J.I.M. Stewart – Myself and Michael Innes

J.I.M. Stewart – Myself and Michael Innes (1987)

This book is subtitled A Memoir, which is certainly a far more suitable description than auto-biography. Indeed it is short on some basic biographical facts which can more easily be picked up from Wikipedia. Stewart was born in 1906 in Edinburgh, where he attended the Edinburgh Academy, before moving on to Oriel College, Oxford. After a short hiatus he became a professional academic in English Literature first at Leeds (1930-35), then Adelaide (1936-46) and Belfast, finally returning to Oxford and Christ Church College where he remained until his retirement in 1973. He wrote this memoir, which was his last published work, in 1987 and died in 1994. As Stewart he wrote a number of works of criticism – on Shakespeare, Peacock, Hardy and Joyce notably – and a considerable number of novels, including the Staircase in Surrey quintet. But he is now far better known as Michael Innes, creator of John Appleby and author of nearly 50 mysteries, most featuring Appleby. Nonetheless he is certainly a figure of interest in both his identities – which is why this entry features on  my general and mystery blogs. 

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Both those looking for any great personal revelations or psychological self-analysis, and those seeking insights into the Innes mysteries, will be disappointed by this book – the former in particular. Which is not to say that it is not a great pleasure to read. Stewart’s voice (uncommonly similar to Appleby’s!) is detached, witty, poised, elegant. The book really consists of a series of sketches and musings which tend to the semi-comic, but contain a leavening of the philosophical. The first half of the book covers his childhood, student days, life in Leeds and Adelaide, and contains almost no reference whatever to Michael Innes – although by 1946 he had completed 10 mysteries including several of his master-pieces. There are some splendid set-pieces such as his memories of attending the funerals of both Thomas Hardy (1928) and Philip Larkin (1986) – apparently a few months before his death Larkin (born in 1922) had written to Stewart expressing his ‘wonder’ that he had attended Hardy’s funeral – and seen the remains escorted by Barrie, Galsworthy, Hardy, Kipling and Shaw among others. Stewart writes of this in a chapter entitled Excursions on Memory which opens with various reflections on links to the past – an aunt who used to travel on the same bus as Carlyle, and a fairground attraction Stewart encountered in his youth – an ancient figure whom it was claimed had fought against Napoleon in Egypt – Stewart does some calculations which enable him to doubt the veracity of this claim. This leads into musings on the large snails to be found in Stewart’s garden and the role of memory in our lives – ‘The essential ego of our life is a product of memory. The narrower and more uncertain our recollections, the less secure is the persuasion that somewhere within our carcasses (which are in a perpetual state of flux) and harbouring amid our thoughts (which are as fluid as water) an ‘I’ securely exists. Without this sense of an ‘I’ we cannot make do.’ Stewart then moves on to memory’s tricks – a theme to which he recurs. All this is very pleasing and reminiscent of Anthony Powell in the switching between anecdote and small observation, to wider musings on such matters as time and memory. As in Powell it is the former that dominate, and in the portrait of individuals that Stewart excels – T.S. Eliot being buttonholed by the village bore when he visited to give a lecture in Leeds, the general unpleasantness and unpredictability of F.R. Leavis, the peculiarity of Adelaide high society and many others. It is no wonder that Stewart wrote a book on Peacock, an author whom he must have found very sympathetic (I would very much like to read that book).

In the latter half of the book, interspersed with his consideration of his career as Michael Innes (of which much more below)  and his career as a writer for radio(which was distinguished) Stewart gives a very brief account of his second Oxford life, once again of an essentially anecdotal nature. He talks of trips to Seattle and Canada, ending the book in Cambridge with reflections on the differences in the way in which English is taught in Oxford and Cambridge, disquisitions on Wordsworth and C.P. Snow,  and the role of punctuation in a line of verse, before concluding the entire book  with a short story from his final fictional collection (Parlour 4 and other stories). The story concerned, Sweets from a Stranger, is the first-person narrative of an Edinburgh lawyer recollecting an event from his childhood when he attended the Edinburgh Academy. It might, of course, have been an anecdote from the earlier part of Myself and Michael Innesitself – the tone of voice of the narrator is almost exactly that of Stewart himself, and while the biographical details are altered we know that Stewart did attend the academy. The story is an affecting and charming one, but the completion of a non-fictional work with a fictional story which is at the same time a circular completion – in other words brings us back almost to where we started – forces the reader to question, if not the veracity of the book, then at least the extent to which it partakes of the nature of a game or illusion or piece of misdirection.For all the many felicities the book contains, it is also full of avoidances.

