Thursday, February 11, 2021

Canal with Corpse: A Connoisseur's Case aka The Crabtree Affair (1962), by Michael Innes

"It's the craft that is long in this life, surely, and not how a boy's fancy is moved for a girl."

Returned servant Seth Crabtree in A Connoisseur's Case, aka The Crabtree Affair (1962) by Michael Innes

"Commissioners of Police simply do not come upon corpses during rural walks.  It was another of the things that just aren't done."

London's Commissioner of Metropolitan Police Sir John Appleby thoughts in A Connoisseur's Case, aka The Crabtree Affair (1962) by Michael Innes

Ah, but a corpse actually is just what one should expect to come upon during a country ramble, at least in a traditional British mystery, as Michael Innes well knew.  Down these country lanes a charming genteel couple must go....

What feels cozy to you, I once asked, on what remains today my most visited blog post.  (I must owe it all to Jim Parsons!)  To me, it's definitely reading about British mystery writer Michael Innes' characters John Appleby and his aristocratic wife Judith solving genteel murders in the country.

As a crime writer Michael Innes was like a box of (poisoned) chocolates, in that with his books you never knew what you were going to get.  Sure, there were likely to be aristocrats and country houses, Oxford dons and ivory towers, old masters and art museums--and lots and lots of literary quotations.  But would any given Innes "mystery" be a "thriller," a true detective novel, or some sort of hard to classify mystery extravaganza?  You never knew, at least in Innes' creative heyday, from the mid-Thirties into the mid-Fifties.  

Later on, from the Sixties to the mid-Eighties, say, you could be fairly certain you would be getting an amiable amble with the Applebys though country lanes and mansions.  To be sure, there would a nice dead body to be discovered and some detection and witticisms to go along with all that, but the quality of the detection from book to book would vary.  Innes published sixteen John Appleby detective novels in the quarter century between 1961 and 1986, and I think I have just described the majority of them.  

Peper Harow House (Wikipedia), built in 1765 by Sir William Chambers, who
mentioned as the architect of fictional Scroop House in A Connoisseur's Case
--both houses have "four sparsely placed urns" atop a parapet

Perhaps the best of these later novels, A Connoisseur's Case aka The Crabtree Affair, came at the early part of this period, in 1962.  By this time, the light from the Golden Age may have been fading, but the sun had not sunk below the horizon yet.  I first read ACC a little over twenty-five years ago, in 1995 (I know because I wrote the date 11/18/95 in the book, a then recent HarperPerennial paperback edition); and on rereading it recently I found that it has held up really well.

In a lot of my writing about British crime fiction, I have sought to revise the influential Julian Symons-Colin Watson-WH Auden thesis that these books almost invariably were reactionary country house affairs, filled to the rafters with stuffy blue-blooded aristos; adventuresses with pasts and ingenues without them; brusque big game hunters and silly-ass men-about-town; crass millionaire businessmen of regrettably bourgeois origins; stiflingly correct butlers, opinionated cooks and trim, all-too-frequently dim, maids; and bludgeoned bodies bloodily strewn throughout libraries, studies and billiard rooms.  It's all a Cluedo board come to (very limited) life, said critics.  Yet there were certain Golden Age crime writers who really did tend to conform to this stereotype, at least in terms of setting, and one of these was the father of the donnish detection school, Michael Innes.

Innes himself was a don, not to mention a "serious," or mainstream, novelist.  His actual name was John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, "Michael Innes" being the appellation he reserved for his mystery writing sideline.  But what a sideline mysteries became for him!  There are 32 John Appleby novels, not to mention 13 non-series mysteries and four John Appleby short story collections.  Granted he also found time to write a score of mainstream novels and a half-dozen short story collections, as well as nine critical works.  The man was an all-round writing machine, to be sure, but he has mostly distinguished himself in the public mind (of classic mystery readers) as a genteel crime writer.

A Connoisseur's Case truly is a case for connoisseurs of what is known as classic English crime.  There's a Georgian country mansion, Scroop House (though Appleby, noting it was finished in 1786, scoffs "Late....Practically Victorian."); a disused early-nineteenth-century canal where a dead body pops up (or floats up, really); a public house quaintly named the Jolly Leggers (after the men who used their sturdy backs and strong legs to get boats through canal tunnels); and not one but two butlers: Tarheel and Hollywood, both of them drolly yet individually characterized.  The only thing missing is a map, which would have been rather charming to see, given how you get to know the locations so well.

