Death at the President’s Lodging (Inspector Appleby 1) by Michael Innes

I simply Kant take any more…


When Dr Umpleby, the President of prestigious and ancient St Anthony’s College, is found murdered, Inspector Appleby of the Yard is rushed to the spot, as the local plods will clearly not be well educated or cultured enough to deal with such a sensitive affair. Fortunately Appleby can quote major and minor philosophers with the best of them and has more than a passing knowledge of all the arcane subjects covered in a classical Oxbridge education, all of which will no doubt help him to uncover who killed the President and why.

The tone of my introduction may have been somewhat of a spoiler for my opinion of the book, so I may as well jump straight to the conclusion – I abandoned this at just under 40%, finally throwing in the towel when one of the characters hinted that the clue to the mystery might be found in an anecdote about Kant quoted in a book by De Quincey. This, only a couple of pages after the following passage…

And he [Inspector Appleby] sipped his whisky and finally murmured to Titlow [a suspect], with something of the whimsicality that Titlow had been adopting a little before, “What truth is it that these mountains bound, and is a lie in the world beyond?”

There was silence while Titlow’s eye dwelt meditatively on the policeman conversant with Montaigne. Then he smiled, and his smile had great charm. “I wear my heart on my wall?” he asked. “To project one’s own conflicts, to hang them up in simple pictorial terms – it is to be able to step back and contemplate oneself. You understand?”

I couldn’t help but feel it might have been more useful had Appleby asked whether Titlow had crept into the college garden in the middle of the night and shot the President, or searched his rooms for the gun, but each to his own, I suppose. And certainly, my method wouldn’t have allowed Innes to show his vast erudition and superior intellect, which appears to be the main purpose of the book.

Challenge details:
Book: 52
Subject Heading: Education, Education, Education
Publication Year: 1936

The actual plot is based on there being a limited number of people, almost all academics, who could have had access to Dr Umpleby’s rooms at the time of the murder. Sadly, this aspect becomes tedious very quickly with much talk of who had or didn’t have keys, where rooms are in relation to each other, where walls and passages are. I felt a desperate need for a nap… oops, I mean a map… after the first several dozen pages of description. Oddly enough, Innes claims Appleby is happier dealing with problems on a “human or psychological plane” and then proceeds to have this great intellectual wandering around in the (literal) dark, playing hunt the missing key. By 40%, only one possible motive had emerged, largely because Appleby seems more interested in listing the academic tomes on the suspects’ bookshelves than in trying to find out where they had been at the time of the crime.

Michael Innes

This is one of Martin Edwards’ picks in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and I’ve seen several positive reviews of other books of Michael Innes’ recently, so I’m willing to accept that my antipathy to this style of writing isn’t universal, or perhaps Innes improved in later books – this, I believe, was his first. However, the only emotions it provoked in me were tedium and irritation at the perpetual intellectual snobbery. Having been made to realise my own status as dullard, I shall take my inferior intellect and defective education off into the dunce’s corner now… but don’t feel too sorry for me, for I shall take with me an ample supply of chocolate and some books by authors who may not have achieved a First in Classics at Oxbridge but who nevertheless seem to have grasped the definition of the word “entertain”…

In truth, I think my rating of this one is harsh – had I been able to convince myself to struggle through it, it may have earned three stars for the quality of the writing and plot. But since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, I fear I can only give it one.

PS Appleby and Umpleby? Seriously??

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Ipso Books.

Amazon UK Link
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81 thoughts on “Death at the President’s Lodging (Inspector Appleby 1) by Michael Innes

  1. So, let me guess, FictionFan…you weren’t keen on this one? It is interesting, isn’t it, how differently people feel about it. I agree that there’s a lot of erudition; and, while it didn’t bother me the way that style did you, I can see how that could get tiresome. I have to say I did like the physical setting. But then, I have a soft spot for academic settings…

    • Haha – could you tell then? I thought I’d been so subtle! 😉 I’ve always disliked the snobbery that afflicts a lot of British golden age writing – it’s such a sign of the class divisions in our society, which were even worse back then. But this one particularly annoyed me somehow, even though I felt he was a good writer underneath. Oh well! Can’t love them all…!

