Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SILENCE OBSERVED (1958) by Michael Innes


SILENCE OBSERVED (1958) is one of the more 'normal' of British writer Michael Innes' Appleby mysteries in that there's not a lot that you have to double-think about. On my first reading, I thought that maybe it was a bit dullsville. But on my second read, I realized that maybe I was the dullard.

This is a terrific whodunit art mystery and of course, we already know (or should know) that the erudite Inspector John Appleby has hidden depths of art expertise alongside his standard depths of esoteric literary knowledge. So no big surprise here when he recognizes all sorts of arcane bits and pieces and tucks them into conversation. If you insist on being off-put by this sort of thing, don't read Innes.

Otherwise you may be in danger of falling under the author's spell, as I was from the beginning and always shall be as those of you who regularly read my blog know. There's just something about a man who speaks as if having a fine brain is an unexceptionable thing. Of course there's always the danger of elitism, but that's not a deal breaker for me if I like the character - there are much worse character flaws. Besides there's very little of that in Sir John Appleby's make-up. (He was just plain John Appleby in the early books.) Wit and a true appreciation of art (especially the old masters) are very sexy character traits - at least to me. Of course it doesn't hurt that the aging Appleby retains his oh-so-dry sense of humor.

A sign stating SILENCE OBSERVED hangs imperially on a wall at the private London club where Appleby and a character named Charles Gribble, a collector of all sorts of things including acknowledged forgeries by well-known forgers (apparently that is 'a thing') not-so-silently get into a soon to be pertinent conversation. Gribble is showing off his latest find to an unenthusiastic Appleby, when he unexpectedly makes a humbling discovery.

I don't know about you, but I love the whole idea of these stuffy private clubs to which so many men retreated in so many books from the golden age of mysteries. Yes, we ladies were excluded, but the truth is I don't think in reality we'd actually want to be members.

The Diogenes Club (Mycroft Holmes' haunt) created by Arthur Conan Doyle was the first time I can remember hearing about such places and though I knew that the doors would always be closed to me, I couldn't help being fascinated from the first moment I learned about these dens of upper class male ritual. But as usual, I digress.

Back to the purpose: As with all of Innes' books one curious thing will very often lead to another even if at first the lead is tenuous and hairsbreadth thin and seems plucked out of thin air. Often it is a result of some heavy duty mental leap frog on Appleby's part and more often than not, the reader is not exactly privy to the step by step. SILENCE OBSERVED is no different.

'Simple persons, of unassuming colloquial speech, will sometimes be heard to remark that one damned thing leads to another. But policemen are only too happy when it does. A distinguishable sequence or concatenation between events is just what they are after.'

Those 'concatenations' will get you every time.

Later on the afternoon of the same event-filled day, Appleby has a conversation with another member of his club, Sir Gabriel Gulliver (Gulliver and Gribble, one can't help thinking that Innes has terrific fun with British names), a 'Director of an august national institution' who is also some sort of connection of Appleby's wife, Judith who, as it happens, is a sculptor.

"As a matter of fact," he said, [Gulliver] "it's about Rembrandt that I want to talk to you about."

Okay. Appleby is used to all sorts of esoteric ploys and gambits. And of course this conversation will also prove pertinent when a second murder occurs.

But it is the first murder most foul later that very same night when Appleby is called away from a small dinner party at his home - a dinner party where one of the guests has failed to show up - and urged to take a hand in the investigation (Appleby does little day to day police work anymore) by the same Sir Gulliver who had earlier been expounding a curious Rembrandt tale.

A reluctant Appleby shows up at the scene of the crime, a dark and dingy shop a few blocks from the British Museum. The murder victim is a collector and dealer of books, art and incunabula. Turns out that the murder is not only connected to information revealed by Sir Gabriel Gulliver, but also to Appleby's conversation much earlier in the day with Charles Gribble.

Appleby arrives at the moment when the body is still in situ and a frazzled police Inspector is trying to make heads or tails.

Appleby turned to Inspector Parker. "Just what is the situation, Parker, and what do we want to know?" 

"Well, sir, Mr. Heffer [young man found at the scene] has some story about an old woman."

Appleby frowned. He plainly thought poorly of this as the beginning of an expository speech.

"Some story, Parker?" I don't think we can have that. It carries an implication of prevarication which isn't at all proper at this stage. I can see that Mr. Heffer is an irritating person - or at least that he is behaving in an irritating manner now. But irritated is just what we musn't get. So let's start again. "

This is the sort of thing that endears Appleby to me.

There aren't that many characters in this tale of murder, kidnapping and high level forgery but somehow, Innes manages to make you not instantly know who the killer or killers are and that to me, is a great magicians trick. There's also not a lot of exposition (except in the preliminary set-up conversations at the club) and things move along briskly to a rather exciting end.

I do have one quibble though (just to prove that even Innes hits a bump in the road now and again) and here it is: later in the tale, Appleby asks his wife to carry out an errand - something which I think should have rightly been done by a member of his staff, thereby involving her in the case and unknowingly putting her in danger. This seems off kilter to me but maybe I'm nit-picking. And besides, I never said that Appleby was a perfect all-knowing human being.

