There was always a limit to what the most conscientious tutor could achieve in households in which there appeared unnaturally and perpetually to preponderate distracting vistas of unwashed dished and unsegregated babies.
So, fussily, and a little snobbishly, begins the story of Mr Richard Thewless, private tutor. Thewless, in a second-rate hat but with a good umbrella, is attending a job interview at the grand house of the eminent (and eminently wealthy) physicist Sir Bernard Paxton. Paxton is looking for a tutor for his son Humphrey – a plum job for Thewless. It is 1947, and plum jobs are few and far between.
The brief is simple: Take the ‘unruly boy’ Humphrey to Paxton’s relatives in Ireland, show him some fresh air and try to teach him something. One catch: Thewless won’t actually meet Humphrey until they board their train at Kings Cross.
Once they do meet at the station, Thewless swiftly categorises Humphrey as an over-imaginative child, influenced by his lurid reading habits into a belief that he is persecuted by spies. He plays along with the boy’s fantasies just to get him on the train, but devises plans to address these simple behavioural issues.
Elsewhere in London, Inspector Cadover of the Yard is investigating a murder. Cadover, forty years in, white-haired and considering retirement, is presented with a body in a cinema. A diary on the body and the usherette’s memory of boys in bowler hats are the only clues.
Meanwhile, Thewless and Humphrey are beginning to experience some very odd incidents that start to worry the teacher. Is Humphrey imagining things or not? Is he the victim of a kidnap attempt on the train, or is he play-acting?
‘It still hurts, rather,’ he said.
‘These.’ And Humphrey stretched out his arms so that the cuffs of his jacket shot backwards. And Mr Thewless’s head swam as he looked. Round each wrist was the red weal left by a cord drawn tight.
‘To-morrow,’ said Humphrey, ‘it may be dragons or giants. Or pirates or smugglers or torture by Red Indian braves. Or, of course, it may just be spy stuff all over again.’
I got about halfway through this book and realised I had absolutely no clue what was going on. Is Humphrey a fantasist, a delinquent, an overly-sensitive adolescent, or a murderer? Is he even Humphrey? What happened to the second tutor Sir Bernard engaged? Why is Humphrey being blackmailed? Thewless is equally confused.
I took a break at this point to go away on a journey of my own, taking some lighter weight paperbacks with me. When I returned, I found the book had changed. Once the mystery begins to resolve itself, the plot shifts a gear and becomes an adventure story. Unfortunately, staffed as it is with criminal gangs, phony accents and secret caves, it is an Enid Blyton adventure story. A plucky dog and a tomboy wouldn’t seem out of place.
From the descriptions of this novel, and from the opening chapter, I was expecting this to be a story of juvenile delinquency. It’s not that at all. In fact, Humphrey is the least delinquent problem child I’ve ever encountered.
‘I suppose they’ve told you that I’m a problem-child? It’s been going on for some years – and, of course, one of the grand signs is that I don’t play the game. If I get a hack at rugger I think they’re being nasty to me, and I bite. If I’m bowled at cricket I say it isn’t fair, and I throw the bat at them.’
But it just doesn’t ring true. He’s probably destined to be nothing more troubling to society than a boisterous and boozy poet (his interests are poetry and girls).
A far more interesting character is Thewless: ‘A man almost irrationally determined to deny that the universe holds anything dangerous or surprising.’ I think what Innes was onto with Thewless was a true everyman thriller protagonist. Normality has an inertia all of its own, and I’m always interested how readily people in thrillers shake that off and start being heroic. With Thewless it would take a bulldozer to knock him out of the role of the intellectual and emotionally detached teacher. There’s humour in that, but also realism.
I’ve read a few of Innes’ Appleby novels in the past and found myself drowning in Latin tags and snatches of poetry. It’s a brand of humour that even Stephen Fry would have trouble carrying off these days. A Journeying Boy benefits from being far less pretentious (a harsh word – I know it was all deliberate). The tone is still donnish, but that in a way simply reflects Thewless’ character.
There are some good comic cameos. The scientist Lord Buffery with his model trains. The Fat Lady in the circus on the train. The self-important theatre manager. And as soon as they reach Ireland, Innes gives us a nation-as-comic-cameo, from the darkly religious North to the free-and-easy, chaotic South. Their final destination Killyboffin Hall, with its petty controversies over missing eggs and champ for breakfast, is an exercise in humorous rusticity (albeit a self-aware one).
However, all things considered, A Journeying Boy failed to convince me. A very original first half, a nice light tone, but for me it all broke down in the second half.
See also: The Moving Toyshop
I am entering A Journeying Boy in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Murder is Academic category.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.