  2. I recall enjoying this (and most of the other Applebies) quite a lot. Innes was, for the reasons you indicate, one of those writers best taken in small quantities, a novel at a time with a decent gap before the next, rather than binged on.

    I tried one of his J.I.M. Stewart mainstream novels once, and definitely didn’t achieve the 40% mark!

    • Ha – I think it’s safe to say I won’t be bingeing on him, that’s for sure! I suspect his later ones must be better looking at reviews, but I think I’ll leave him for other people to enjoy in future. Bleurgh! Thank you – I shall be sure to avoid J.I.M. Stewart too… 😉

      • It’s always been my understanding that a lot of the “erudition” was tongue-in-cheek — that Innes/Stewart was gently mocking his own and his peer group’s Oxford-donnishness. Certainly it has always made me grin when I’ve picked up an Appleby novel.

        • There were bits where I felt he was being a little mocking, but mostly I felt he sounded smugly superior and wanted his readers to recognise his awe-inspiring intellect. But I’m glad other people enjoy them more – and I’m quite happy not to have to add another author to my must-read list!

  3. I will join you in the dunce corner, FF, as the extract here needed to good couple of re-reads before I understood a word of it. Too much more than that would be tiresome. But, you know, writing great mysteries in an academic setting isn’t as easy as it looks and only the very finest writers would achieve – say – 4 or 4.5 stars in such a genre 😉 And yes – what’s with Appleby and Umpleby?! Is it really so difficult to come up with names?! (Ignores the fact most of her own characters don’t even have names 😉 )

    • Ugh – I hate that sort of stuff! Did any of the detectives you worked with quote philosophy to suspects??? Hahaha – too true! It takes a special person to write a decent mystery in an academic setting! And personally I’d prefer no names to Appleby and Umpleby – maybe it’s a secret code known only to those who have memorised all the great philosophers… 😉

      • They used to regularly quote Life On Mars but never to suspects, as far as I recall! I’m feeling that Appleby and Umpleby have some sort of significance, but it is so obscure no one has picked up on it. Or he used a really limited name generator… 😉 Either way, there are far better academia related novels out there for the discerning reader!!

  4. Ah! Not your favourite then. I haven’t read any Innes but have seen him praised extravagantly, so it’s intereting to get a different take on his work. Maybe I should make the effort and evaluate him for myself.

    • Haha – could you tell then? And I tried to be so subtle… 😉 Yes, I’ve seen him praised too, so clearly it’s just one of those personal allergies that happen from time to time, but I really couldn’t bear to read any further. Hope you enjoy him better if you do try him…

    • Haha – I think you’re in the majority, but I had a severe allergic reaction to the man’s style! Ugh! Still, at least I’m not tempted to add his other books to the groaning TBR… 😉

  5. Well, that’s a shame! I haven’t read this one but I enjoyed Hamlet, Revenge! and have just finished Lament for a Maker, which I loved. I didn’t find the erudition a problem (though maybe it’s worse in this book with it being set in academia) but I can understand why you didn’t like it. I hope this is the only Innes book you need to read for your challenge. 🙂

    • It’s possible he improved in later books, but in this one it just felt he was showing off to no real end except to prove his own superiority. But sometimes these allergic reactions happen… there are even strange people out there who don’t like Agatha Christie! 😉 Haha – thankfully yes, he will never need to trouble my TBR again… 😀

    • I was thinking that while I read it – how many of his readers would be intimately familiar with the works of Montaigne (who?). But I felt the purpose wasn’t to include his readers but to impress them with his own superiority. I’m so impressed I’ll never aspire to read another of his books again… 😉

  6. Oh my… I read those two paragraphs and thought, “huh?”. And when I first saw the name Dr. Umpleby I thought it was going to be some sort of comedy. I think you did well to get to 40%!