And these continue when Stewart turns to his career as Michael Innes – indeed one is tempted to see his writing here as a form of misdirection. Stewart claims that he wrote Death at the President’s Lodging (aka Seven Suspects) (1936) his first mystery (and first Appleby) for three main reasons. In the first place he didn’t feel he had the talent, or the experiences, to be a novelist (and he did not produce his first ’straight’ novel until 1954). Secondly, mysteries were ‘respectable’ – Stewart himself had discussed them with Ronald Knox, Eliot and J.C. Masterman a Christ Church don who had just produced his own (An Oxford Tragedy). And thirdly, and most importantly, for money – the Stewart family (which kept growing – he had married his landlady while at Leeds, on which subject he is – probably predictably – reticent: his five children make their most prominent appearance in some of the book’s photographs) was, if not penurious, certainly far from well-off – in fact it was for that reason that they were emigrating to Australia, and it was during the 6 week voyage that he wrote the book (or that is the version which he likes to present – on re-reading the book he thinks that considerably more re-writing went into it). He writes of Appleby on Ararat and The Daffodil Affair (two of the most extraordinary of Golden Age mysteries) that…..

>>’These two extravaganzas, incidentally, are my principal attempts to bring a little fantasy and fun into the detective story. But the impulse has always been present with me, and has justly earned for me Mr Julian Symons’  label as a farceur in the kind. Detective stories are purely recreational reading, after all, and needn’t scorn the ambition to amuse as well as puzzle.<<

As I say I suspect a great deal of misdirection is going on here. Of what are widely regarded as his two greatest works, Stewart says of Hamlet, Revenge only that he had no first-hand knowledge at all of an English ducal dwelling. Of Lament for a Maker (in my personal  view a book with a claim to being the finest mystery ever written) Stewart does say a little more.

He admits that its predecessors, such as they are, are Stevenson and Buchan rather than Doyle and Chesterton (not that I see any Buchan there, although he is clearly an influence on other works)…..

>>I have been told that Lament for a Maker smells strongly of The Master of Ballantrae, and although my memory of that story (read in 1924) doesn’t quite respond to this, I am in no doubt about the validity of the general proposition. And that the detective element has to be rather awkwardly edged into Lament for a Makeris evident from the fact that my indefatigable official sleuth, John Appleby, arrives at Castle Erchany, only in the last third of the book. The mystery he investigates is not particularly memorable, but I regard this novel as leaving something in the mind, all the same – which is a quality not owned by the numerous Innes stories at all often.<<

Now I am all for self-deprecation, a charming trait, but this moves beyond this into absurdity and obfuscation. It is certainly true that among the near fifty Innes books there are, as there are bound to be, a few which are considerably less than brilliant, particularly in the latter stages of his career (although even those will always, at a minimum, boast a few charming passages). But there are also a considerable number which may be ranked as either very good or great. Taken as a whole it is a body of work with which very, very few other British mystery writers can compete. This dismissal is therefore to be regarded with suspicion; a suspicion which is confounded when he goes on to discuss in detail three what he calls ’spy thrillers’ – The Secret Vanguard, The Journeying Boy and The Man From the Sea. Now I happen to have a personal liking for The Secret Vanguard, partly because of its status as a (semi) WW2 book, but it would not be widely placed among his best, and while The Journeying Boy is a definite major work, The Man From the Sea almost as definitely is not. I have no idea why Stewart takes this line, but he does so emphatically, not only writing in some detail about each book, but providing extracts. He talks for instance about The Secret Vanguard as belonging to the ’sub-species’ of spy thriller concerned with a hunted man – or girl, Sheila Grant, in this case – and says that…

>>the actual hunting of the girl, Sheila Grant, is a different thing: far and away, I judge, the most empathic writing I have anywhere achieved. The chapters entitled ‘Hawk’ and ‘Hare’ are to my mind as good as such unassuming things can be.<<

Now these chapters, while certainly exciting enough in their way, are far from the best of Innes writing; this is nearly always concentrated around the wonderful array of characters who populate his better work, but even in terms of chase scenes there is a far better one at the beginning of a book called Operation Pax (aka The Paper Thunderbolt). However Stewart goes on to say of these chapters that even ‘they have their derivations’, referring directly to Buchan’s Prester John, and in the two chapters which follow, featuring a blind fiddler, to memories of childhood; nonetheless….

