First published in the UK 1937 by Gollancz
This edition Penguin Books, 1976
Source: City Bookshop, Norwich
Most of the players had felt it seemly to discard as much of their theatrical appearance as possible, but all had not been equally successful. The women had removed the slight make-up from their faces and thrown on cloaks. Gervase had abandoned Osric’s grotesque cap but not his fantastical doublet. Dr Crump had hastily taken off his vestments but forgotten his tonsure. Dr Biddle’s white hose were stained with blood. All in all, it was discernibly the ruins of King Claudius’s Court at Elsinore…
The setting for 1937’s Hamlet, Revenge is Scamnum Court, the country pile owned by the fabulously wealthy Crispin family. The current Duchess, previously a celebrated London hostess, has organised an am-dram performance of Hamlet like no other. An authentic Elizabethan stage has been built inside Scamnum’s mock-medieval banqueting hall (‘a trifle damp, a trifle musty, and there is painful stained glass’). The cast includes peers of the realm (up to and including the Lord Chancellor), Elizabethan scholars, a star of the London stage, doctors, and – inevitably – a murderer. Before the play is finished, a gunshot is heard and the Chancellor, Lord Auldearn, is found shot dead.
Michael Innes’ series detective, Appleby, is called in by the Prime Minister himself – and told to get a move on. Appleby, aided by his imaginative friend Gott (Elizabethan scholar and secret detective novelist) sets to work at once but runs into difficulties. The crime seems incredibly rash, but despite its having been committed in front of a live theatre audience, the murderer is impossible to identify.
‘He walked out on the rear stage, shot Auldearn almost point-blank in what might have been full view of the prompter, was lucky in having five seconds to get off and amazingly lucky in manoeuvring into some uncompromising position thereafter without exciting remark. I call him foolhardy.’
Spies soon enter the fray, as it turns out Lord Auldearn was carrying some top secret documents of vital importance as the nation prepares for war. Mysterious threatening messages taken from the Cambridge Shakespeare keep appearing. And there is psychologising alongside the investigating. Appleby and Gott pick their way through the puzzle with more success than I did (which isn’t saying much). The ending is clever, but to be honest I lost track of the arguments in the thoroughly confusing mix of motives and opportunities.
There is a lot of comedy. Innes has some fun with a stock Scottish gardener, an earnest American academic studying speech patterns (‘say bunchy cushiony bush’), and with sniping academics. Somewhat brilliantly for 1937, Gott’s love interest utters the immortal line ‘Have my cherry, Giles’ during cocktail hour. On the other hand, the facetious language used to describe Mr Bose, an Indian visitor, gets a bit wearing.
All in all, a light read, amusing without being particularly memorable.
A Penguin a Week: This novel […] embraces the complexity. There is a solution, but it is one of many that are possible, and so it cannot be deduced. But the journey from crime to solution is an interesting one and it can be enjoyed, and it comes with lessons on Hamlet and its interpretation, and a questioning of the direction the world is taking. The more I read Michael Innes, the more I want to read.
You Book Me All Night Long: I have to confess that I spent most of this book being completely bewildered. There were many characters to keep track of, and I wasn’t sure who would turn out to be important to the plot, so I exhausted myself trying to keep tabs on everyone!
Final destination: Green Metropolis
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.