    • I’m glad it’s not just me! Haha – I bet Appleby and Umpleby is some kind of code known only to those who have memorised the works of all the great philosophers! 😉 Ugh – oh, well! Can’t love them all!

  7. Ouch, I’d hate to be the author of this one, FF — you really let him have it! I haven’t read it, but it does sound rather dreadful and uppity. First novels are a beast though and we really can’t judge successive ones by them (one hopes the author grows in his skills!).

    • Haha – fortunately he’s been dead for decades which is surprisingly freeing for us poor reviewers… 😉 Uppity is exactly right – there were a lot of golden age authors who liked to look down their noses at the hoi polloi. As a member of the hoi polloi, I’ve never appreciated it!

    • It’s a pity this was my first, since I fear my allergic reaction means it’ll also be my last! Still, I probably don’t need to add any more authors to my must-read list anyway… 😉

    • I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who struggled with it. I’m in an abandoning mood at the moment – I’m finding I just can’t bring myself to finish books that aren’t hitting the spot.

  8. Brilliant review FF especially as we haven’t had such a scathing one for ages! I had to laugh when you mentioned asking the suspect some useful questions may have helped Appleby along in his detection. Like you I suspect maybe his later books took a less highfaluting tone as I’ve also read some positive reviews (and I’m sure they didn’t all get firsts from Oxford)

    • Haha – thank you! I’ve been abandoning a lot of books too early to review recently which cuts into my 1-stars, sadly. 😉 Yes, I suspect this one isn’t his best, plus I think I just had a sort of allergic reaction to his style – pah! Oh well, I probably don’t need any more must-read authors at the moment anyway…!

    • Haha – I do get a bit mean, sometimes, but at least this author is long dead, so I don’t feel guilty! 😉 I’ve been abandoning loads of books this year – I think I’ve just reached a stage where I don’t see the point in struggling on with something that isn’t working for me…

  9. I have a very vague recollection of this one, but I read it when I was very, very homesick for Cambridge and felt sure I had no chance of ever returning to England again, so I was ready to put up with any amount of dross…

    • I hope the people you met at Cambridge weren’t as obnoxiously snobbish as these ones! To be fair, I think this was just an allergic reaction to his style – the book is probably better than I’m giving it credit for. But I don’t think Innes and I will ever be friends… 😉

      • I think the postgraduate world is a little different to the undergraduate world in Cambridge – most of my friends were international and had not a clue about class and poshness.

        • I think there’s a good deal less snobbery in universities in general since more people got the chance to go. Even Glasgow Uni was pretty snobbish in my day, never mind Oxbridge!

  10. haha this was a great review, and it sounds entirely warranted! I hate when authors get bogged down in these tiny, unnecessary details-don’t they remember that we are reading these books to be entertained?

    Speaking of being entertained, I’m going to see the Murder on the Orient Express this Friday (November 17). When are you planning on watching it?

    • Haha – thank you! Sometimes it’s necessary to get the bile out! 😉 I do think auhtors who write dull books should be forced to read dull books… I would be able to recommend several…

      Hmm… in truth, I think it sounds pretty bad now that reviews are coming out, so I’m going to opt out, I think… sorry! I was worried about Branagh’s moustache from the getgo, but some reviews seem to suggest it takes on a life of its own… 😉 I hope you enjoy it though!

        • Yeah, but I think it’s mainly Christie fans who’re complaining – we’re all so fixed in our ideas of what Poirot (and his moustache) should be like… I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, who knows? You might change my mind… 😀

          • Ok so the movie was ok…parts of it seemed a little overdramatized, but it was entertaining. It did stray from the book in a few ways though, which of course I still resent. You can’t mess with perfection!

