The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes

A Golden Age Mystery

Ipso Books| 3 Oct. 2017|228 p|Review copy|4*

Nobody, she said to herself, is necessarily what he appears to be; nobody.

I enjoyed The Secret Vanguard very much. It’s the fifth in Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby series and is very different from the first one Death at the President’s Lodging, which I read several years ago, a book that had little action, much description and a lot of analysis.  Set in 1939 on the edge of war, The Secret Adversary is full of action, a story of spies, kidnapping and a race through the Scottish Highlands to save a scientist. It reminded me in the Highlands section of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps.

It begins with the murder of poet, Philip Ploss at his home in the Chilterns and Appleby is mystified wondering why anyone would have wanted to kill him. He had been shot in the middle of his forehead whilst in a gazebo with a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside.

It then moves to Sheila Grant, travelling by train to Scotland when she overhears a conversation about poetry as one of the passengers quotes from a poem by Swinburne. She thinks it is odd that he had added in four lines of his own and realises that the words were a sort of code that he was passing on. And, indeed this discovery leads her into danger but before she can alert anyone else she is captured and held prisoner, eventually escaping in a desperate search for assistance.

I liked all the twists and turns in this somewhat improbable story as Sheila, with much courage and luck scrapes through several dangerous escapades until Appleby comes to the rescue. I enjoyed the descriptions both of London and the Highlands as I raced through this book. I also really like Innes’ writing style, detailed, formal and scattered with frequent literary allusions and quotations. He has packed a lot into The Secret Vanguard.

My thanks to Ipso Books for a review copy via NetGalley.

Amazon UK link
Amazon US link

Crime Fiction Alphabet: I is for Innes

Michael Innes is the pseudonym of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart (1906 – 1994), a British scholar and novelist, and is my choice to illustrate the letter I in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet.

He was born near Edinburgh, the son of a Scottish professor, and attended Edinburgh Academy, then Oriel College, Oxford where he won the Matthew Arnold Memorial Prize in 1939 and honours in English. He was a Lecturer, then a Professor in English at different universities, finishing his academic career in 1973 as a Student (Fellow) at Christ Church Oxford.

He published many novels, and short stories as well as books of criticism and essays under his own name, including biographical works on Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy. Writing as Michael Innes he wrote many crime novels, the first being Death at the President’s Lodging, written in 1934 during his sea voyage to Australia. It was the first of his 29 books about his Scotland Yard detective, John Appleby, published in the UK in 1936, and in the USA in 1937 as Seven Suspects, to avoid readers thinking it dealt with the US President.

In an essay written in 1964 Innes described his writing methods – during the academic year he wrote for two hours before breakfast. He thought that reading detective stories was addictive (I have to agree with that!) and that he managed to escape the compulsion to read them by writing his own mysteries (maybe I should try that). He thought in depth characterisation wasn’t right in detective stories and he avoided having real problems or feelings intrude on his characters. He regarded crime fiction solely as escapist literature.

Death at the President's Lodging 001I’m currently reading Death at the President’s Lodging – a used Penguin Books edition published in 1958, one of the green and white crime fiction books.

It’s set in a fictional English college, St Anthony’s (much like an Oxford college) where the President of the college has been murdered, his head swathed in a black academic gown, a human skull beside his body and surrounding it, little piles of human bones.

As I would expect from a professor of English, Innes’s writing is intellectual, detailed, formal and scattered with frequent literary allusions and quotations.  The plot is complex and in the nature of a puzzle. There are plenty of characters, the suspects being the dons of the college. As well as Appleby there are the local police, headed up by Inspector Dodd, who acts as a foil to Appleby’s intellectual approach to the murder. I’ll write more about the book when I’ve finished it.

For a list of Michael Innes’s work see Wikipedia.