Other than that, this is one of Innes' more down to earth murder plots, totally lacking in phantasmagoria and the flights of fancy (well, except for the young woman who looks like a Botticelli Venus) the author was sometimes inclined to indulge in. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

SILENCE OBSERVED is a thoroughly enjoyable tale which should please art lovers and those inclined to want a little erudition tossed in with their dead bodies.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

16 comments:

  1. Not being a massive Appleby fan, this might be one for me Yvette - thanks!

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    1. I think you'd enjoy this one, Sergio. It's not, in my point of view, a typical Appleby romp. But then I love the romps, so I'm not the best judge. HA!

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  2. I too have always enjoyed Innes!

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  3. Don't know beans about art, Yvette, and the only Innes I've read were by Hammond Innes, contained in my dad's little bookcase of paperback mysteries and whose last name I felt uncomfortable about trying to imagine how it was pronounced, until embarrassingly recently. As I recall, the Hammond Innes's novels were engaging. Michael's sound to be, too, altho your engaging reviews may be to blame.

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    1. Sorry I'm so late replying guys, I was away from my handy/dandy PC for a few days. I don't feel comfortable yet doing my work with my smart phone. Probably never will. Anyway, I'm back. From what I understand, Mathew, Hammond Innes has no connection with Michael Innes (at any rate, Michael Innes is a pseudonym). I adore Michael Innes' books but I agree with many that they are an acquired taste and mot for everyone, but I think they might be for you, Mathew. :) Some of my favorites are: THE SECRET VANGUARD (my first and still my favorite), OPERATION PAX, SHEIKS AND ADDERS, THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY and FROM LONDON FAR. Some of these are not Appleby books. I hope you'll give at least one of these a try.

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  4. i'm more than fond of Innes' work; i think i've read all the Appleby's (well, every time i say that i gleefully find another one). a bit off topic, Innes' real name is J.I.M. Stuart, under which he wrote literary essays(he was a professor at oxford and other places, including Adelaide, au.) and a quintet, known as the Staircase novels... i've read the latter and while requiring a bit of push to get through, is eminently satisfying and engaging... all in all, one of the most attractive and instructive of english mystery writers...

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    1. You only need to read one or two of the Innes books to know that the author has a definite professorial/literary slant, Mudpuddle. :) I agree with your assessment. Though I must say I've never heard of the Staircase novels. Something for me to look forward too when I finish reading all the Appleby books. I will add though, that I am not too fond of the Honeybath books. The guy, despite his colorful name, never quite took hold of imagination.

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  5. Innes is a great favourite. I really want to start reading him once again. And I agree with you about the clubs.

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    1. Aren't they fun? All those men sitting around pretending to be civilized. Ha!

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  6. What a delight to find you after my long absence. People have been reading, so my Stats tell me, a blog post of mine from Sept. 10,2011 entitled "Carapace," in which I link, quote and refer to your post about Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. The illustration I sought, for which Google directed me to you, was her knight holding a child which you said was from The Book of Old Songs and Ballads. I could easily lose myself in your posts about books, mysteries in particular, and movies. Of equal delight was the fact that I saw my name on your blog roll, for which I thank you. Here we are, still at it, I also a woman of a certain age. My mother would have been so thoroughly enchanted by your posts. My mystery and movie passions come from her. Wishing you well, with thanks. xo

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    1. Oh my, it HAS been a long time, Marylinn. SO nice to hear from you. In truth, I've been edging away from a lot of blog activity (trying to set up and restart my illustration work, more about that at some future date) primarily because it's so easy to wile away the time online and before you know it, the day is over.

      THANK YOU SO MUCH for the very kind words, Marylinn, they mean a lot to me. You might notice that I haven't, lately, done many art posts - they require a lot of time and effort - but I hope to get back on track at some point. I recently moved from NJ to North Carolina and am still Adjusting with a Capital A.

      So glad you found me once again.

      P.S. I adore the work of Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. I wish there were more of it to show.

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  7. I have a lot of Michael Innes books in my stacks (and read a lot of them when I was younger). I added four more when I went to the book sale recently, two Appleby books and two standalone. Now I just need to read them. Have I ever asked you if you liked (or read) the Charles Honeybath books by Innes?

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    1. The Honeybath books just don't click for me, Tracy. I can't say exactly why. Maybe it's that I just don't find him engaging enough. I don't know. Though I haven't given up and have a couple lined up. :) What two standalones did you buy?

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    2. The two books are What Happened at Hazelwood and From London Far, both published in 1946. They both sound interesting, but I won't know until I try them.

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    3. Oh, I absolutely adored FROM LONDON FAR. It's one of Innes' more phantasmagoric epics. HA! I have it on audio and it is splendid. WHAT HAPPENED AT HAZELWOOD, I'm not familiar with. I'm immediately adding it to my list. (Have you read THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY? Also not an Appleby book, but also really, REALLY wonderful.)

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