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.
20 thoughts on “#939: The New Sonia Wayward, a.k.a. The Case of Sonia Wayward (1960) by Michael Innes”
It’s too bad you and Innes don’t get along. I know he’s not to everyone’s taste (Marmite comes to mind, or at least it would if I’d ever tried the stuff), but to my mind at least he’s one of the most consistently funny writers (mystery or other) that I know. Of course, even given that this is a fairly well regarded title, if I were to suggest one of his books to someone who wasn’t sure they liked them, I almost certainly would not recommend one of his later (post-50s) books. It’s not that they’re bad (indeed, there are some very good ones in there, like Appleby’s Other Story), but often they’re not up to the standards of his earlier stuff. To me, they often feel a bit thin, if that makes sense. They lack the richness of, say, Appleby’s End, Hamlet, Revenge!, or Stop Press.
If (purely hypothetically, of course), I were to offer a last-ditch recommendation to one of the unconverted, I’d go with, From London Far, which isn’t a mystery at all. It’s a send up James Buchanesque spy novels about a middle-aged classicist getting caught up in an art smuggling ring. Along with Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith and The Pickwick Papers, I’d say it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.
The thing is, I don’t like Innes yet — who’s to say that, when I’ve eventually run through everyone else and maybe developed some patience in my dotage, I won’t come back to him and find him delightful in the way that everyone who enjoys him insists is there? I like to imagine that I’m saving him up so that I still have something to read in later life. For now, though, no.
And, thanks for the recommendation, but “middle-aged classicist getting caught up in an art smuggling ring” sounds exactly like the sort of “Oh, I’m so bumbling and don’t know what I’m doing” affair which put me off here and has turned me so cold elsewhere from other pens. So I’m going to sweep J.I.M Stewart aside and concentrate on other matters for the next two decades, I think.
I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one even if I am responsible for steering you toward a book you really didn’t enjoy. One of my gripes with Innes is that he is a crime writer who doesn’t seem to enjoy writing crime stories and I feel that Petticate is a pretty similar sort of chap – he ends up writing these romances he regards as being beneath him and makes himself miserable. That sort of literary and artistic commentary is found in much of his work I have read so far but I find it far more effective here than elsewhere. Perhaps that’s because Innes isn’t really telling a crime story here at all.
You do make a good point though regarding the royalties and I can’t think of a good counterargument to it immediately. Which means, I suppose, that I ought to reread this and see if it still holds up for me or if the novelty at finding an Innes story I found readable shocked me into giving an overly generous review…
Well, if we all agreed, there’d be no need for what we do here, would there? And I am genuinely grateful for being belatedly nudged towards the awareness I’ve achieved here, knowing that I can pass up this sort of plot without any regret. Indeed, there’s a modern novel with a similarish backbone which has been haunting my TBR for a while, and I’m free to pass it on without wasting time on it now. So, really, this wasn’t a bad experience when you come down to it.
I’ll remove the Innes books from my delivery bags 😁 I do enjoy the humour of his 1930s books but I’ve only read a handful from after that decade and the style can be a pain (the, to me, turgid APPLEBY’S END stopped me reading anything more by him for about 2decades I think …)
Yeah, I trudged my way through a few of his 1930s books and couldn’t tell you anything funny from any of them…so the problem is obviously with me, since too many other people who know the genre enjoy him greatly.
Well, I’m disappointed, but hardly surprised. You don’t like Nicholas Blake, you don’t like Dorothy L. Sayers, you loathe Gladys Mitchell, you don’t like G.K. Chesterton, you’re not enthusiastic about Margery Allingham, you believe Edmund Crispin’s best work was his short stories, and Reginald Hill leaves you cold. In short, you seem to be impervious to the charms and delights of the British literary imaginative school. (Whereas you adore Crofts!)
I’d second Kacey’s recommendation of From London Far; it’s a mad joy of a book. I’d recommend Lament for a Maker, or Hamlet, Revenge!, or Stop Press, or Death at the President’s Lodging, or There Came Both Mist and Snow, or Appleby’s End, or What Happened at Hazelwood, or A Night of Errors, or The Bloody Wood. Many of these have much stronger detective plots than Wayward, which is one of the crime / suspense novels Innes increasingly wrote towards the end of his career.
