Earlier this month I was telling you about an enjoyable Audible book, From London Far by Michael Innes. I said then that I couldn't abandon Innes after that one novel, and I went straight on to listen to another of his standalone novels, The Journeying Boy. Written in 1949, this is, I must admit, a better book in many ways, being less absurd and bizarre, without losing any of Innes's exuberance or wit.
The journeying boy of the title is fifteen-year-old Humphrey Paxton. The son of Sir Bernard, Britain's top nuclear scientist, Humphrey is a highly intelligent boy, extremely imaginative and sensitive, and poised at that point in his adolescence where he still enjoys adventure stories like the famous Biggles series but also has acquired a rather unsuitable girlfriend. His father, his sole parent, is worried about him, as he's given to fits of temper (he recently threw a cream jug at a celebrated scientist over dinner). So, he has accepted an invitation from some distant relatives in Ireland for Humphrey to spend the summer holidays over there. He obviously can't go unaccompanied, so a tutor has to be engaged to go along with him.
The first man he interviews is the middle-aged Mr Thewlis, whose academic credentials are irreproachable. As far as Humphrey's important studies are concerned, he seems to be the perfect man for the job. But then, following a second interview with the far less academic but much more sportsmanlike Captain Cox, Paxton decided to offer him the post instead. The train tickets are booked, Humphrey is packed, but then Sir Bernard receives a brief note to say that Cox has been prevented from coming as a result of death in the family, so Thewlis is on again.
What we know fairly soon but the Paxtons do not is that the death that prevents Cox's journey to Ireland is his own. He has been shot in a West End cinema during the showing of a film called Plutonium Blonde. While this puzzling event is being investigated in London by Inspector Cadover, Humphrey and Thewlis are on the train to the north west, where they will get a ferry and a small local railway to their destination. The journey is far from uneventful, and the account of it is made entertaining as well as exciting by the fact that Humphrey is in a very nervous state and believes someone is trying to kidnap him, but Thewlis has convinced himself that all his suspicions are a result of his over-active imagination. As the whole account is from the point of view of the charming but blinkered tutor, this makes great reading - the reader has to make up their own mind about the adventures Humphrey and Thewlis encounter along the way, and the people who share their carriage - the sinister bearded man, and the nice old lady who seems very friendly with Humphrey.
They make it eventually to Killyboffin Hall, home to their Bolderwood cousins. They are received with open arms and appear to be going to have an enjoyable holiday. But the Bolderwoods are not what they seem, and when Ivor offers to take Humphrey on an early morning exploration of a local beach with an exciting network of caves, things get very dangerous indeed.
There's so much to enjoy in this novel. Innes, as you may know, was an academic (real name J.I.M. Stewart) and he excels at portraying middle-aged academics who are thrown into fantastic action which is as far from their comfort zones as its possible to imagine, but who of course find hidden resources of strength and courage. Thewlis here fits that bill perfectly; he's a silly old dodderer in many ways, though of course extremely learned in his own field, but though we are invited to laugh at him it is all done with great affection. As for Humphrey, he is an amazingly well-observed portrait of an adolescent boy - charming and infuriating in about equal measure. I see from Wikipedia that Innes/Stewart had five children, so he doubtless had one or more models for this character. The Bolderwood villains, father and son, are wonderfully conceived, a couple of down and out crooks who have assumed the guise of old Anglo-Irish gentry to a somewhat exaggerated extent. And on top of the excellent characterisation, there's a lot of very exciting action here. Really I can't fault Innes in this novel, which I listened to on Audble and which provided more than 12 hours of great listening pleasure.