After I had finished The Custom of the Country – a book which left me with a slight book hangover, as sometimes happens with such superbly written novels – I looked around for something else to read with little idea of what I fancied. At such times I often reach for some vintage murder type thing. I reached for Death at the President’s Lodging, a book I remember hearing talked about as being a really superior mystery by an author at a talk I attended while at the Bookcrossing Convention in Oxford.
Michael Innes is a big name in golden age crime, although I have not read him before – and though I found this novel a bit slow to start, it held my interest enough, and I shall certainly explore more of his work in the future. Michael Innes is the pseudonym of J. J Stewart under which name he published several works of non-fiction as well as many novels and short stories. An academic; Stewart spent more than twenty years of his life at Christ Church Oxford, the atmosphere and experience of which he brings to this novel, and his fictional college of St. Anthony’s. Death at the President’s Lodging is the first novel that Stewart published under his pseudonym of Michael Innes, also the first to feature his detective; Inspector John Appleby, who would feature in many more novels and stories published between 1936 and 1986.
“Just beside the President’s grotesquely muffled head lay a human skull. And over the surrounding area of the floor were scattered little piles of human bones.
For a long moment Appleby paused on the spectacle; then he moved over to the French windows and pulled back the curtain. Dusk was falling and the trim college orchard seemed to hold all the mystery of a forest. Only close to him on the right, breaking the illusion, was the grey line of hall and library, stone upon buttressed stone, fading, far above, into the darkness of stained-glass windows.”
In Death at the President’s Lodging Innes (as I shall continue to call him now) created an intricately plotted mystery – the full solution to which I would say is fairly impossible to work out. The atmosphere of a 1930’s male dominated world of fusty academics is brilliantly re-created here. There are more than a few references to ancient and classical academic study that were a little over my head I confess – but certainly help to set the novel and the characters in the context of their world. Due to the aforementioned book hangover I took a while to settle into this narrative, nevertheless, I came to appreciate it as a very well written mystery. Quietly and a little ponderously written, Death at the President’s Lodging takes slow and careful reading, there is little in the way of action – and the interplay and dialogue between characters drives much of the mystery.
“An academic life, Dr Johnson observed, puts one little in the way of extraordinary casualties. This was not the experience of the fellows and scholars of St Anthony’s College when they awoke one raw November morning to find their president, Josiah Umpleby, murdered in the night. The crime was at once intriguing and bizarre, efficient and theatrical. It was efficient because nobody knew who had committed it. And it was theatrical because of a macabre and unnecessary act of fantasy with which the criminal, it was quickly rumoured, accompanied his deed.”
The novel opens in the grounds of St Anthony’s college on a November morning following the murder of the college President Dr Umpleby. Local police Inspector Dodd is already on the scene, awaiting the arrival of his colleague; Inspector Appleby from Scotland Yard. Dr Umpleby lived in a part of the college grounds kept locked at night, entry to which is only possible by key – a key in the possession of only certain people. Adjacent to the President’s lodging is the college residence of Little Fellows, where four college fellows presently live. Each of these fellows seem to be have been about the grounds at some point on the evening of the murder, telephone calls between different parts of the college, late night visits all add to the confusion of alibis that are explored in depth by Inspector Appleby – who finds himself staying at the college during his investigation. As the investigation gets underway, Appleby discovers professional rivalries and tensions between the fellows of St. Anthony’s, which would seem to give any one of them motive to either kill Umpleby or contrive to lay a trap to implicate another. The span of the novel and Appleby’s investigation is about three days – and while Appleby conducts his investigation, going over every part of each alibi with a fine toothed comb – three bumbling undergraduates think they can solve the mystery themselves. With the unexpected help of these interfering students and the St. Anthony’s burglar proving to be of more help than might be supposed, Appleby unravels the complexities of the case, with swift intelligence.
Death at the President’s Lodging wasn’t the quick read I was expecting, it is a literary, academic mystery intricately and subtly plotted. Characters are not really explored in any depth, which is a shame, all the detail seems to be in the motivations and thought processes of certain characters. Some of those thought processes are really rather improbable – convoluted plots being worked out and executed in a matter of a few minutes, but I enjoyed the detailed way Appleby explained exactly what happened when – the last few chapters particularly made for fascinating reading. I will be interested in reading more Inspector Appleby mysteries to see how the character develops – and how Innes developed as a mystery writer after this.