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.

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