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Michael Innes (1906-1994) - pseudonym for John Innes Mackintosh
Scottish novelist, educator, and scholar, who became better known as mystery writer Michael Innes. Stewart's witty, playful mystery stories, written in a highly literate prose, are classics of the genre. His hero was Inspector Appleby, who later becomes Sir John, retired Scotland Yard Commissioner. In 1987 the critic H.R.F. Keating included Appleby's End (1945) among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. Stewart also produced academic monographs, including the final volume of the Oxford History of English Literature.
"To Appleby one could well apply the words which Michael Innes, writing under his own name in the novella The Man Who Wrote Detective Stories, employs to describe that hero: 'He loved tumbling out scraps of poetry from a ragbag collection in his mind – and particularly in absurd and extravagant contexts.' In Appleby's End our sleuth is whirled up and down, round and round, in as fantastical a situation as anyone could wish - all all the while out tumble the scraps of poetry." (from Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating, 1987)
John Innes Mackintosh Stewart was born near Edinburgh, the son
John Stewart and Elizabet Jane (née Clark) of Nairn. His father was a
lawyer and director
of Education in the city of Edinburg. Stewart attended Edinburgh
Academy, where Robert Louis Stevenson had been
a pupil for a short time. At Oriel College, Oxford, Stewart studied
English. Among his undergraduate contemporaries were Christopher
Isherwood and W.H. Auden, who had determined to become a great poet.
Stewart sat opposite him during final examinations. Auden got only a
third-class degree, and Stewart witnessed how the "tears were coursing
down his pale and ample cheeks." Stewart won the Matthew Arnold
Memorial Prize and was named a Bishop
After graduation in 1929 Stewart went to Vienna where he studied Freudian psychoanalysis for a year. Stewart's first book, an edition of Florio's translation of Montaigne, got him a lectureship at the University of Leeds (1930-1935). Stewart married in 1932 Margaret Harwick, who created a career as a doctor. They had five children, one of them the novelist Angus Stewart, author of Sandel (1968).
From 1936 Stewart was Jury Professor of English Literature at the University of Adelaide, in South Australia. He held the chair that had been long occupied by Sir Archibald Strong. Stewart found the Australian accent "ugly", and suspected that because of his Oxford English accent, he was very seldom asked to do any broadcasting in Adelaide.While travelling from Liverpool to Adelaide, Stewart wrote his first mystery story, Death at the President's Lodging (1936), which introduced C.I.D. Inspector John Appleby and set new standards for the genre. His second, Hamlet, Revenge! (1937), confirmed his reputation as a highly entertaining and cultivated writer. In the story a murder occurs in the context of a theatrical performance of Hamlet. The key document in the case is Shakespeare's play itself. One of the characters, called Gervase Crispin, gave the mystery writer and composer Robert Bruce Montgomery (alias "“Edmund Crispin") the surname of his pseudonym and his detective's ("Gervase Fen") first name. Montgomery's style in his first novels was so similar to Innes's, that his editor at Faber believed him to be actually J.I.M. Stewart. (In Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books by David Whittle, 2007.) Both authors were members of the Detection Club; Montgomery was elected in 1947 and Steward two years later. Aiming at "flippant gaiety," the also gave their characters more or less ridiculous names, but Stewart's plots were more unified and tighter.
Lament for a Maker (1938) had a lenghty description of bush near the Great Australian Blight. In The Daffodil Affair (1942) Appleby poses as an Australian rancher; the mysterious place called Cobdogla, which Stewart mentions in the story, is a small irrigation settlement about five kilometres west of Barmera Stewart's most developed Autralian character was Martin Fish, whom the narrator, Duncan Pattullo, meets in the first volume of the Oxford quintet novels, A Straircase in Surrey (1974). Other parts include Young Pattullo (1975), Medmorial Service (1976), and Full Term (1978).
"Appleby remembered his uncle George, who used to recite at parties a poem beginning 'A chieftain to the Highlands bound' – and at 'bound' bound into the middle of the room... Fate did not come like that. On the great stage the common traffic of life was proceeding with an even, untroubled rhythm – and then Fate was there, his entrance unnoticed, his menace waiting to strike home."
