Previous experience with the detective fiction that John Innes Mackintosh Stewart published under the name Michael Innes has universally left me cold, but Aidan’s laudatory review of The New Sonia Wayward (1960) convinced me to give him one more go. I’m glad I did, because I disliked this book immensely and can now strike Innes off my ungrammatically-titled list of Authors To Persevere With and never look back. But, here’s the thing, my dislike here is quite startlingly personal in a way that makes it interesting to me, so I thought I’d struggle through and write it up as a lesson to my future self. You are invited to come along, but I shall not mind (or know) if you refuse.
We open upon the small yacht owned by Colonel and Mrs. Ffolliot Petticate, on which the latter — professionally known as the romance novelist Sonia Wayward — has just died of natural causes. For reasons never made clear, but I’ve accepted weirder conceits in my crime fiction, the Colonel dresses his wife’s body in a bathing suit and tips her overboard, then goes about a comically inept scheme to perpetrate the myth of her continued existence. This is mainly so that he can continue to rake in the royalties from her book sales, but — note I said “continue” — since he does this already and since her death would likely drive up sales, I really don’t understand why he’d do this. Still, it’s all fun and games, as a series of increasingly bizarre and desperate encounters make the Colonel realise how poorly cut out he is for this sort of gambit…and then the book ends.
What I’ve come to realise in the reading of this book is that, like with The Murder of My Aunt (1934) by Richard Hull, I simply don’t enjoy books which revolve around someone trying to get away with a crime and stumbling from bungled job to bungled job. What I’m finally realising, after over two decades reading classic era crime fiction, is that I like my novels to have some structure, and for the protagonists of them to display a modicum of intelligence and capability. My personal taste does not extend to stuffed shirts disapproving of everything and being inept in the name of comedy…and since all The New Sonia Wayward offers is a stuffed shirt disapproving of everything and ineptly trying to dissimulate at every minor obstacle and encounter, it’s not really the sort of thing that’s going to get me going.
I can’t deny that Innes constructs an arch sentence with the best of them…
“Claire’s aunts on her mother’s side are so aristocratic that they regard sex as interesting only when it happens among dogs or horses.”
…and that for those of you who enjoy this sort of hoisting by a clueless protagonist’s petard there’s doubtless much here to enjoy. The start of chapter 3, in which the Colonel is forced to consider all the privations and cutbacks he will be forced to make in the absence of his wife’s earnings is a delightful character study, and the publisher Wedge holding forth on the expected morals of characters in popular fiction is also pretty light fun, so if this sounds like your kind of thing then it probably is: the entire book is constructed from this sort of fizzy fluff. The situations and characters that Innes manages to introduce and then wring dry for knowing laughs is impressive on its own account, and so I don’t want to deny the merit of this very particular sort of book. It’s just very much not my sort of book. I realise this now.
At some point, I was hoping it would become clever, like these events would matter in a way that was unexpected, but once the brilliant reveal of chapter 4 is punctured in the least interesting of ways there can be no doubt where it’s heading and the grinding inevitability of it seemed drawn out by yet more of Innes’ comedic imaginings purely so that we can stuff this with enough words to make it novel length. As a short story I’d probably love it, and there’s arguably only a short story’s worth of content here as evinced by the sheer number of paragraphs which explain at great length that which is already obvious in order to draw out a joke or punchline to maximum effect. Usually this involves the Colonel worrying about what he told someone else, and then perpetrating an action that’s clearly going to cause him difficulty in a couple of chapters’ time. Foreshadowing is cool an’ all, but I like my punchlines a little less forced.
It’s not exclusively down to the humour that I find this so tiresome, but humour is a good analogy here given the apparently comedic nature of this narrative. If this is on your wavelength, you’ll love it; if you yearn for the genuine archness of Anthony Berkeley, look away now and worry not what you might be missing. Reviews online seems to mostly fall into the former camp, but I have a lot of books I still want to read and so am more than happy to chalk Innes and I down as incompatible. Don’t cry for me…have you seen my TBR?
Nick @ GADetection wiki: This is how the inverted novel ought to be written: no unbelievable sexual psychopaths in dingy tenements here; instead, we have a scathing satire on the literary world (and word). The writing is zestful, the dialogue excellent, the complications shocking and original, and the ending masterly.
Jose @ A Crime is Afoot: An ingenious tale, short and well written that, in my view, reflects very well the era in which it was published. An era that was coming to an end in the early sixties. In this sense, I don’t believe one can find a most suitable book to represent this year. The story has a good pace and is rather funny. Despite that almost everything in the plot seems to be quite predictable, I couldn’t prevent to keep on reading, wondering how it was going to end.