>>The juxtaposition of Harry’s crazy imaginings and the closely worked minute-by-minute account of Sheila’s flight has the felicitousness that does sometimes drop into a writer’s grasp<<

In contrast….

>>The closing chapters of The Secret Vanguard are a huddle of spy-and-detective stuff much lacking in clarity and credibility’<<

There follows an even lengthier, albeit more justified, analysis of The Journeying Boy. In the course of this Stewart does however make one interesting observation about the ending…

>>And here an idiosyncrasy of mine comes into play. I have always been reluctant to dispatch my crooks and murderers to gaol or the gallows, with the result that a high proportion of them meet with some form of poetic justice, are more or less ingeniously hoist with their own petard.<<

Which indeed is the case in the end of The Journeying Boy. A briefer analysis of The Secret Vanguard follows.

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In two later chapters Stewart returns to the subject of his Innes books and what he calls detective fiction. He considers in particular Hare Sitting Up – once again choosing a fairly minor work – and writes…

>>The conversations, whether of small boys at a private school, newly graduated Oxford students on a railway train, devoted ornithologists, or persons represented as carrying grave responsibilities for the safety of the state, are unobtrusively equivocal at need, as well as adequately lively and verisimilar throughout. And the ‘literary’ flavour reflects something quite genuine. The ghost of Thomas Love Peacock occasionally breathes in the talk; and the characterization, if sketchy is by somebody who has rejoiced in Charles Dickens long ago.

         Hare Sitting Up isn’t too bad. Yet as the story moves towards its conclusion I find myself increasingly impatient with it. Sustained suspense, and puzzlement maintained up to the very last minute, are too much at a premium. They squeeze any illusion of real life out of the thing, so that I have nothing but puppets on which to bring down the curtain.

         But here I am quarrelling with the necessary limitations of a minor literary kind. The complex mystery story is irreconcilable with any authentic representative fiction,and particularly so with the traditional amplitude of the English novel. Anthony Trollope in his Autobiography has a criticism of Wilkie Collins which is relevant here:

                          I can never lose the taste of the construction. The author seems always to be warning me to remember that something happened at exactly half-                          past  two o’clock on Tuesday morning; or that a woman disappeared from the road just fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone.

        To reconcile in a single story milestones that are numerous and important with a leisured portrayal for its own sake of a group of characters or a social scene, requires, we may think, an artistry worthy of higher things. Almost invariably such an effort must fail. Either the mystery will appear paltry (as did that of Dickens’ Edwin Drood to George Gissing) or the alternative interests held out by the writer will be rejected as ungrateful padding………….

         The novelist always lurking in Michael Innes has coped with this situation as he can: preserving always a certain lightness of air in his writing: aerating it with such wit as he can command; escaping from the artificial into the fantastic or the farcical.<<

I have quoted this passage at length not only because it is the longest sustained passage which considers his own writing as author of the Appleby novels (leaving on one side his ’spy thrillers’), but because of its innate interest. I have drawn attention to two fascinating contentions by underlining them…

  1. The complex mystery story is irreconcilable with any authentic representative fiction : now this is a position which many would still adopt, both critics of the genre, and on the other hand certain genre purists who are suspicious of anything which dilutes a concentration on plot. It is an argument which has in some ways intensified with the broadening of the genre’s horizons in the last 20 years (since Innes wrote these words). I find the use of the word ‘representative’ fascinating here and am not entirely sure what it is intended to denote. Personally I am suspicious of the entire argument. Innes’ invocation of Trollope – which is presumably partly related to his reference to ‘traditional amplitude’ – immediately brings this into focus because while Trollope rarely incorporated a mystery, and when he did so managed it rather badly, he is in fact a master of narrative – something which may contribute to his relative lack of popularity or esteem in academic circles at least. The irreconcilability of the needs of a mystery narrative with a certain depth of characterisation seems to me absurd – unless one is talking of a Proustian type depth, but there are many other forms – including the traditional English novel – which most certainly do not aspire to that. But perhaps a clue is offered by the second sentence I select.
  2. leisured portrayal for its own sake of a group of characters or a social scene : the key phrase being here ‘for its own sake’ with the suggestion that because all elements within a mystery novel should be bound to the plot, characterisation whether of a psychological or sociological or other kind will not be ‘for its own sake’ and therefore somehow lacking in validity. Stewart exemplifies this by saying that if too much characterisation – of whatever kind – is introduced then either the mystery will ‘appear paltry’ – be deficient as plot – or ‘be rejected as ungrateful padding’ – I am entirely at a loss to understand ‘ungrateful’ here and can only make sense of it as ‘ungraceful’ – which indeed is exactly the attitude which some purist mystery fans do adopt towards writers – Innes included – whose books they consider overloaded with elements – psychological or sociological observation, humour, historical detail etc. – surplus to the over-riding concern of plot. However, it may be that according to this rule what Stewart says is true – if you accept the contention that an essential element of non-genre fiction is that it should contain portrayal for its own sake, then it is probably true that his argument in respect of mystery fiction follows. I am not at all sure that one should accept such a contention but that lies beyond my competence. However it seems to me that substantive psychological and sociological observation can be just as valid even if it is attached to a mystery plot, as if it is for ‘its own sake’.