Coates Portal of the Sapperton Canal Tunnel, Thames and Severn Canal (Wikipedia)
the canal, finally abandoned in 1933, resembles the canal tunnel entrance described 
in ACC as "an orifice handsomely framed in a wall of heavily rusticated stone, and even 
more handsomely embellished with caryatids, herms, cornucopias and a balustrade
"

The Applebys are staying at the country house of one of Judith's eccentric Raven relations, her uncle Colonel Julius Raven of Pryde Park, an amateur (of course) piscatorial authority.  During their perambulation along the canal they find a public house, unfortunately run by a revoltingly bourgeois innkeeper, David Channing-Kennedy.  "Not the old sort of innkeeper," carps Appleby. "R.A.F. type, with a handle-bar mustache specially grown to tell you so.  Put in by the brewing company, I suppose, and not very pleased that he hasn't been given a superior little riverside hotel on the lower Thames."

There they encounter an old man, Seth Crabtree, a former servant at Scroop House recently returned after some fifteen years in the United States  (Spokane, Washington of all places). It's only a few hours later that Sir John and Lady Appleby discover Crabtree dead in the the disused canal tunnel.  Seems someone wasn't happy Crabtree had returned to the neighborhood!

interior Sapperton Canal Tunnel--no bodies here!

Actually lots of someones were not happy with Seth Crabtree.  With a master's hand Innes distributes suspicion evenly around the area, including the "new" Scroop House owners, Bertram Coulson and his wife.  Coulson was a distant Australian sheep packing relation of the previous late owner, Sara Coulson (who died two decades previously), the daughter of Viceroy Crispin, known as the Grand Collector for her famed house parties populated by politically and culturally distinguished guests.  In the suspect line there's also Bertram Coulson's previous tenants, Alfred Binns (something in trade, don't you know) and his two bickersome young adult children, Daphne and Peter, as well as a local doctor, Brian West, who was around the scene of the crime. 

Even Colonel Raven, who huffily recalls that Crabtree was long ago  "packed off to the colonies" for vague scoundrelly doings, is behaving suspiciously.  But then you never can tell with those Ravens, a dotty lot for sure.

speaking of handlebar mustaches
RAF pilot Roger Morewood (1916-2014)
He retired as a Wing Commander in 1957
and with his wife started a boarding kennel
See The Top 34 Pilot Moustaches

There's quite a packed little mystery plot in ACC, one that is impeccably crafted, which should satisfy the mystery connoisseur; and for those who more attracted to cozy, or traditional British genteel country atmosphere, it's here in spades as well.  At the end of the novel Appleby even gathers all the suspects together in the Scroop House library to hear his elucidatory lecture.  

Judith Appleby can be a bit of a pill to my taste, always declaring people "unspeakable" and "dreadful" when she deems their class status unfixed.  Judith likes to be able to place people as genteel or menial class as the case may be.  Sir John ribs her about this, but one gets the impression that the stable and ordered country society of Georgian Britain was an attractive vision for the author himself, as it must be for legions of Jane Austen fans, one supposes.  He certainly kept writing his modern versions of it!

To be sure, I wouldn't want every British detective novel to be like Michael Innes. However, I'm very glad that there still are Michael Innes detective novels left for me to read, as well as others of his to read again.  They make ever so pleasurable British country weekends, if only in my mind.  "It's the craft that is long in this life...."

3 comments:

  1. This one was worth reading just for the picture of Roger Morewood! Gotta love that confident grin.
    I hope the Ravens aren’t as dotty as the Lampreys. There really does seem to have been a cult of upper-class eccentricity in those days.

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  2. They are pretty dotty, but you get it mostly in Appleby’s End.

    I just added the Morewood pic not long ago, inspired by Appleby’s comments about the character’s handlebar mustache. Great pic. The RAF character seems to have popped up in a number of postwar mysteries, in Ngaio Marsh too as I recall, where their anomalous class status seems to be an issue.

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  3. As a fan of both Austen and Innes, I don't think that the "stable and ordered country society" is as attractive in itself as the way the author writes about it. Jane Austen's world is fun to visit, with a brilliant satirist as guide, but I wouldn't want to live there!

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