I've always had a soft spot for the rather (sometimes very) quirky crime novels of Michael Innes - he wrote nearly fifty of them between 1936 and 1986. I have no idea how many I've read - there are a whole lot featuring his detective John, later Sir John, Appleby, a suave and well educated sort of chap, and mostly very enjoyable they are. But then there are the stand-alones, and these tend to be even more 'exuberantly fanciful', as a critic called them, as well as even more stuffed with learned literary allusions. I can well imagine that this kind of thing is not up everybody's street, but it's definitely up mine. And, though I haven't read all the ones in this group, I suspect that From London Far goes about as far down that road as any.
Published in 1946, the novel takes it's title from a line in a poem by Samuel Johnson, called 'London: A Poem'. The protagonist of the novel, Robert Meredith, is a fifty-year-old academic and expert on classical Roman literature. Walking in London one day, musing on Johnson's poem, he wanders into a tobacconist, and, while his order is being wrapped, murmurs the poem's title to himself. To his astonishment, the shopkeeper responds 'and Chicago's gone'. Clearly a case of mishearing - the man thought he'd said 'London's going', the first half of a secret password exchange. The result of this is that the mild, scholarly Meredith finds himself in a hidden basement room in which priceless stolen works of art are stored before being transported to billionaire collectors of illicit treasures. Before much time has passed, Meredith has found himself assuming the identity of a powerful international criminal named Vogelsang, shooting the real Vogelsang when he inconveniently appears, rescuing Jean Halliwell, an attractive and intelligent young lady, and making a daring escape in which the two of them are lucky to escape with their lives. And that's just the first chapter.
Now the action moves to Scotland, where the centre of this massive and illicit art theft organisation is located, using an enterprise of harvesting guano as a front. Here, on the remote island of Moila, Meredith and Jean find themselves staying in an ancient castle inhabited by two almost equally ancient ladies, one of whom is obsessed with plumbing and drainage (which she has managed to install thanks to the payments from the supposed guano trade) and her sister, who more or less lives in the fourteenth century. Huge metal contraptions called Flying Foxes pass overhead at all hours of the day, transporting the guano in one direction and the works of art in the other. Eventually Jean and Meredith get a lift in a seaplane to an Irish island where is located the astonishing mansion of the prime collector of the stolen artworks. Here, in a house topped with an enormous double sided swimming pool, in which bathers swim surrounded by a false wall behind which whizz sharks and giant octopuses, and in which the occupants are transported around on huge conveyor belts, they finally find the resting place of hundreds of precious paintings and sculptures. But will they ever get themselves and the stolen artefacts out?
This is all, on one level, patently absurd. There's a suggestion that Innes may have been parodying John Buchan, in whose popular thrillers a fairly ordinary sort of chap is catapulted into terrifying adventures with a series of wicked villains. I think this is probably true - while Buchan's heroes are generally rather fit and well-rounded, with some skills in handling guns and so on, Meredith is about the unlikeliest of action heroes you could hope to imagine. But indeed this is one of the great joys of this novel - despite being thrown so violently out of his fifty-year comfort zone, he shows remarkable ingenuity and courage, and acquits himself wonderfully well.
There's a tremendous array of secondary characters, all decidedly comic but all with some touchingly sweet quirks of their own, making them both likeable and believable. I was particularly taken with the billionaire collector - a man with unlimited financial resources, zero morals, and absolutely no education or cultural background, who has by some extraordinary fluke developed a genuine understanding of, and feeling for, great visual art.
There's more, so much more. The novel must be taken with a huge pinch of salt, but it's full of action, energy, exuberance, and I loved every minute. I listened to it on Audible, very well narrated by Jonathan Keeble, who dealt superbly with a very wide range of accents and voices. Great stuff - I've moved straight on to another Innes, The Journeying Boy (a re-read, though so long since the first time I've forgotten most of it). Very grateful for the Audible credits in exchange for an honest review.