Michael Innes: Hamlet, Revenge!

Hamlet, Revenge!Hamlet, Revenge!
Michael Innes
First published in the UK 1937 by Gollancz
This edition Penguin Books, 1976
ISBN: 0140016406
284 pages
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.


See also:

A Penguin a WeekThis 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 LongI 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


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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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25 Responses to Michael Innes: Hamlet, Revenge!

  1. realthog says:

    Hm: “the fabulously wealthy Crispin family” and a character called Gervase? It didn’t strike me when I read this book, perjhaps around 1970, but I wonder if Innes was referencing one of his fellow mystery-writers?

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    • westwoodrich says:

      Aha! I thought probably he was – but I just Googled the question and discovered that Edmund Crispin (Bruce Montgomery) took his name from Hamlet, Revenge! At least according to Wikipedia.

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      • realthog says:

        Yes, I was beginning to wonder about the chronology of it all, because it began to dawn on me that Montgomery/Crispin probably wasn’t writing at the time Stewart/Innes produced Hamlet’s Revenge.

        The only Appleby novel I can remember actively not enjoying was Appleby’s End, which seemed to me a gross self-indulgence and a cheat — a complete swiz, in other words! Some of the others are a bit indigestible through verbosity and ponderousness, but usually the wit wins through. I tried a couple of his J.I.M. Stewart novels and got nowhere with them.

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      • westwoodrich says:

        I didn’t know he was a Stewart as well. What are those like?

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      • realthog says:

        They’re mainstream novels . . . and I can’t remember the first thing about the ones I tried except that my head hit the pillow pretty fast. I think they were well regarded in their day, though. Wikipedia has more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._I._M._Stewart.

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  2. Rich – Thanks, as ever, for the thoughtful review. Perhaps Inspector Appleby isn’t the most compelling or memorable detective ever created. But I do like him and I like the theatre context for this one. Innes tells a solid story I think.

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  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I *did* enjoy this one, though I take on board what you say about the complexity of the plot. But it’s good fun! And I agree with realthog about the Crispin references – I thought that too when I read it!

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  4. mikeripley says:

    Rich – Try “Lament For A Maker” which I think was Innes’ next book in 1938. Many critics regard that as his masterpiece for its multiple POV structure. Personally I’m a big fan of his 1950s novels which were very, very funny, especially when he was being rude about his fellow academics.

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    • westwoodrich says:

      I’ll put Lament for a Maker on my list of things to look out for. I thought The Journeying Boy was the masterpiece though? (Although for my money, great first half, but fizzled out quickly).

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      • realthog says:

        I thought The Journeying Boy was the masterpiece though? (Although for my money, great first half, but fizzled out quickly).

        I’d tend to agree, although as I remember it gets quite a lot of the flair back in time for the end.

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  5. I read this while going through an Innes phase a good while back, and remember being somewhat disappointed: the setting, the play and so on, seemed like the perfect book to me, but it didn’t quite live up to that buildup. Now I think I might pick it up again – though I’m not sure that Innes and Appleby have survived as well as some of their contemporaries. I must have read dozens of them, but none of them stick out for plot or solution, and this one I only remember because of that intriguing setting.

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    • westwoodrich says:

      I think lack of memorability could be an issue with Innes. All I can remember of Death at the President’s Lodging was that somebody was in a box (although that may have been Glyn Daniels’ The Cambridge Murders). I’ve also read The Daffodil Affair with no real recollection beyond Daffodil being a horse. Is the problem Appleby? He’s nowhere near the character that Gervase Fen was.

      (BTW Guess what? We continue to be readalikes. Berlin Game is my next book, as I finally managed to buy the immediate sequels at Wymondham Duck Race* last weekend.)

      *Like it sounds.

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      • Richard Bailey says:

        Rich, the Appleby character might not be near to that of Fen (certainly in terms of eccentricity), but for my money the characters around Appleby are much better than those around Fen.

        I think it’s possibly a mistake to think of Innes in terms of plot and solution. To me they are novels (often with a comic or bizarre streak) that have a detective story or thriller element that holds them together. And the range and the writing is tremendous (although the writing tails off in the later years).

        Unlike Realthog I really enjoyed Appleby’s End, but you probably wouldn’t if you were expecting a detective story!

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  6. I remain on the fence about Innes, never having really, really enjoyed him (much prefer Crispin, who so clearly inspired him) – but it’s been a while and I’d like to take another crack at this one in particular – thanks Rich.

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    • Richard Bailey says:

      I think you mean that Innes inspired Crispin? As noted above the ‘Crispin’ came from Hamlet, Revenge! There is also a Crispin book – I forget which – that mentions Appleby. Gervase Fen, when being told that Appleby of Scotland Yard might be investigating the case he is working on says something along the lines of ‘Appleby! Appleby! He’s good. Very good, but …’

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  7. Santosh Iyer says:

    Many years back, I tried some Michael Innes books but was disappointed and hence decided not to read any further books by him.

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  8. Your review makes me want to give Hamlet, Revenge! another try soon. I’ve been on a bit of an Edmund Crispin binge, and after discovering that Crispin picked his pseudonym from Innes, I borrowed it from the library. Unfortunately, the opening seemed so sluggish that I ended up avoiding the rest. (I think there was a shiny new Crispin waiting for me, too, so that won out.) This must be one of those books that gets better if you can make it past the beginning, then?

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  9. Santosh Iyer says:

    I read the sample of “Lament for a Maker” at amazon.com. I find that only one well-versed in Scottish dialect can understand it !

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    • Richard Bailey says:

      My father, an Innes fan, couldn’t cope with ‘Lament for a Maker’ and never read it. Which is a shame because when you get used to the Scottish dialect (which doesn’t take long and ends up being good fun) it’s worth reading.

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