            • Just after I’d left my comment to you I read another blogpost reviewing it and I ended up feeling sooooooo glad I’d decided not to watch it!! It’s funny – sometimes I don’t mind if they veer from the plot, but with Christie it drives me mad! Her plots don’t need any help!! I also heard Branagh’s now going to do Death on the Nile – aaaaaarghhhhhhh!!!

              (Glad you enjoyed it though. 😀 )

            • Oh, yes! My favourite Poirot! And there’s a great film of it already with Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and the lovely Mia Farrow perfectly cast as Jackie. (Then you must read The Moving Finger – my favourite Miss Marple. 😉 )

    • Hahaha – aren’t they the silliest names? Sadly, a lot of the books I’ve been reading recently haven’t even kept me going long enough to review. I must stop throwing books at the wall… the house may fall down!

      • Never mind, the Christmas lists of new books are on their way and there are sure to be loads of god books amongst them. I do most of my reading on the train these days, throwing a bad book at the wall would probably get me put off at the next station…

        • Oh, I hope Santa realises my TBR predicament and just gives me lots of chocolate this year! Haha – you could throw them at other passengers – what fun! It would probably start a trend… 😉

            • Ha – true! Though I understand humans under the age of thirty actually die if they become detached from their mobile phones for more than twenty seconds, so sit with the young ones and you should be safe…

              Mmm…. Quality Street! Why didn’t you mention that before I went to the supermarket???

            • Goodness, what are you doing up? It must be the middle of the night there…
              I know how the young ones feel about their phones, try detaching me from the book I am reading and things won’t go well.
              I’m a big fan of Quality Street chocs, but we can only get them in the lead up to Christmas here in Australia.

            • Haha – it’s only just gone midnight! I have two reviews to write, at least one blog post to draft, and a book to finish reading before I can go to bed…

              Haha – you have a point! If anyone messes with my Kindle…. grrrr!

              Oh, we get little boxes all year round, but the big tins only come out for Christmas. The cats love chasing the wrappers, so it’s my duty to get some on a fairly regular basis…

            • No rest for the wicked!
              Little boxes of Quality Street are an excellent idea (although big tins are good too). The cats must be kept happy. I’ll post a photo of the work cats at my previous job to show you, they never got Quality Street wrappers to play with though.

            • Haha – yes big tins are always better than small boxes! Oh, yes, do – I feel sorry for them now though. All cats should get Quality Street wrappers – my sister (not BigSister, our middle sister who died a few years ago now) used to buy the most ridiculously expensive toys as Christmas gifts for the cats and I kept trying to tell her they much preferred a bit of scrunched up shiny paper…

  11. Wow! A one star review! We don’t see many of those! I would’ve quit after a couple of pages! 😀 😃 😄 I gather this is no Gaudy Night (though Peter Wimsey was sometimes full of himself).

    There’s a restaurant chain here called Appleby, so I can’t (or rather Kant) help thinking of the personnel of that chain solving the mystery. Given that only academics would be able to solve it, I think the restaurant chain would fail in the attempt.

    • Ha! I know – I’ve developed a tendency to abandon books too early to even do a review recently. Secretly, I always had similar issues with the Wimsey books, so I guess I just don’t have much tolerance for these “intellectual” detectives.

      Hahaha – I bet the restaurant staff would at least think of searching for the gun, though… 😉

  12. Grr.

    FF, I have absolutely nothing against your negative experience of this novel. Books affect different readers in different ways and I know Innes is not to everyone’s taste; in fact, although I have happy memories of reading Innes myself, I grinned sympathetically at some of the reasons you gave for disliking the novel because, yes, I can see those flaws.

    But . . .

    Could I be a sourpuss in the midst of all the commenters merrily crapping all over the life’s work of an author they’ve never read and, in some cases, seem never even to have heard of before now: “I’ll avoid this bozo like the plague,” to paraphrase. Would you diss a composer whose work you’d never heard or an artist whose work you’d never seen?