After World War II Stewart returned to England. He spent two
Queen's University in Belfast. There he wrote The Journeying Boy
(1949), notable for the richly comedic use of Irish setting. In 1949 he
was appointed as Student of Christ Church, Oxford, and from 1969 to
1973 Stewart also held the position of Reader in English Literature of
Oxford University. Upon retirement, he became professor emeritus.
Stewart died on November 12, 1994, at the age of eighty-eight. His
final mystery novel was Appleby and
(1986). "I don't know why there's never been a serious study of him,"
said Philip Larkin once in a letter, "he's a beautifully sophisticated
writer, very funny and, now and then, very moving." (Actually, there is
one, George L. Scheper's Michael Innes,
published in 1985.) In the United States, Innes's detective novels
never reached best-seller status: the first two sold slightly over
2,000 copies and the final Appleby story reached 9,500.
"It has always been possible to make a gentleman in three generations; nowadays – when families are smaller and the upper class has to be recruited hastily – the thing is done in two. Nevertheless remote ancestors continue to be prized; the remoter they are the more proudly we regard them." (from A Comedy of Terrors, 1940)
Stewart published some 50 mystery novels, short stories, several novels and studies in literature, biographies, and plays. His best known detective character is John Appleby, whose cases took him onto the campuses of the great universities or to chase criminals in the tradition of John Buchan, Stewart's fellow Scot. During his career Appleby rises from inspector to knighted commissioner. Over the years he also acquires a wife, sculptor Judith Raven. Appleby has good manners, he likes to quote poetry, and seldom takes fingerprints. Later Stewart replaced Appleby by his son Bobby as in the novel An Awkward Lie (1971); the attempt was less successful. In Death at the Chase (1970) Stewart took up the theme of guilt and redemption. On country walk Appleby has an encounter with the lord of a neighbouring manor, the aged Martyn Ashmore. He learns that during the war Ashmore was captured by the Nazi's and cracked under torture. This led to the massacre of many Resistance fighters. Ever since, on the anniversary of that day, an attempt is made on Ashmore's life.
'What we're considering is that there may be a kind of joke at the heart of it,' Appleby said. 'A thoroughly evil joke. But you're absolutely right about the criminal mind – or rather about any mind wrought to plan and perpetrate something like murder. Calculation and rationality can suddenly go by the board, and something quite unpremeditated, and even quite profitless and meaningless, take their place. That's why detective stories are of no interest to policemen. Their villains remain far too consistently cerebral.' (from Death at the Chase)
A new series character appeared in the 1970s. He was the painter and reluctant detective Charles Honeybath, whose clients are usually successful businessmen. The artist sleuth was introduced in The Mysterious Commission (1975). The New Sonia Wayward (1960) was a humorous story about creative writing. Sonia Wayward, bestselling romantic novelist, dies of a sudden stroke. Her husband, Colonel Ffolliot Petticate, realizes that to maintain his comfortable way of living, Sonia's litetary output must continue. Stewart's attempts as a 'serious' novelist did not gain such acclaim as his mysteries. His model was C.P. Snown and Henry James, whose style influenced his essay Mark Lambert's Supper. Stewart's other works include Eight Modern Writers (1962), his paramount academic contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature, Rudyard Kilpling (1966), Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography (1972). Stewart's autobiography Myself and Michael Innes came out in 1987.
For further reading: Jolly Good Detecting: Humor in English Crime Fiction of the Golden Age by Bruce Shaw (2014); Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart, and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 by Curtis Evans (2012); Whodunit?: A Who's Who in Crime & Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert (2003); Oxford in English Literature: The Making, and Undoing, of 'the English Athens' by John Dougill (1998); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 4, ed. by M. Seymour-Smith and A.C. Kimmens (1996); Myself and Michael Innes by J.I.M. Stewart (1987); Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by John M. Reilly (1985); Michael Innes by George L. Scheper (1985). Another university professor who had a double identity as a mystery writer: Nicholas Blake (pseudonym for Cecil Day Lewis). Edmund Crispin's series character, Gervase Fen, was a Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University.