Friday’s Forgotten Book: Appleby’s Answer by Michael Innes

Michael Innes (1906-1994) was the pen name used by John Innes Mackintosh Stewart to write around 50 mystery novels and collections of mystery short stories. He published contemporary fiction and literary criticism under his given name. He released around 35 books about Sir John Appleby of Scotland Yard between 1936 and 1987.

Appleby’s Answer (Dodd, Mead, 1973) is a blatant send-up of lady crime fiction writers, country squires, retired military officers, and other stock characters who often appear in the works of English crime fiction. There is no mystery to speak of, and a goat figures prominently in the final chapters. I found it an entertaining, although antic, read after I stopped waiting for the mystery to appear.

Miss Priscilla Pringle, a modestly successful author of such titles as Vengeance at the Vicarage and Revenge at the Rectory, is pleased to note that the gentleman sharing her train compartment is reading one of her books (Murder in the Cathedral). He recognizes her from the jacket photo and embarks on an increasingly odd conversation, suggesting that the two of them collaborate on a mystery that she will publish under both their names. Captain Bulkington, it seems, is willing to pay £500 to see his name on the cover of a book.

For unclear reasons, Miss Pringle is intrigued by the peculiar conversation and agrees to discuss literary possibilities with the retired military officer by phone, declining to meet him in person. She does visit his village to gather information about him, not a particularly wise thing to do, as the town is far too small for her to escape his notice. This visit contains one of the best scenes in the book, in which the rector announces one hymn number during matins and the order of service another one. Half of the participants in the service sing one song while the other half sing the second. A soundtrack of this event would be wonderful.

Sir John Appleby and his wife Judith are visiting friends in the area and they are pulled into an investigation by the local police on the thinnest of pretexts, in which they meet the captain and the young men he is supposedly prepping for entrance into a military academy, and questions about the death of the previous vicar arise.

This is an amusing read, although not a particularly satisfying mystery. Earlier books in the Appleby series are better in that regard.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Gourmet Detective by Peter King

Peter King wrote eight books about the English chef turned food consultant Goodwin Harper between 1994 and 2003. According to Amazon, King was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and a retired metallurgist who worked on the Apollo project for NASA. I haven’t been able to find much more about him.

Goodwin Harper emerged on the crime fiction scene just when the culinary mystery began to take hold. Goldy Bear, Diane Mott Davidson’s invention, appeared in 1990. Angie Amalfi, a restaurant reviewer in San Francisco, created by Joanne Pence, had her first adventure in 1993. Claudia Bishop released her first Hemlock Falls Inn culinary mystery in 1994. Ellen Hart published the initial mystery about Sophie Greenway, a Minneapolis food critic, in 1994. The earliest culinaries that I know of are the four books (1982-1993) by Virginia Rich featuring chef Eugenia Potter.

Unlike most mysteries about food these days, there are no recipes in the books and Harper focuses on the business aspects of the restaurant and catering industry as well as the cookery itself. When someone expresses surprise in one book at the frequency and extent of criminal activity Harper finds, Harper points out that food is big business that generates billions of dollars in revenue one way or another and wherever that amount of money is found, lawlessness is sure to be there too.

Harper markets himself as The Gourmet Detective, who specializes in locating hard-to-find ingredients, identifying substitutes for ingredients no longer available, finding markets for new products, and menu planning for special events such as Renaissance banquets. One day the owner of one of the most exclusive restaurants in London asks him to find out who is sabotaging his establishment. Deliveries are being diverted, mice show up the day an inspector is due, tax records disappear. Harper is given a generous retainer to get to the bottom of the problem. To his delight, he is invited to attend the banquet of an exclusive gourmet organization later in the week.

The night of the banquet Harper is in ecstasy at being in the same room with so many food experts and listening to them talk. Restaurant owners, journalists, celebrity chefs, they are all there. The food is outstanding and everything is going well, until one journalist falls over dead. The police arrive, examine the body, question everyone present, until the journalist sits up, clearly quite alive. The medical examiner comes in at that point and is irate at being called out erroneously. A few minutes later the journalist stands up and collapses again, definitely dead this time. The police press Harper into helping them understand the food world while the owner closes the restaurant because of the adverse publicity.