    Just out of interest, I looked at the Goodreads page for this novel, which is generally reckoned to be not among the stronger of the Applebies (I vaguely remember it thus myself). Even including your own determined single star rating, FF, the book averages 3.69, which indicates that people generally like it but don’t rave about it. In fact, it has quite a few five-star ratings, plenty of four-stars, lots of three-stars, etc. So clearly Innes’s work isn’t just “dross.”

    Plus, Martin Edwards clearly rates the book highly, and he ain’t nobody’s idiot. And many millions of readers have enjoyed Innes’s work over the decades: it clearly wasn’t just because Victor Gollancz was feeling charitable that Innes published thirtysomething Appleby mysteries and a bunch of others.

    Sobriety over.

    • Well, I accept that we don’t share an opinion on this one, and that really ought to be fine. As far as I’m aware, no law says that because you, Martin Edwards or even George Clooney rates an author highly, I must too… or my commenters. (It’s been many years, if ever, that I felt my opinion wasn’t as good as anyone else’s, or submitted to any man telling me what I ought to think.) Yes indeed, if someone whose opinion I trusted told me a particular composer was awful, and explained why they thought so, and I agreed that those reasons would annoy me too, then I would certainly avoid like the plague, and quite likely say so. Otherwise, really, what is the point of anyone reviewing (or even discussing) anything? I assume when you put negative reviews on Goodreads or diss a film on your blog, you assume that your readers will give weight to your opinion.

      Almost every book on GR has a rating between three and four. It means nothing, other than that not everyone likes the same books – something I don’t feel comes as a surprise to anyone. Is there a reason – other than that you don’t like my opinion – to object to my rating being ‘determined’? I assume your ratings are ‘determined’ too – or do you change them daily? I don’t rate the book highly, and I’m nobody’s idiot either. Perhaps you disagree.

      Well done – you’ve made me angrier than I’ve been in months. I’m finished with this conversation now.

  13. Okay, in my head Umpleby and Appleby are twins (these are their first names) who just discovered each other. But Umpleby has a super jealous toddler who wanted all of her father’s affection, and since there have been rumors of a murderous relative in the past, we can just assume the toddler has the right DNA for being deadly. Then, Appleby is so sick over his newfound and newly dead brother that he’s all like “nooooo!” But when Appleby realizes his newfound toddler niece is the murderer, he can’t stand his broken heart or the thought of her in baby handcuffs and decides to kill himself by jumping off that cliff in Monte that Maxim DeWinter nearly jumped off of because it’s such a pretty place to die. The toddler goes to live with her grandmother because her mother was driven insane by the death of her husband. Her weakened state leads her to die of consumption. THE END.

    There, I fixed it.

  14. Just finished Death at the President’s Lodging. Yes, hard slog for the first half. It gets better as the detection of the actual case takes centre stage in the second half, but I had no chance of solving the crime – Agatha Christie meets Weekend at Bernie’s. It didnt help that the suspects are all but indistinguishable, and key clues are kept to the denouement. It also makes me want to write a version where the local “heavy, slow, simply bred” Dodd solves the murder after Scotland Yard’s “more developed” Inspector Appleby gets it completely wrong.

    • Ha! You obviously have better sticking power than me! I’m glad to hear it got better – certainly I’ve seen so many reviews from people saying they’ve enjoyed his books that I feel my allergic reaction must be mostly down to personal taste. And if I had read on, it would have infuriated me all over again that clues were held back to the end… grr! Haha – but yes, I would like to see Dodd take charge, and if you’re re-writing it, is there any chance you could arrange for Inspector Appleby to be the second victim? Perhaps he could be killed by a falling bookcase filled with the works of the minor philosophers… 😉

  15. I read it ages ago, and didn’t much like it. But in fairness, Innes is gently mocking in the passage you quote. He is amping up the Philo Vance aspect of things for comic effect.

    • I think I was so irritated by him by that stage that the comic effect passed me by! One of those occasional allergic reactions we get to an author’s style, even when they’re generally well-regarded… 🙂

      Thanks for popping in and commenting.

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