Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes

I decided to choose a Michael Innes book to review as he was Scottish, as I am, so it’s a bit of flag waving.

I read everything that he wrote, including those under the name of J.I.M. Stewart, when I first started working in my local library – a long time ago. So I’ve started again with the very first book which he had published in 1936.

We are introduced to his detective, Inspector John Appleby of Scotland Yard, who arrives in a splendid yellow Bentley, he has been called in to investigate the death of Dr. Josiah Umpleby, President of St. Anthony’s College which is part of a fictitious university along the lines of Oxford and Cambridge and 20 miles or so from London.

Inspector Dodd of the local constabulary gives Appleby the details of the case, describing the crime scene as a ‘submarine’ within a submarine as the whole area had been sealed off with only a few college lecturers holding keys to the area.

The staff all surreptiously begin pointing fingers at each other and Appleby discovers that Dr. Umpleby enjoyed stirring up trouble amongst the university fellows and had the nasty habit of stealing his colleagues’ research and claiming the kudos for himself. So everybody is a suspect.

I wouldn’t say that this is light reading because, compared with most vintage crime you really have to concentrate on it and can’t skim. The storyline is very convoluted.

I don’t think that this book was my favourite of his, I did enjoy it but I think Michael Innes improved along the years. He did have a long writing career. There are no female characters at all, just passing references to a wife, cook or cleaner. But to be fair that is exactly how an elite university in 1936 would have been peopled.

As Michael Innes was a university lecturer, I’ve been wondering how his writing was received by his colleagues. I found it particularly amusing that he had more or less written himself in as a character. There is a lecturer who is a well known writer of detective fiction and just to stir things up even more Innes gave him the name of Gott and described him as being:

Quite beautiful. When he moved, he was graceful, when he spoke, he was charming; when he spoke for long, he was interesting. Above all he was disarming. “Plainly, -he seemed to say- “I am a creature whose life is more fortunate, more elevated, more effortlessly athletic and accomplished than yours, but observe! – you are not in the least irritated as a result; in fact, you are quite delighted.”

I can just imagine Innes’s real colleagues spluttering over that one, that is if they could bring themselves to read his book.

Although I enjoyed this book, my favourite crime writer is still Dorothy L. Sayers – or Agatha Christie for lighter reading. You don’t really get the vintage atmosphere somehow from this Innes book. It might sound daft but I think this is because of the lack of trains. A steam train immediately gives you all that 1930s ambience – the noise, smell and the style, even in third class. I’m not quite old enough to remember the age of steam but I’ve been on a few tourist steam railways.

Then there is the lack of female characters. No women means no elegance, no posh frocks, jewels, amber beads, silk shawls, harlequin costumes and the like. I love all that detail.

Apart from the yellow Bentley, which I could imagine, the only other vehicle which I remember being mentioned was a De Dion car belonging to some undergraduates. That meant nothing to me but presumably to contemporary readers it did.

Anyway, I’m glad that I re-read this book and I think that anyone who likes vintage crime would enjoy it.

I also read this book as part of the Flashback Challenge.

10 thoughts on “Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes

  1. Thanks so much for joining the Circuit, and for reviewing something by a writer I knew nothing about! I do love an academic setting for a mystery, so this intrigues me, but maybe it would just compare unfavorably with Sayers’s Gaudy Night. We do have a couple more Innes reviews coming up this month so I’ll be interested to see how they compare

    • I must admit that Gaudy Night is my all time favourite vintage crime book and for me Michael Innes just isn’t as enjoyable as Sayers. He’s still definitely worth reading though.

  2. Innes is one of my favorite authors, but I think you’re right – he improved considerably after his first novel. My favorite is “Lament for a Maker,” which is a real tour de force, set in the Scottish Highlands (and likely to appeal to your Scottish blood!). Appleby is the detective again, but it is the setting, the atmosphere, the impossible nature of the crime, the characters and some truly unforgettable scenes that are likely to stay with you after you finish the book. Give it a try!

    • Les, Thanks for the comment. I’m definitely going to read “Lament for a Maker.” I’ve read a lot of Innes and Stewart but I don’t have that one, and it doesn’t ring any bells. I love your site. Katrina.

  3. Great review! I find it very interesting Innes didn’t include women in his mysteries and I absolutely agree that that would make the era seem less “authentic.” I read a Ngaio Marsh book for my Classics Circuit choice and it didn’t ring “period authentic” to me, either. Or rather, there was nothing in the story to set it in the 1930s. I think this may be because Marsh was writing about England but lived in New Zealand? I don’t know.

    • Thanks Aarti, I suppose Innes was writing about what he knew and as he was a lecturer in the 1930s, women were thin on the ground. He was still writing 40 years later though so I think he changed with the times. I was surprised to read that Ngaio Marsh was from New Zealand because I only read one of her books, when I was very young. I can’t even remember which one it was but I had the distinct impression that she was South African. As I would have been reading it at the time of apartheid and that ghastly man Ian Smith in what was then Rhodesia, I can only assume that the racism which people have commented on, put me right off her. They still joke here that if you are going to New Zealand, turn your watch back 30 years!

  4. I’m reading an Innes book too for the Circuit and enjoying it very much. I’ve never read him before and definitely want to read more.

    • Hi Stefanie, I’m glad that you are enjoying Innes. If you can get a hold of any of his books written in the name of J.I.M. Stewart, they are worth reading too.

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