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Michael Innes was really John Innes Mackintosh Stewart (1906-94), a Scottish-born Oxford don. He wrote over 40 detective novels featuring Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Sir John Appleby. The books are – like their protagonist – clever, witty, erudite, psychologically astute, and full of philosophical musings, literary quotations and allusions to art and culture. They are also both funny peculiar and funny ha-ha.
Or perhaps I should just write ‘weird’.
I was first introduced to Michael Innes by my mother, who painstakingly (this is before online book searches) collected all 42 Appleby novels and short story collections. I read one or two because she enjoyed them so much but at the time, I couldn’t appreciate them.
It was to do with expectations. I thought I was going to read a book in which – put simply – there’s a murder or some other serious crime, and the detective investigates and brings the perpetrator to justice in some way. I expected a detective novel to be believable, or at least to be able to suspend disbelief as I read. I expected clues, leads, investigations. Characters, relationships, motivations. That sense of place, too. I love to visit the California of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone.
I’ve just read five in a row.
Death at the President’s Lodgings was an early book, and almost a straightforward Oxford-don murder mystery with a great deal of Oxford-don-type learned conversation. A Private View is a romp set in a London of artists and models and poseurs, spies and forgers and a crusading vice-obsessed Members of Parliament, which ends in a car-chase and shoot-out in a quarry on a ducal estate.
Appleby’s End, which is my favourite so far, is a surreal tale, with deaths but no murders, set in a snowbound rural England complete with aristocrats and common folk equally bizarre and eccentric in their behaviour and motivation. (Prize pigs turned to stone. A woman who thinks she’s a cow. A long dead Victorian mystery writer seeming to predict the future.)
I’ve illustrated this post with a few of the different covers.
The Long Farewell featured forged Shakespearean documents, a bigamous academic, a beautiful amnesiac barmaid and larcenous American collectors.
And I can’t even begin the describe fever-dream that is The Daffodil Affair because it’s one of the silliest books I have ever read. Just let me say… a failed Utopian community in the far reaches of the Amazon, presided over by an evil genius who’s kidnapped a whole London house, a carriage horse and a whole lot of psychics in his quest for world domination.
I suppose the determined unreality of the Appleby books is rather a problem if you consider that people are getting stabbed, poisoned, shot, blown up etc etc in such a jolly manner. And that the sexist, racist, xenophobic and class-bound attitudes of the time do raise their ugly heads.
Just one more thing. The writing. Deeply unfashionable, I suppose, or just plain old-fashioned. Takes a bit of patience. Lots of word-play and cleverness, lots of description complete with abounding pathetic fallacies, heaps of adjectives, and those evil adverbs.
But – what fun, and what pleasure – all these beautiful word pictures.
Just one example.
It’s from Appleby’s End. Appleby and his soon to be wife-to-be Judith Raven are floating down a river sitting uncomfortably on top of a sinking, wrecked carriage. And it’s snowing.
The river was narrowing again. Now etched in moonlight, and now altogether shadowy and obscure, there floated by on either hand delicate alders and stout, gesticulating elms. Willows, pollarded and rime-covered, overhung the river like frozen cascades; and presently a line of poplars, aloof and towering, cast great bars of shadow obliquely across the water on which snow softly fell. The carriage as it floated smoothly through this wintry nocturne rotated slowly on its axis, so that the whole scene was like a chill kaleidoscope in white and black and silver and grey.
Just an additional note. J.I.M. Stewart was for ten years Jury Professor of English at Adelaide University (from 1935) and there’s often a little nod to Australia in his novels. Apparently he didn’t think much of us. In 1940, he thanked his funding body for its financial support for lectures in Australian literature, but said, “unfortunately they have neglected to provide any literature.”
He talked instead about D H Lawrence’s Kangaroo.
