There Came both Mist and Snow (1940) by Michael Innes, Ipso Books There was always a puckish side to Innes, not least about endings, and big houses, and families, but also, habitually, floating threads of English literature (which was J.I.M. Stewart’s day job), or, indeed, the history of the English language. Appleby is, after all, Oxford-educated and therefore a gentleman detective. He was a bachelor then. So there is a big house, with questions about its future, especially as two local brewers’ neon signs dominate the land around the house (creeping commercialism, one might say). Appleby has been invited to dine with the family, and the brewers, because he has interests which overlap with some of the relatives’ own. And then there’s a shot. Was it intended for the current holder of the Belrive Priory domain, Basil Roper (7th baronet), or for someone else in the family? After all, in most country house murder mysteries, there are always striving siblings and cousins after the spoils, a kind of wannabe entitlement.
One has to be pretty clear that there are elements of ‘the condition of England’ novel (though perhaps the Scot in Stewart might have voiced it otherwise). ‘Cosy’ with a message, perhaps. In the case against ‘cosy’ mysteries, their snobbery is one of the counts held against them. Cousin Arthur Ferryman, who narrates the story, doesn’t have anything to do with ferries; his surname is an old historical deformation of ‘the iron hand’, and thus, inevitably, the ruling classes. The moniker of the plebeian brewer, Cudbird, is a form of Cuthbert, a native saint revered in the northeast, including much of Yorkshire. In our day, the mix of snobbery, deference, and the snub has retreated. As for motives, both brewers want to buy the house and its land; Sir Basil’s heir is his brother, whose own heir, his son, has other things in mind. Their sister writes bad crime fiction—which sells. Innes’s puckish provision of endless motives is an almost endless succession of variations on the theme. As Appleby take over the investigation, his methods can be unorthodox. I say no more.
With the onset of winter, this kind of book comes into its own, not just with the complexities of the plot, or the poetry, or its variety of red herrings. Getting to the end, more or less ‘in the library’, is much less interesting than the cast of characters, and—as so often in this series—there is quite something to be annoyed by at the end. Never mind. Set the logs in the fire and put on the kettle. There’s your evening in.
The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes (1940), Ipso Books Who had J.I.M. Stewart been reading? That seems to me a secret of its own. Surely he had read E. Phillips Oppenheim, Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, some Buchan, Edgar Wallace, but not, perhaps, the more social police procedurals of John Creasey, under whichever pseudonym. Innes touched espionage from time to time, but in the early part of his career it was still a question of amateurs protecting Britain. The delicate bit was the interwar period in which war was coming, and coming ever closer, but not yet arriving. The Secret Vanguard leans toward Buchan, but it has at its heart an intelligent woman capable of holding her own against crowds of treacherous spies. She is on her way to relations in Scotland when distracted by poetry exchanges by two men in her carriage. It gnaws at her that two of the lines quoted don’t sound like Swynburne, and, after a while, she realises that it was code. Well, not every 24-year-old Scottish woman could do that. Not to mention her ability to read a compass.
There’s a very sensible American, too, which was pretty daring at the time. But there’s no romance here, more the cliché of the scientist-to-be-kidnapped. I would quite like to think of Innes reading Eric Ambler, with that repeated man-who-walks-into-danger character. Oh, yes, of course there’s a puckish ending. Well, it’s less an ending than just a full stop. That’s what that generation became famous for: doing their duty, then clamming up.