Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Michael Innes: From London Far (1946)

Published: Penguin 1962

For forty years or so, the serious (but now more or less forgotten) novelist and academic J.I.M. Stewart produced popular thrillers under the pseudonym of Michael Innes. Most of these are crime novels featuring upper class policeman John Appleby; this one is not one of them. It tells of the accidential discovery of a missive art smuggling operation taking advantage of the devastation of Europe during the Second World War. Richard Meredith, an academic, is thinking about poetry while selecting a purchase in a London tobacconist, and absently murmurs "London, a poem": words taken by the shopkeeper to be the smugglers' password; the shop itself covers the entrance to an underground warehouse storing an incredible collection of art. There, Meredith, instead of going to the police, pretends to be a gang member, kills a man, escapes with a kidnapped young woman, and follows the trail to a bizarre Scottish castle with associated guano mining operation.

From London Far is, like most of those Stewart published as Michael Innes, a whimsical novel - in this case too much so for its own good. The plot is full of absurdities, and is obviously intended to be a parody of those early twentieth century adventure stories where an ordinary person (who just happens to be resourceful enough to be a hero) discovers a plot through a contrived coincidence. Most of these books can be seen as imitators of John Buchan, whose Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps is perhaps the best known example of such a hero. The satire starts from Meredith being a scholar of classical literature rather than fullback of the Scottish Rugby team or a South African diamond prospector visiting England. There is obviously a place for such a parody, but the novel goes on to be filled with many more absurdities which are irritating rather than humorous. In Scotland, for example, Meredith is able to play an almost identical trick on the group of smugglers there to the impersonation he carried out in London, something that seems most unlikely after the invention of the telephone. Too much of what is going on is obscured from the reader for too much of the novel, making much of the action seem unmotivated, and the allusive nature of Innes' style makes From London Far a big effort to read: not a good trait for a thriller.

There are detective stories with whimsical humour and academic detectives which work well. The Gervase Fen stories of Edmund Crispin, contemporary with Innes, are excellent, for example, and Innes' Appleby novels are generally better as long as he doesn't let himself get carried away. (Operation Pax is good, and the level of the whimsical in that novel is about that of the average episode of the Avengers, which should give some idea of just how fantastical From London Far actually gets.) I suspect that J.I.M. Stewart would be surprised that his pseudonymous works have lasted longer than the novels he publised under his own name (our local library stocks about a dozen of the one, and none of the other, suggesting that this is the case), and in this instance I would agree that From London Far is too out of date to be far from oblivion.


Tibor said...

Hello! Nothing vital but wanted to mention that in your fine review of Lodge's Deaf Sentence I wish you had mentioned on slight liability. Some of Lodge's sentences are inordinately long and one needs like to take a huge breadth to read them to their conclusion. I have read all of his works but this is the first time I noticed this. I suspect he experiments some now, with each new novel. But while he may be having a good time, I, the reader, is a bit put out.

archeonix said...

The influence of this book on Martin Amis's "London Fields" should be pointed out. I found it, by the way, to have been a masterly take on Waugh, as basically a comic fantasy novel; and extraordinarily topical as well: rather prescient about America's ongoing usurpation of the Arts