Saturday, November 20, 2021

Walk a Mile: Dead Man's Shoes aka Appleby Talking (1954) by Michael Innes

From its 1936 publication of Seven Suspects--the American title of Michael Innes' first detective novel Death at the President's Lodging (an apt-to-be-misleading title for American readers)--Dodd, Mead's Red Badge Detective mystery fiction imprint employed, with a few exceptions, a specific design style for Michael Innes novels, one which the publisher maintained for over four decades, up through the publication of The Gay Phoenix in 1977.  

Most of the 27 John Appleby detective novels, 3 John Appleby short story collections, and 10 non-series detective novels published in this period had jackets reflecting this design scheme, composed of a black background with minimalistic strokes in red, white and gray.  As far as I am aware this is a unique feature in long-running mystery fiction in this period.  Why the switch-over took place in 1978 I don't know, but the change stayed in place until Innes' (and, indeed, arguably the Golden Age generation's) last detective novel, Appleby and the Ospreys, was published in 1986, during which time there appeared from Innes a total of five more Appleby detective novels, including Ospreys, and three more non-series ones.  

One of the eye-catching exceptions to this rule is Dead Man's Shoes (Appleby Talking in UK), a collection of 23 pieces of John Appleby short fiction published in 1954.  Although the black/white/red/gray color scheme is adhered to, there is a more detailed design, emphasizing, appropriately, a dead man's pant's cuffs, socks and mismatched shoes.  One of the shoes in an unexceptionable black while the other is red--certainly a striking and odd color in this context.  

Sadly, in the title novelette of about 16,000 words we find that the mismatched shoes are actually black and brown, not black and red; so the jacket turns out to be misleading in this regard.  

Before reading the story I had been innocently looking forward to the explanation of why the shoe was red (like John Rhode's green hedgehog): Was it like radioactive or something?  Alas, however, the eventual explanation which the author provided did not involve any weird and woolly science.  

Happily, however, this is still a very clever, well-clued mystery, however, which I probably would have read over twenty years ago, when I was on my first Innes reading jag, had the novelette not had an espionage background, which predisposed me against it at the time (plus the copy I had then was a drab paperback edition).  

Fear not, however, "Shoes" is a "fair play" mystery in the classic mode and a very good one at that.  I loved how it opened with the time-honored gambit of the imperiled "girl on the train" who implores our young hero for help, as she has just escaped from a man in another compartment whom she believes was about to murder her.  These "girls" really should stay away from trains, don't you know.

First there was Agatha Christie's "The Girl in the Train," from 1924 and much later we had Paula Hawkins' Girl on the Train from 2015 (filmed with Emily Blunt in the title role the next year), with a plentitude of other troubled train "girls" in between them, like Ruth Kettering in Christie's Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) and Iris Carr in Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins (1936), famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes.  So all you "girls" out there reading this blog post really should know by know: Beware of the trains!  Read "Dead Man's Shoes" if you still don't believe me.  

Of course trains can get men in trouble too.  See Patricia Highsmith!

A girl in trouble is a temporary thing?

The other 22 works of short fiction in the collection are much shorter--indeed, the majority of them are short-shorts of under 2000 words.  Throughout the 1950s Innes specialized in the newspaper short-short mystery and was quite adept at it, but many of these tales here, I must admit, get rather whimsical, and are even on the shaggy-doggish side. 

Typically they take the form of Appleby talking (hence the English title) about some past crime with some of his male acquaintances (the vicar, the doctor, the lawyer, etc.) in the seaside town of Sheercliff (setting of "Dead Man's Shoes," by the way).  Some of these are clever and a bit more developed, however, like poisoning tale "The Furies" and "The X-Plan," another crime story with espionage trappings, and "Appleby's First Case."  (I think I have seen "The Furies" before in an anthology.)  

J. I. M. Stewart
aka Michael Innes (1906-1994)

Then there are a few short stories proper, about 4000-6000 words long say, which are quite good indeed: "Lesson in Anatomy," "A Dog's Life," "Pokerwork," "The Key" and "Tragedy of a Handkerchief."  "Anatomy" concerns a murder which takes place when the lights go out during an anatomy lecture at Nessfield University.  (See Innes' 1943 John Appleby detective novel The Weight of the Evidence, where in the English edition it is "Nesfield," I believe.)  

This is well-devised detective story, although I must admit that the "rags" which the medical students callously perform with anatomical "specimens" (i.e., blameless human corpses) rather rankled me.  Innes always indulgently gives university students great scope for consummate assery.

Not for the first time was I struck by the obnoxiously privileged behavior of college students in Innes' books, which really hung on over the entirety of the author's fifty year mystery writing career.  The author himself--whose real name was John Innes Mackintosh Stewart--was a longtime academic and taught English literature at Oxford for 24 years, retiring at the age of 67 in 1973, when changes were really starting to roil the system.

The other four stories all involve, in one way or another, murderous consequences of illicit passions among men and women.  "A Dog's Life" oddly anticipates the tragic drowning deaths of Daniil Gagarin and Emma Monkkonen which took place just a few months ago and which, due their horrific nature, went viral on the internet.  