But I think I’ll have to blog more of those writers to show you just what you’re missing! (And Zeus knows, it will make a very welcome change from the second- and third-rate writers I’ve read this year.)
I’m sorry, Nick, please forgive me, I can change…!
In fairness, I love Sayers’ short fiction, and I’ve been really enjoying the Chesterton I read after John and I did that podcast episode about him — quietly working through The Scandal of Father Brown has been a lovely experience, and made me realise how much easier it is to just read a book than to worry about having to review it afterwards as well. Now I know that Gilbert and I can get on, I’m hoping to write more about his writing in the months to come.
But, also sorry, you don’t want to know how many of those suggested Innes books I’ve already tried and not gotten on with — those Pegnuin covers were delightful, and very hard not to buy — so I think I’ll lay him down and leave him be for a while.
I’ll look forward to your thoughts, though, and take some pleasure know I’ve knocked you onto a path of more enjoyable reading for a little while.
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My boy, I speak in sorrow, more than anger. Heavy Victorian paterfamilias aside, I can understand why Innes might not appeal.
Innes is, unfortunately, something of an acquired taste these days. Which is odd. I started reading Innes when I was 13 (1997); he (and Allingham and Marsh) was one of the first detective writers I discovered after Christie. The local crime bookseller recommended him; later at school, several English teachers were big fans (one gave me Sonia Wayward to read); and even these days, another bookseller is a fan. Innes then would probably have been the best-known Golden Age male detective writer, more so, I’d warrant, than Carr.
Well, I have plenty of years ahead of me in which to acquire the taste — if I can come round on Chesterton, I refuse to believe that anything is beyond me. I’m going to run out of everyone else at some point, and it would be lovely to have had someone waiting in the wings I simply wasn’t ready for before, so let’s see how things stand 20 years from now.
Glad to hear, too, that you’ve come round to Chesterton! I was reading Father Brown at 10, so I think almost from the start of my criminal career, I had the idea that detective stories should be imaginative and bizarre. Whereas if you come to Chesterton &c. after more orthodox writers, they might seem too strange.
When you come to more orthodox writers after Chesterton, Innes etc they see… well… humdrum.
And, yeah, maybe that’s the reason I’m struggling with Innes at the moment — the Humdrums and their counterparts are manna from heaven right now, so maybe the problem is that I want traditional detective fiction right now. Plenty of time to broaden my approach in a few years when I’m bored of this less playful approach 🙂
The ingenuity of Chesterton’s perspective stuck with me when I first encountered him as part of the Orion Crime Masterworks series in the early 2000s — he was clearly doing something very different to everyone else, even if that did mean he wrote ‘The Invisible Man’.
I mean, ‘The Queer Feet’ contains about the best piece of reasoning in the genre, so I was never going to give up on him completely…there was just other stuff to encounter first.
I also, no joke, think it helps that the editions I have of Father Brown haven’t shrunk the font to size minus-4 in order to cram as much as possible into as few pages as possible. The way I read these stories is now having as much of an effect on my enjoyment as the content.
I enjoyed your lack of enthusiasm here, probably due to my own dislike for Innes and his ilk. He belongs to what I think of as the precious school of crime writing, something which I attach no value whatsoever to.
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“Precious” is quite a good word — it feels like a dollhouse, with everything staged and artificially reduced to achieve an effect to be observed from a distance, where the most enjoyable GAD stuff strikes me more as a crossword with lots of scribblings in the margins and a cascading series of revelations as you pull its various parts together.
Maybe that’s why I don’t get on with early Queen, either, because it has the same stagey effect to it.
Good grief, we might have hit something here…
I quite like early Queen, actually I pretty much like all EQ regardless of the period, but I do get that there is a stagy feel to some of those stories, although I feel they are just as much scribbled over and annotated crossword puzzles too. So I wouldn’t lump EQ in with Innes, the latter is too reliant on the arch and the knowing and the telling of jokes whose punchlines require membership of some notional intellectual club I feel would never have me on the books.
Ditto on Queen – all true but still a big fan. Love seeing those grey cells being squeezed so hard!
I made it about one chapter into Hamlet, Revenge! before putting it down and I’ll be damned if I ever touch another Innes book again.
See, I wish I had the fortitude to give up on authors this confidently. But I can’t. Everyone deserves a second chance. And third. And a fourth. And why not a fifth, since we’ve come this far?