Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Philip Gooden and Michael Innes

Philip Gooden is a thoughtful and interesting writer, of high quality crime fiction and much else besides, who was Chair of the CWA a few years back. He and I talked about Michael Innes recently, and I asked if he'd like to write a few lines for the blog on the subject of a personal encounter he had with Innes, in his role as academic rather than novelist. As for me, I think I've been unlucky with Innes - I tried one or two of his later novels as a teenager, and they didn't grab me. But he was a major figure of his era, and Philip's enthusiasm for him - he's very knowledgeable about literature - makes mey feel I should give him another try. And I've certainlly always liked Innes' short stories, anyway, which are slight yet very entertaining.

Here's what Philip has to say, which offers a most intriguing glimpse of the great man at close quarters:

"Michael Innes wrote dozens of golden age whodunnits, most of them featuring John Appleby, the detective who rises to become Commissioner at Scotland Yard. Under his real name, J.I.M.Stewart, he produced a substantial quantity of straight novels as well as academic studies. (Innes was his middle name.) Stewart was a long-time Fellow of Christ Church, Oxford, and his crime fiction regularly had the ‘donnish’ label attached to it.       

When I was at university in the late ’60s, I went to see Stewart lecture because I’d enjoyed a couple of the Appleby books and was curious to see him in academic action. Appleby and donnishness perhaps represented the antithesis of almost everything that was happening in universities in 1968/9, and Stewart looked a bit of a throwback compared to trendier lecturers like Christopher Ricks or John Carey. With his well-cut suit and silvery, slicked-back hair, he reminded me of an uncle of mine who was an accountant. 

Stewart had written all or most of the ‘modern’ volume of the Oxford History of Literature, which first appeared in 1963. This was a time when the cut-off date for literary studies at Oxford was 1945, so the modernists he discussed were authors like Thomas Hardy, Henry James and James Joyce. I think that he was talking about Joseph Conrad that morning. The lecture wasn’t very well attended and, disappointingly, he didn’t really address the few people in the room but merely stood at the lectern and read  -  head down  -  from the relevant chapter in his book. The only moment I remember is that he had evidently changed his mind about something he’d written for he suddenly glanced up and said: “That’s nonsense, by the way.” He didn’t expand on why it was nonsense but went back to reading from his script.

J.I.M. Stewart’s straight novels are pretty well neglected these days, which is a pity as in their circuitous way they have quite a bit of charm and narrative dexterity. In particular his quintet, A Staircase in Surrey, is difficult to put down (round about the time you’ve reached volume 3). So it’s good to see some of the Appleby books are reprinted by House of Stratus and also available on Kindle." 


Doug Greene said...

His memoir, Myself and Michael Innes, is donnishly charming. His daughter contributed a warm and very personal reminiscence of Innes for our (Crippen & Landru's) gathering together his uncollected Appleby stories, "Appleby Talks About Crime."

seana graham said...

I got on quite a Michael Innes binge for awhile, and I just remembered that it all started with Hamlet, Revenge! I just might have to renew my acquaintance with him.

I have some if not all of that multi-volume J.I.M. Stewart series too, but unfortunately currently in storage. I'm glad to have an image of him, as I really had no sense of him as a person at all.

motherofmike said...

Around 1980 I wrote Innes a fan letter--the only one I've ever written. I had read all of his crime novels, some numerous times, several of his straight novels, and his Eight Modern Writers. I remember saying that I could not understand why his Appleby's End was not more known as the comic masterpiece it is. I told him a little about myself, including the names of some of my favorite writers and artists. I was surprised to receive a postcard in reply with a charming note thanking me and mentioning that he also liked the painter Georges de La Tour!

Since the I have reread many of his books numerous times and listened to the Audible versions. I've come to have a sense of him as a man with an unusual combination of qualities, extremely intelligent, learned, but also intensely imaginative and with a wild sense of humor. Besides all this he was a very humane person.