Leaving his own work Stewart then produces a chapter entitled Excursus on the Detective Story. This consists largely in a comparison of Doyle and Christie. Stewart points out that in the Holmes opus many of the clues are produced as stated facts by Holmes often as a result of his recondite knowledge. Although his most famous clue (the dog that did not bark) deviates from this rule (which may be why it is so famous!) in general the reader has no chance…

>>We are regularly and justly impressed by Holmes’s powers of observation and inference. But there is no contest between ourselves and the detective, just as there seems to be none recorded between Holmes’s prototype, Dr Joseph Bell, and his pupils in Edinburgh (or, indeed, between that Ur– Holmes, Voltaire’s Zadig, and the authorities of Babylon in the mystery of the sacred horse of the king and the queen’s respectable dog).<<

‘Fair’ clues, on the other hand, demand that they fall within an area of which the reader may be expected to have knowledge – such as the fact that both dentists and stewards on passenger aircraft – at one time – wear white jackets (Stewart is referring to Christie’s Death in the Clouds). Stewart argues that over the past century the presentation of the clue has become immensely refined – a process which was advanced most notably by Christie. He proceeds to a detailed analysis of a couple of passages in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Ackroyd’s voice in the study and the opening paragraphs) and concludes..

>>If, having finished the book, one turns back to this [the opening paragraph], one is inclined to ask oneself whether stuff equally wicked, equally audacious, was  ever penned.<<

Stewart develops this with an analysis of one of Christie’s Short Stories entitled The Red Signal (which I have never read).

However unfortunately Stewart proceeds from this to the lazy and conventional canard that besides these brilliant plots ‘There is nothing else in the books’, citing Edmund Wilson’s essay (Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?). Stewart replies…

>>We can only say that, within the limitations of a minor craft, Agatha Christie could, at need, write with a verbal adroitness far exceeding anything that, in her craft, had gone before.<<

But that is not by any means all we can say, and more perceptive and insightful recent critics, especially feminist ones, have found a great deal more to say ( see , for instance, my blog Light on Christie at https://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2009/03/03/light-on-christie/ ).

Stewart then has a brief gallop through the history of policemen in English literary history in which the usual suspects (Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Collins’ Cuff, Trollope’s Bunfit and Ganger – from The Eustace Diamonds – and, of course, Dickens Bucket) are assembled, before returning to Doyle who’s success he ascribes to the fact that the Holmes stories are so attentive to historical setting – ‘each one is a period piece’. In this Doyle displayed ‘a very considerable literary art’.

In truth Stewart’s thinking on mystery writers – if this chapter is a true reflection – is staid, conventional and almost wholly without interest. His thoughts on the limitations of mysteries as a genre are certainly more interesting, but seem to rest on not very deeply-thought out assumptions. His thoughts on his own output as Michael Innes seem an act of obfuscation and sleight of hand – perhaps this arises from embarrassment at this aspect of his career and life but this seems unlikely given the title of this book. My preferred explanation is that in this – as in relation to his personal life – Stewart was utterly determined not to give too much away – and as a master of the mystery genre, composing a personal mystery was all too easy.

Myself and Michael Innescan be read with considerable pleasure by anyone who enjoys writing with wit, charm, elegance, detachment and gentle reflection; anyone wishing for deep insights into Stewart the man or Innes the mystery writer will go away disappointed.


2 thoughts on “J.I.M. Stewart – Myself and Michael Innes

  1. Lynne Murphy

    He didn’t marry his landlady. That is a misreading of his memoir. He married a medical student who later became a doctor.

  2. linhsiang

    You have brought up several points of interest in your discussion of J. I. M. Stewart, whose memoirs I recently re-read with pleasure. I would also describe them as reticent and self-deprecating, but found much more in them than at the first re-reading.

    At this point I only want to point out that he did NOT marry his landlady, but a medical student who lived in the same house as he did.

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