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In 1936 Professor John Innes Mackintosh Stewart set sail to become professor of English at the University of Adelaide, in South Australia. To amuse himself on the long voyage he wrote Death at the Presidents Lodgings under the pen name of Michael Innes. This was the first in a long series of detective novels starring Inspector John Appleby. Its a good story and as a first novel its something special.
The body of Dr Umpleby, President of St Anthonys College is discovered in his study, with his head swathed in a gown and surrounded by bones. The murderer must be one of seven men as they were the only people with keys to the area surrounding the study. Inspector Appleby is called in to investigate the classic locked-room mystery.
Throughout her career Jane Austen restricted herself to writing about what she knew best and Michael Innes has wisely done the same. This novel is set almost exclusively within St Anthonys College. Its not Oxford or Cambridge but a hybrid of the two set somewhere around Bletchley, as the author explains. A plan of the college is given at the beginning of the book and I referred back to this on several occasions. Students and dons rooms are set around staircases rather than along corridors and with lockable gates its quite easy to establish that the murder could only have been committed by a limited number of people. Quite why fictional murderers kill in these circumstances so beloved of novelists I dont know. They so rarely happen in real life.
If the location is finely drawn the touch with the characters is less sure. Inspector Appleby is two-dimensional. Hes acutely intelligent and seems to have no flaws. He has no personal life either. I never saw Appleby as the hero, but rather as the necessary policeman in the story. The Dons are all unworldly, mildly irritable and seem to do nothing in a hurry.
Of the seven suspects I was still having trouble distinguishing one or two from each other when I was well into the story. Inadequate use seemed to be made of a couple of them. I never really suspected either the Dean or the butler and being greedy I like to suspect everyone, particularly the butler. Having said that, I didnt suspect the murderer. The plot was ingenious, clever and totally believable. It was the star of the book.
What did seem unreal was the complete absence of women from the novel. It isnt simply that none take a part in the plot they only get fleeting mentions on half a dozen occasions at the most. Perhaps such colleges were exclusively male in the thirties but it sits oddly at the beginning of the next century. Only three students make an appearance and I never really had any feeling of there being more about.
The writing style is demanding. Innes studied psychoanalysis in Vienna. He was also Oxford-educated and a professor. He makes full use of his knowledge in the discussions between the academics and there were several occasions when I was lost and this did detract from my enjoyment. I frequently felt that I might be missing something important.
Ive made rather a lot of negative points about the book and youll be wondering why Im recommending it and giving it four stars. Well, the plot is really very tightly drawn. Right up to a few pages before the end I really couldnt see how anyone could be brought to book for the murder. All was explained though and there were no loose ends left dangling. Its a very good plot, particularly for a first novel. Its probably one of Innes best.
More importantly, I think this is a landmark book. Its the first of a long series of novels about Appleby. Each book is a story in itself, but they all fit together to provide a series. Appleby, too, proved to be the inspiration for other works of donnish fiction and as the first of its kind I think its well worth a read.
Paperback 238 pages (January 2001)
Publisher: House of Stratus
Price £6.99 but available on Amazon in November 2005 at £5.59
Inspector Appleby is called to St Anthony's College, where the President has been murdered in his Lodging. Scandal abounds when it becomes clear that the only people with any motive to murder him are the only people who had the opportunity - because the President's Lodging opens off Orchard Ground, which is locked at night, and only the Fellows of the College have keys... 'REVIEW: 'It is quite the most accomplished first crime novel that I have read...all first-rate entertainment' (Cecil Day Lewis, Daily Telegraph) AUTHBIO: John Innes Mackintosh Stewart was born in Edinburgh, educated at Oxford, and taught English in universities all over the world. His scholarly career includes successful works on Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy, but he is better known as mystery writer Michael Innes, whose legendary character, Inspector John Appleby, inspired a lasting vogue for donnish detective fiction.