Of these four clever tales I particularly liked "Pokerwork," about a murder committed with one of the classic slaying weapons.  (A number of the story titles, as you will see, are puns.)  Shorn of the dazzling literary embellishments of the Innes novels (particularly the early ones), these stories make manifest just how able Innes was at the craft of clueing, a skill at which he is underrated.  In a contemporary review of Dead Man's Shoes influential crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher called the collection "an approximately perfect book" and he asserted that "even readers who have shied away from the long Innes novels may be charmed by these briefer samples."

Dodd, Mead's first edition of Michael Innes'
Lament for a Maker, now selling for $750

Still in my view one needs to read Innes' novels to get the full flavor of Innes.  In a review of Dead Man's Shoes at Jason Half's blog, Jason asks, "Is it fair to judge a novelist based on a set of short stories?" and answers: "The immediate answer is, of course, yes."  I would argue, however, that the answer is, to the contrary, "Heck, no!"  

Set aside the "great" novelists, to really appreciate Michael Innes (and whether you can really appreciate him) you simply must read some of the earlier books, the great detective extravaganzas like Hamlet, Revenge!, Lament for a Maker, Stop, PressThe Daffodil Affair or Appleby's End, say.  (Or you could just start with this one, which is quite good, from the author's middle period, or even this one, from his later period.) 

To do otherwise is like thinking you have done justice to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe saga by reading, say, "Murder Is Corny" (see my review), rather than Some Buried Caesar or And Be a Villain, for example.  It just won't do, sir!  Though it's actually even worse in Innes' case because the bulk of his short fiction are the merest of trifles by design.

Jason, who posted this review nearly three years ago, in December 2018, admitted then that he had not read any of Innes' novels, so his question is a pertinent one.  At the end of his review he speculates that he might owe it to the author "to sample more of his writing, to see what he can do with one novel-length story instead of 23 too brief but promising little ones."  To which I would add, I should say so!  

Anyone who likes Gladys Mitchell like Jason does should like Innes' early novels, I would think.  I haven't seen a review of a Michael Innes on his blog since then, however.  Did he ever give it another go with Innes?  I hope so.  When it comes to crime fiction, you have to walk a few miles in the dead man's shoes.


  1. "These "girls" really should stay away from trains, don't you know."

    It was apparently a real risk on early trains. The British army officer Valentine Baker was convicted of indecent assault on a young woman in a railway carriage and imprisoned. It inspired the introduction of corridors on trains and possibly a Victorian pornographic novel, Raped in a Railway Carriage. Baker joined the Ottoman army - presumably the French foreign Legion wasn't suitable for a colonel.

    Innes is a fascinating and infuriating writer. As well as the Michael Innes books, his academic work and books of criticism, he wrote several conventional novels, one or two of which are little masterpieces, but never seems to have used his full abilities in any of his books. "Michael Innes and Myself" is a candidate for the title of the least revealing autobiography ever written.

  2. You know, I forgot to link my own review of Christie's Mystery of the Blue Train. There's talk in that one of women being subjected to armed robbery on trains in France!

    Innes perhaps was too prolific for his own good, under both names. I think a lot of people attracted to writing mystery fiction tended to hide themselves, perhaps that was one reason they were attracted to fiction of concealment.

  3. Good contextualization of many Innes elements here, from dustjacket design to public school privilege. I have not read an Innes or Appleby novel since the short story collection review posted in 2018, and this author (and George Bellairs and E.C.R. Lorac and Helen McCloy and Anthony Boucher etc. etc.) remains on my "must get back around to at some point" list. Nick has warmly recommended Innes' novels too, and they sound intriguing and rich.

    It is interesting that you choose Rex Stout to argue the relative strength of novels and weakness of short stories to assess a writer's skills. To me, Stout is one of the few writers who excels at the novella-length mystery. His best are expertly crafted and as fleet and capable and entertaining as Goodwin himself. I agree that a skillful writer will shine through full-length storytelling, but his/her handling of a shorter format should also be a reliable indicator of potential.

    1. “it's actually even worse in Innes' case because the bulk of his short fiction are the merest of trifles by design.”

      Boucher said that Innes was as good with the short short as he was with the 100,000 plus word novel. He may have been, but the short short seems an inherently lesser art to me. So is the same true with Rex Stout’s novellas, it seems to me, though Boucher actually had a great fondness for those and preferred them to the Fifties novels. Boucher was an advocate of mid-century concision.

      For me Stouts novellas don't do full justice to his great novels. I’ve actually worked on books of short fiction by Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler and, while of course I recommend them, I don't believe it would be fair to judge the authors only by those and ignore their novels, no. Arthur Conan Doyle now is a different case!