This book is fun to read, partly because of all the food descriptions but also because Harper’s hobby is crime fiction. The book is full of references to detective fiction icons, both direct and indirect. One oddity: the voice changes from first person to third person and back, something an editor should have caught. It’s still a series worth finding on the Internet or via interlibrary loan and reading from beginning to end.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Straw Man by Doris Miles Disney

Doris Miles Disney (1907-1976) published nearly 50 mystery novels, most of which were stand-alone stories. She had three series characters: Jeff DiMarco, an insurance investigator; David Madden, a postal inspector; and Jim O’Neill, a Connecticut police detective.

Strawman (Doubleday, 1951) is the third outing for Jeff DiMarco. Called in to the office with several days still to run on his camping and fishing vacation, he’s assigned the task of investigating what seems to be an open-and-shut case against Lincoln Hunter. Hunter has been convicted of murder. When he’s executed, the $100,000 life insurance policy DiMarco’s company Commonwealth Assurance issued becomes payable to Hunter’s estate. (That’s $986,761.54 in 2019 dollars.) Commonwealth Assurance does not want to pay this princely sum to anyone and tells DiMarco to find a loophole somewhere.

Hunter had been seeing Celia Worthen, a stenographer, even after he met Ruth Copper, whom he decided to marry. When he told Celia he was marrying someone else, she insisted that he had to marry her because she was pregnant. He proceeded with his marriage plans and had to cut his honeymoon short because the police wanted to question him about Celia, who was strangled the night before Hunter and Ruth’s wedding. Hunter cannot account for his time during the crucial window that the murder took place and is indicted for murder.  

This is a classic case of investigation by conversation. DiMarco interviewed everyone who was remotely involved and began identifying discrepancies and inconsistencies, In the end he’s nearly killed by the murderer as he wraps up his inquiry.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Black Beadle by E.C.R. Lorac

Edith Caroline Rivett (1894–1958) published more than 70 mysteries under the names E. C. R. Lorac and Carol Carnac between 1931 and 1959. Nearly all of the E.C.R. Lorac titles are about Chief Inspector Robert MacDonald, a Scot on the London police force. Some of her books have been released as part of the British Library Crime Classics series.

Black Beadle (Collins, 1939) is as much a study of the political environment in England during the years leading up to World War II as it is a mystery. England was not immune to the turmoil taking place in Europe. Fascism and Communism had strong proponents, pushing the Liberal party to one side. One of the main characters in the book, Gilbert Mantland, might have been modeled on Oswald Mosley, who founded the British Union of Fascists. Both made their political reputations on working with labor issues, both changed party affiliations more than once, and both married much younger socialite wives. This book reminds me of the first Rowland Sinclair mystery by Sulari Gentill; set in the late 1930s in Sydney, Australia, Rowland is pressured by his older brother to join a far-right political faction.

Chief Inspector MacDonald comes into the story when Joseph Suttler, general manager of the Harringstone Building Society, is deliberately run down by a large powerful vehicle which turns out to belong to Mantland’s political rival, Barry Revian. Revian cannot prove where he was during the critical time, and neither can three others who, because of their motives to kill Suttler, become the focus of the investigation. One of the three is Mantland; another is a prominent Jewish financier, a staunch Liberal; and the third is an employee of the building society whom Suttler was blackmailing. MacDonald is determined that the blackmailed employee will not be charged with the murder simply because he lacks money to hire a skilled lawyer and the others have significant political clout.

Investigation into Suttler’s associations and activities reveal theft and blackmailing propensities and a prison sentence under another name. All of the suspects were his victims in one way or another. The actual motive for the murder came as a surprise to me, I don’t think the clues provided were adequate for the reader to guess it, but it was still a satisfying wrap-up to a multidimensional story.