Monday, February 7, 2011

Monday Review: APPLEBY'S END (1945) by Michael Innes

You know, with Michael Innes, I'm like a kid with a new toy. Once I discovered how good a writer he is, there was no stopping me sailing through his litany of books like a scythe through a wheatfield. And I have a feeling I haven't even scratched the surface. Is that a mixing of strange metaphors or what?

APPLEBY'S END is my latest Innes delight. Though, I must tell you, it is a difficult book to get into - there's all kinds of literary asides and tom-foolery that goes on in the first few chapters. Most of it incomprehensible to me. But I suppose if you have that sort of background, it will all be clear to you. Innes assumes that his audience is at least, as smart as he is. Well, obviously in my case, he was wrong. But eventually, I did get into the swim of things and LOVED this often obscure yet very entertaining tale of the meeting of Appleby, his future wife and her oddly eccentric family - and this is when eccentricity meant something, let me tell you.

This is a book that might have been titled Appleby in Wonderland and been totally appropriate. The bizarre doings in an English winter countryside of Innes's invention, remind me of Stella Gibbons' COLD COMFORT FARM in tone. I can't believe Innes is not making parody here and having a hell of a lot of fun with the genre.

From the moment Scotland Yard's John Appleby, traveling by train on a mysterious summons to a case in the hinterlands, meets future family member Everard Raven, nothing will ever be the same again for the brilliant, intuitive inspector of police.

Raven, a deceptively quick-witted, barrister and single-handed writer of encyclopedias is returning home by train to his ancestral home, DREAM. He strikes up an acquaintance with Appleby taking a fancy to the coincidence of Appleby and their destination sharing the same name. Appleby's End - get it? (The fact that the name actually does have NOTHING to do with Appleby himself is kind of lost in the shuffle. I kept waiting for some sort of family connection to the Appleby name, but none was forthcoming.)

The train plows on through the winter snow and Raven eventually manages to talk Appleby into staying at DREAM and continue his trip to Snarl-yes, that is Appleby's eventual destination - in the morning.

"...But perhaps you can tell me if there's an inn at Linger?"

"An inn? Dear me, no. Of course there is a waiting-room. But I think I am right in saying that is is used at present for Brettingham's Scurl's Gloucester Old Spots."
"Brettingham Scurl?" said Appleby dully.

"The porter at Linger."

"Gloucester Old Spots?" (Funny thing is, I actually know what Gloucester Old Spots are.)

"Gloucester Old Spots. Quite a clean variety of pig, I have been told. Nevertheless - "

"What about King's Yatter - or Drool? Is there a pub, or somebody who might let a room?"

"Let me see." Mr. Raven frowned thoughtfully. "There is old Mrs. Ulstrup at Drool. She used to let a room. But I doubt if she does now. Not since she went out of her mind, poor old soul. Though of course, you might try." Mr. Raven peered out into the darkness. "Here is King's Yatter already. Do you know the 'George' at King's Yatter?"

"The 'George'?" asked Appleby hopefully.

"Fine little hotel. Incomparable Stilton and very good draught beer."

"Then I think - " said Appleby, and grabbed at his suitcase.

"My dear sir, I am sorry to say it was burnt down last year. By Hannah Hoobin's boy."

"Oh," said Appleby.

"I was on the Bench at the time. It seems tha Hannah Hoobin's boy gets a great deal of erotic satisfaction from that sort of thing. I am glad to say that I was instrumental in persuading my fellow-magistrates to take an enlightened view of the case."

"Oh," said Appleby again. His disinterest in the recondite pleasures of Hannah Hoobin's boy was extreme. "I suppose it's snowing still?"


So, really, having little choice, Appleby accepts a forthcoming offer from Everard Raven:

"I really think, Mr. - um - Appleby, that your best plan will be to spend the night with me. I should be extremely happy if you would do so. My place is three stops beyond Linger: Sleeps Hill, Boxer's Bottom, and then my own station, at which a conveyance will be waiting. And in the morning I think we can promise to get you across to Snarl."

In the meantime, Appleby notes that the carriage has quietly filled with several other travellers - two men and a young woman. None of them speaking or acknowledging the other.