    2. Admittedly, I stacked the deck by drawing on a novella from what is generally regarded as the weakest Stout collection. (It's still one I liked, but "Murder Is Corny" is the weakest one in the group.) There are unquestionably Stout novellas that are superior to some of the Stout novels. But I still think if one wants to do full justice to Stout, one must read some of the best Wolfe novels. Otherwise one is still dabbling. On the other hand, having read the best short stories one can get by without having read Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels--though one really should read Hound of the Baskervilles!

      I don't mean disrespect to the short story. I love short stories! I disagree mightily with those who say, "I wont read short stories," finding that a very narrow attitude. But where the Edwardian Age was the era of the mystery short story, generally speaking, the Golden Age was, generally speaking, the era of the detective novel. I wouldn't judge Christie or Sayers or Allingham or Carr, all of whom wrote some very good short fiction indeed, solely by their short fiction.

      With Innes it really seems to me that one is missing a lot by not reading any of the novels. Particularly someone like you, who as I recall had a blog devoted to Gladys Mitchell. They seem similar to me in being hugely imaginative and exuberant writers and those qualities come out strongest in the novels. I don't believe you can fairly judge Mitchell solely by her novels either.

      Of course some people just find Innes and Mitchell tiresome (and more so in the novels), so it's ultimately all a matter of taste!

    3. Added a couple of links to Stout reviews, also Mystery of the Blue Train.

      I thought of one author from the period who would make an exception to my "rule" from the GA and that is Cornell Woolrich. I'd say his short fiction is absolutely on par with his novels. In fact, I might be tempted to say--sacrilege, I suppose--I like the short fiction generally better.

    4. Thanks for these additional thoughts. My review of Shoes/Talking may have sounded mixed, but it was actually an enjoyable introduction to the author! What I didn't know was that the anecdote stories were written as short-shorts for newspapers, as you point out, hence the brief sketch feel to them. I gravitated toward the longer stories with their greater detail, but still appreciated the sketches. (And the writer in me envied his fertile "facility for premises and clues", all prominent and promising in the shortest pieces!)

      In brief: I shall try a Michael Innes novel in the near future to right once more the balance of the literary firmament. Cheers --

    5. I think you and I were actually in basic agreement as to the book itself.

  4. Innes - and Mitchell, from what I've read of her - are better with room to spread themselves, whereas the little stories published in London evening newspapers meant the distinctive traits that made people like (or dislike) them are either lost or too concentrated.
    Woolrich was a master of psychological atmosphere. It's harder to manage that in a novel than a novella or short story.

    1. Yes, I think you capture that well, some of the Woolrich novels seem loose-ish to me, the stories are so neat and tight.

      The Evening Standard short stories are so short! All one has time for is a single stunt. If the Innes volume didn't have the longer works as well, it would really be a trifling collection.

  5. You might like to give the books he wrote under the name J.I.M. Stewart a go too.

    1. “There will be time, there will be time

      To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

      There will be time to murder and create,
      And time for all the works and days of hands
      That lift and drop a question on your plate;
      Time for you and time for me,

      And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
      And for a hundred visions and revisions,
      Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

  6. I agree with just about everything you say here. His short short stories are a bit all over the place, his actual short stories deserve to be better known, and you have to read his novels to really get a full sense of what he was about. I'll definitely keep an eye out for this collection, it sounds really nice.

    (Regarding his short short stories, I've got a little game I like to play with them. Since they're often underclued, and since they usually have titles and last lines that pun on some well-known saying, I try to deduce what the last line pun will be. Part of me thinks that some of those stories were written with the puns in mind from the first.)

    Also, I'd like to nominate From London Far as another representative novel. Granted, it doesn't have any detective elements to speak of, being as it's a send up of Buchanesque thrillers, but its got the same phantasmagoric atmosphere as Appleby's End. Personally, I'd rank it up there with The Pickwick Papers and Leave it to Psmith as one of the funniest books I've ever read.

    1. I should have mentioned that I think all his book under the Innes pen name have been reprinted. From London Far reminds me quite a bit of the Daffodil Affair and I guess it was about the last one he did that was so phantasmagoric as you say, though there was Operation Pax too, which is definitely quite wild.

      I like his short fiction when I don't have time to commit to one of his novels. Some of his later novels, however, feel more like extended short stories, or novellas, they are pretty short.

  7. Oh, that cover! It is about that time of year to settle down and devote the last weekend before Christmas to perhaps my all- time favorite mystery, perhaps one of my favorite novels, Lament for a Maker.

    This book, and Hamlet, Revenge! Michel Innes's two hat early successes, are are a bit different from the bulk of his oeuvre, in that they require a greater commitment, investment even, by the reader. But, boy, do they pay off. I think I must have started Hamlet, the popular consensus, it seems, for Innes's best, at least three times before I buckled down and just stayed with it. By page 100 I was oblivious to food, time, my poor wife, You just can't go wrong with this one.

    Lament, though, is by far my favorite. The story itself, the structure, challenging dialect, many elements combine in a delightful mix of the expected (rather inevitable) and the unexpected.

    I have a little stack of holiday mysteries, and look forward to my free weekend, which I plan to spend in a wee Scottish village That I understand will be snowed in...