A number of fellow bloggers have been reading works by the mid-century novelist, Michael Innes recently, some more enthusiastic in their praise than others. I haven’t really been in a position to join in the conversation as Innes was a name I knew but not a writer I had ever read, The Secret Vanguard, number five in the author’s series centred on Inspector Appleby of Scotland Yard, has helped to put that situation to rights.
The novel, now being favoured by a reprint, was first published in 1940 and the events are clearly contemporary as the action takes place just before the outbreak of World War II. When a young woman by the name of Sheila Grant goes missing as she journeys to stay with relatives in Scotland her disappearance is linked with the murder of a (very) minor poet with the wonderful name of Philip Ploss. Both of them have apparently, although separately, had encounters with fellow travellers in dispute over the value of poetry during the course of which the works of a famous poet have been misquoted. In the case of Sheila Grant she comments on this misquotation to the man who provoked the discussion and thus seals her fate for, unbeknownst to her, the ‘error’ has been deliberate, concealing within it a clue to the whereabouts of Rodney Orchard, the best chemist in the country and a man who might well hold the key to inventions vital to the war effort.
As an apparently high up civil servant comments,
In Germany his opposite numbers have a bodyguard and travel behind four-inch glass. We don’t need all that – if a man has some sense. Orchard has none – only genius.
Orchard has gone off on a walking trip somewhere in Scotland and a foreign force, which it appears is not only working for the enemy but which is also attempting to establish a permanent presence in British society, is out to find him and rob him of his work.
Ignorant of all but the oddity of the misquotation, but nevertheless seen as a threat by those who make up this silent vanguard, Sheila Grant is kidnapped. Gallant British woman that she is, she manages to escape and much of the novel is taken up with her attempts to stay one step ahead of those who pursue her through some of the wildest and least inhabited parts of Scotland. I have to say that during this section of the book my concentration and credulity began to be stretched. There are only so many instances of narrow shaves, coincidentally placed means of escape and feats of ingenuity that I can take. I am full of admiration for Miss Grant, I’m just not sure that her like ever really walked the earth, even in pre-War Britain.
You won’t need me to tell you that it all works out in the end. Once a message is passed through to Inspector Appleby it is just a matter of time before the baddies are vanquished, our wandering genius is found and Miss Grant is returned to her concerned relatives. With war on the horizon, I can’t promise you that they all lived happily ever after, but you end the book with the feeling that right has prevailed and a jolly good thing too.
Drawing on my limited experience, I suspect that the book is typical of its period, not only in its characters, its plot and its setting but also in its certainty of the ultimate supremacy of all things British, including the eccentricity of our geniuses. And, coming out, as it did, in the first year of the war, who would expect anything less? It’s the crime novel equivalent of Olivier’s film of Henry V. Despite appalling odds, the upper hand falls ultimately to the little guy, or in this case the intrepid young woman. In terms of its appeal to me as a reader it proved to be a bit of a mixed bag. Having read one or two modern novels recently where at times even the grammar was suspect, the quality of the prose was a delight. Innes always finds the exact word and he can turn a sentence beautifully. However, the way in which the novel was plotted didn’t appeal so much. As someone else has said recently, there is very little in the book about Appleby himself. While not exactly a minor character, he certainly isn’t central to the action. I prefer my detectives to take more of a lead role in the narrative and I also like to have more of an idea of who they are and what motivates them. Apart from the fact that he is clearly a Jolly Good Chap and probably a Jolly Good Thing as well, Appleby remains something of a cipher. I’m glad that I’ve read at least one of Innes’ novels, but I don’t think I shall be going back for more. I suspect that they might all turn out to be much of a muchness and that even two would be just too much of a good thing.
With thanks to Netgalley for providing a copy of this book.