Later that night, after descending from the train, (it turns out that the fellow travellers are all members of Everard Raven's family), they are shoved into a huge conveyance pulled by a horse named Spot, driven by a drunkard named Heyhoe. An inevitable accident ensues, the travellers are dispersed and Appleby and the young woman (Judith Raven) are cast disastrously adrift on a cold river (atop what's left of the infernal conveyance minus the horse) left to fend for themselves and find their way back to Dream.

Much later that night (or early morning) Appleby and Judith come across the head of a dead man buried in the snow.

And this is only the first night.

The rest of the tale is one heaping unbelievable incident after another in which the colorful and sinister fables of a dead family member, old Ranulf Raven, Victorian novelist (from whom no girl was safe in the neighborhood, apparently), seem to be coming true.

Unless you have a bit of patience, a well-developed appreciation for English whimsy, a warped idea of fun in the snow (or anywhere else), a liking for John Appleby and good writing, you will probably not enjoy this book.

The ending is a total hoot, if I may be allowed to say that about a so terribly British concoction.

My favorite notion, outside of the hilarious names invented by Innes for the various villages and characters, not to mention the old woman who thinks she's a cow, is the totally out-dated idea that, by 1945, a woman could still be compromised into marriage.

Not the first I'd read in the series if you're not familiar with Appleby. I'm glad I read it when I did.
This is another entry, for me, in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block blog.


  1. I love Michael Innes. You're right though, he does seem to assume that the reader is a lot smarter than what I seem to be. He has several books that start out with all sorts of literary or informational stuff and if the reader is not determined to keep going, I could see him losing some folks. But he's always worth it. Great fun and I do think he writes with tongue firmly in cheek and a twinkle in his eye.

  2. Well, here's how I look at it: Innes' books divide the men from the boys. (Or, in our case, the girls from the women - ha!) You have to keep going, find something in the story or the characters that speak to you and eventually you'll be pulled in. Now this doesn't apply to all his books, so don't mean to discourage anyone. :)

  3. I agree with your assessment of Appleby's End - it's a delightful entry in the series, but hardly the one a new reader should try first. There's a marvelous surrealist touch to much of Innes's writing. If you want to try a non-Appleby book, try "The Journeying Boy," which is a fine mystery AND thriller combined.

  4. Les: That's one of the Innes books I mean to get my hands on. By the way, I tried the Innes you recommended, the one set in Scotland: LAMENT FOR A MAKER, I think. It was not my cup of tea, unfortunately. I struggled through it hoping for the best but was disappointed. Mostly in myself for not being able to appreciate it. :)

  5. This is the Innes book I enjoyed the most. Loved the Raven family in all its eccentricities.

  6. Nice to discover some other admirers of Innes. I've been reading him, over and over, for nearly fifty years, recently listening to him on Audible, and so far appear to be more obsessed with his work than anyone else. Consider Appleby's End his masterpiece, in fact a great classic in humor, as I told him when I wrote him (around 1980). He graciously replied with a postcard.

    I divide his crime books into four more or less equal groups....his best, his second best, those which are competent but not terribly interesting, and several hardly worth reading at all. Have tried to establish a yahoo group but have not got any response.

    Since I have read many of them multiple, times, would only be able to discuss them with someone (nearly) as obsessed as myself!

    1. I listen to Innes on Audible too. Debating whether to get yet another Innes book on my Audible account. My favorite is still my very first Innes: THE SECRET VANGUARD. Second favorite: THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY (though Appleby is not in this one) and my third fave is: APPLEBY'S END, OPERATION PAX and SHEIKS AND ADDERS. Not to mention, AN AWKWARD LIE and THE OPEN HOUSE. Oh, and FROM LONDON FAR (no Appleby here either). Actually mix these up and I'll take whatever order they turn up in. :)

      You are fortunate indeed to have had a reply from Innes. I'm a new convert to his work - only began reading him a couple of years ago.

      I do like the Innes books where his imagination seems to run amok. :) I wonder if those books couldn't be termed 'magical realism' as books of this sort are categorized now. But then, of course, Innes defies categorization.

      Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Always appreciated. Especially from a fellow of one of my favorite authors.

      Why don't you do a Michael Innes Facebook page? That would be easier than an out and out group and you might get fans to drop by that way. (If there isn't a page already, that is.)


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