Monday, October 11, 2010

Monday Book Review: The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes

Okay, here's what happened: You know about the cache of three Innes books I discovered 'hidden' on my bookshelves. Well, in the act of just taking a look, I forgot about the three other books I'm currently reading (see left sidebar), and got hooked on THE SECRET VANGUARD.
If this sort of thing keeps up, I'll never finish the books I'm supposed to read - the library books that eventually must be returned. My own books are supposed to play a waiting game. I mean, the Innes book could have waited. But, as so often happens, I gave in to temptation. It's a hard balancing act between books I own and books the library owns. I don't always manage it successfully. Not when I'm so easily tempted and distracted. Does this happen to you? Or are you a more disciplined reader than I am?

Well, so it's not a totally lost cause, here's the review:
This is my first Michael Innes book and it certainly, won't be my last. I gobbled up THE SECRET VANGUARD because it has the kind of plot I can't resist. Simply put: In 1939 Scotland, two bright young things stumble onto a Nazi plot to track down and kidnap a British scientist. AND that's not all, part of the story takes place on a train heading up into the Scottish Highlands. Is that irresistible or what? Next to the Orient Express, I can't think of a better place to begin a spy story than on a train headed north to Scotland. Obviously, I'm a sucker for this sort of thing.

Strictly speaking, the story actually begins in England, with the murder, in a gazebo, of the harmless English poet, Mr. Philip Ploss. An event that brings Scotland Yard's Inspector John Appleby into the case. "Ploss," said John Appleby deliberately. "Philip Ploss, the Cow-and- Gate-poet. Who would want, now, to shoot a quiet fellow like that?"

We learn, almost immediately that poetry does, indeed, have lots to do with a nest of Nazi spies operating in Great Britain. Author Innes makes no secret of their method of passing information to each other. The reader picks up on the tricks at the same time as the book's characters, so we're neck-and-neck as the plot develops.

Shelia Grant, a plucky young woman traveling north to visit relatives in Scotland, can't help but overhear two fellow passengers spouting poetry (of all things) in her carriage car. Being an astute and particularly intelligent young woman, she soon realizes what's what - especially after she's kidnapped from a dark train station.

Awakening later in a deserted Scottish croft, she realizes she's not alone. A fellow kidnapee, at first nothing but a voice in the dark - an American voice - reassures her with a calmness that belies the circumstances. The hero-in-the-making is Dick Evans, a very handy artist who specializes in Caravaggio and happens to be touring the Highlands. Together the two travelers make their escape but the plot thickens precipitously when they're forced to split up.

That's about it, plot-wise. The rest of the book is spent dodging Nazi thugs in various disguises while John Appleby, back in London, and unknown to the hero and heroine, is on the trail of the missing scientist and has begun his own journey north

One of the more delightful things about Innes' fanciful plot is Sheila Grant. While she is certainly a woman of her times, she is also very resourceful, brave, intelligent and, as I said before, plucky. A great section of the book is just her, on her own, outwitting her pursuers in various and clever ways. Yet, when Dick Evans is around (they are both immediately taken with each other as you might suspect), she is willing to submit to his taking charge, as it were. This is done with no apparent resentment on Sheila's part. It is almost as if she, naturally assumes that when she's on her own, she must take care of herself, but when men are around, they do the taking care of. I went along with this because it was done so naturally, with no insult meant to anyone, if you know what I mean. It was just the way things were done. But I couldn't help admiring Sheila for her finesse at it.

THE SECRET VANGUARD reminds me very much of John Buchan's classic The 39 Steps, in tone, isolated locale and the whole idea of England having its own wretched network of 5th Column-ists sympathetic to Nazi Germany's evil machinations.

In the early part of the tale, Sheila Grant is sitting in her train carriage reading a copy of Sir Walter Scott's The Antiquary. As she reads the opening paragraphs, she thinks: Nice to be Sir Walter Scott and able to open a tale of romantic adventure with that leisurely, confident, bookwormy prose. Nice that readers stood for it.

Well, of course now I want to read Scott as well, and I do agree that there's nothing like a good bookwormy adventure on a chilly October weekend. This time out, THE SECRET VANGUARD fit the bill perfectly. I would gladly 'stand' for it anytime.


  1. Hi. Glad you liked Innes. I remember reading this book a long time back but do not remember much of the plot as espionage is not really my cup of tea. However, your review brought back the name Peter Ploss. How could I forget!

    I am a most disorganised reader myself. I read many books simultaneously, leave some mid-way, restart them after some time, take on something else that catches my fancy, pay fine in the libraries etc.

    Could you recommend a few books in which a train journey is foregrounded. I've read the ones by Agatha Christie.

  2. I saw good about Innes on Cornflower recently and you've confirmed the idea that I must find myself a copy to actually read!

  3. Neer: I wish there were more books written starring train journeys in some fashion. The Agatha Christie ones spring immediately to mind. But here are a few other titles where trains figure:


    THE EDGE by Dick Francis.


    Non-fiction: THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR and DARK STAR SAFARI by Paul Theroux. (I haven't read DARK STAR SAFARI yet, but I plan to. I HAVE read THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR and LOVED it!)

    That's about all I can think of off the top of my head.

  4. Juxtabook: I'm sure you'll love Innes. It's so great, after all this time, to discover a new writer from the golden age of mysteries. Fun!


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