Is anybody out there familiar with the crime fiction of Michael Innes? If you are, you will know that this was the pen name of J.I.M. Stewart, an Oxford academic. I found this one in a charity shop (where else) recently and remembered that I had read many of these novels some years ago and enjoyed them very much. Innes's detective is John (in later novels Sir John) Appleby, himself an Oxbridge man and much given to literary quotations. This novel was first published in the early 1940s and is actually set in
a redbrick university, apparently just before the outbreak of WW2. I'm sorry to say that Innes takes a pretty snobbish attitude to 'provincial' universities":
"The staff -- a word which at Oxford or Cambridge might be used of persons employed in a hotel -- is not accommodated in spacious common rooms and cosy suites. Sometimes it is provided with a cellar in which the extravagant may drink coffee essence at eleven o'clock; sometimes there is also an attic with chairs, where meetings may be held; a midday meal is obtainable by those who will grab from a counter with one hand and from a cutlery basket with the other", and so on. However, this is no doubt how things were in the 1940s, and certainly how they looked to an Oxford don. And in fact despite the rather heavily jocular tone here, this book is actually very interesting purely read as a piece of social history. Some of the detail is fascinating -- take the description of the station buffet, where "one sat at a long, horseshoe-like counter; there were cauldrons of tripe and reservoirs of sausages; there was a brave clatter of pewter pots; there were barmaids to whom several gentlemen were usually offering jocose conversation at the same time". There's also some more serious and very interesting reflection on the role of these newer universities and the fundamental social changes that will result from broadening this level of education to include "the workers and the lower middle classes".
Sounds ghastly, probably! Why would you want to read this? Well, Innes tells a cracking story and his plots are usually satisfyingly complex. In this one, a Professor Pluckrose has been crushed to death by a large meteorite which has fallen on him from a tower while he was sitting quietly in an inner courtyard. Clearly this was not a natural phenomenon -- someone pushed the meteorite out of a window. But why this choice of weapon? Does it have mythical or symbolic associations? Why are there no less than three false white beards in the darkroom cupboard? Does the beautiful German girl, with whom almost everyone seems to be in love, have any bearing on the case? Is the young mathematician Timmy Church really a bigamist? Should Appleby pay attention to the Vice Chancellor's pronouncement that "It is a thing to remember about professors. They go mad"? Entertaining.