Death at the President's Lodging by Michael Innes

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Death at the President's Lodging by Michael Innes

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A landmark book in detective fiction with a very tightly-drawn plot. The characterisation is a little weak but as the first piece of "donnish detection" it's certainly worth a read and possibly a purchase.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 238 Date: January 2001
Publisher: House of Stratus
ISBN: 1842327321

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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 President's Lodgings under the pen name of Michael Innes. This was the first in a long series of detective novels starring Inspector John Appleby. It's a good story and as a first novel it's something special.

The body of Dr Umpleby, President of St Anthony's 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 Anthony's College. It's 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 it's 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 don't 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. He's 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 didn't 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 isn't 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.

I've made rather a lot of negative points about the book and you'll be wondering why I'm 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 couldn't see how anyone could be brought to book for the murder. All was explained though and there were no loose ends left dangling. It's a very good plot, particularly for a first novel. It's probably one of Innes' best.

More importantly, I think this is a landmark book. It's 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 it's well worth a read and possibly even a purchase.


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