the Crime books section and this caught my eye. I don’t usually bother with this type of book as they’re normally more modern, thriller/slasher type novels which I don’t really enjoy. An old green Penguin is a bit of a rarity and as I haven’t read any Michael Innes for many, many years (and in fact I can’t recall which of his I’ve read), I thought it was a good time to revisit.

Karyn at apenguinaweek has written extensively about Michael Innes and also the author under his real name of J.I.M. Stewart and she’s not wrong in her assessment of his qualities as a writer. Innes/Stewart started writing in the 1930s and this is his second crime novel, published in 1937. It features his regular detective, Inspector John Appleby, who interestingly enough doesn’t make an appearance until the second section of the novel.

The action takes place (as so often in a Golden Age crime novel!) in an English country house – Scamnum Court , however, is no ordinary country house as the family have been bastions of the establishment for centuries. During an amateur performance of Hamlet, one of the guests, who also happens to be a highly placed statesman, is murdered. However, the plot is not straightforward – Inspector Appleby, called in urgently by the Prime Minister, is not sure if he is looking for a murderer who kills for simple revenge, or if a spy plot is afoot.

This is an absorbing and wonderfully written crime novel, very erudite on matters of Shakespeare. There is a large cast of characters, many of whom were actually taking part in the am-dram performance, and they all have strongly-defined identities of their own. At getting on for 300 pages, it’s a lot longer than many similar types of work, which gives Innes the chance to develope his themes and his people. The main narrator is a likeable young academic called Giles Gott, who moonlights as a crime thriller writer, and it’s impossible not to feel that this is Innes projecting himself into the story.

But there are sinister undertones to this novel. The 1930s was a strange decade, filled with poverty, decadence and the rise of fascism. The dark clouds hovering over Europe inform and impinge on the book, and Innes has his characters reflecting on freedom and the stability of England. I assume his choice of setting and character was deliberate to allow him to comment on the changing times, but this never detracts from the storytelling and in fact adds a poignant touch to the narrative. However much we might deplore the stuffy aristocracy, the alternative is unthinkable.

I enjoyed this book immensely, so much so that I’ve set about tracking down some more Innes and have “The Last Tresilians” sitting on my tbr pile – it’s currently getting very close to the top! If you like Golden Age mysteries with a bit more dept, this book is definitely for you!

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