In late summer twenty seven years ago, I stood at a tram stop. With fifteen minutes or so to wait, I decided to pop into the nearby bookstore. It specialised in New Age and spiritual and religious books; I wasn’t particularly interested so why I picked up this particular book, I have no idea. But as I began to read I experienced an uncanny sense of recognition. This makes sense. I may well have missed the next tram. I still have that book.
It’s Seeking the Heart of Wisdom by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield,and an introduction to the practice of vipassana or insight meditation. I bought it either ‘at the right time’ or ‘just in time’, depending on how you look at it. I wasn’t doing well in early 1993, and exploring Buddhist philosophy and practicing meditation helped steady me. Back in 1993, it was all totally new to me; over the years that I’ve acquired a small shelf of books on Buddhist philosophy and meditation. I don’t meditate regularly, but there are aspects of Buddhist philosophy that support me daily. I still read Seeking the Heart of Wisdom every few years, and I have other titles by both authors; the funny, wise, Jewish-grandmother Sylvia Boorstein is a favourite, as is Pema Chodron. And here is a new book and a new writer. Timely, or perhaps (again) ‘just in time’.
Over the years, I slowly became aware of five internal and interpersonal qualities that are keys to a compassionate and courageous life, and without which we cannot serve, nor can we survive. Yet if these precious resources deteriorate, they can manifest as dangerous landscapes that cause harm.
The five states that Joan Halifax identifies in this book are altruism, empathy, integrity, respect and engagement. I’m sure nearly everyone would nod and agree – “All good!”
But Halifax writes that manifesting these qualities can be like walking along the high ridge of a mountain. The view is sublime, but if a person loses their balance and slips over the edge, any one of these qualities, these ‘assets of a mind and heart’, can become harmful and cause suffering.
An example is altruism. Unselfish service, selfless acts, self-sacrifice… these are admirable, inspiring and in fact necessary if communities and families are to flourish. Just think of mothers! And volunteers of all descriptions and kindly neighbours and good Samaritans and those heroic people who jump in to dangerous situations to save lives. However, Halifax explores the darker side, ‘help that harms’ or pathological altruism.
There are a few varieties. In one, people ignore their own needs. They may end up feeling resentful, overburdened, guilty and frustrated – and thus not in great shape to keep altruism positive.
In another, altruism is rooted in a need for approval, a desire to ‘fix’ people, hubris, even an urge to power over others. Halifax gives the example of international aid gone wrong, where Westerners think they can change the world but don’t actually take the time and effort to find out what people need and want.
There’s lots in this book for me to think about. And also to do. Roshi Joan speaks from her own experience – working in prisons, hospitals and clinics, with dying people and their families, in the civil rights movement – and provides guidance and practices to help foster calm and compassion in difficult circumstances. As I move into the aged care sector, I will likely need this book.
There are few things as startling as encountering an unearthly glow in the wild. Glow-worms. Ghost mushrooms. Fireflies. Flashlight fish. Lantern sharks. Vampire squid. Our forest floors and ceilings, our ocean depths and fringes are full of luminous things, creatures lit from the inside. And they have, for many centuries, enchanted us, like glowing missionaries of wonder, emissaries of awe.
Is there anything more beautiful than living light?
Julia Baird could not have known, while she was writing Phosphorescence, just how timely her book would be. Subtitled ‘on awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark’, it’s been a lovely counterbalance to the gusts of bad news that keep swirling around us.
It’s not really a memoir, nor is it self-help or a collection of essays or a book of nature writing – but contains elements of all four. Some of the impetus to write Phosphorescence is Baird’s experience of pain and illness. In 2015, she was diagnosed with a rare kind of cancer, which recurred twice, needing surgery and rounds of chemo. Though Baird talks about her cancer experience, it’s not a blow-by-blow account. As Lissa Christopher wrote in her ‘Lunch with…’ interview in the Melbourne Age (‘Spectrum’, 13/6/20) illness is ‘the dark background against which the rest glows’.
And glow it does. There are lyrical and lovely descriptions of swimming and walking and observing the natural world, along with excursions into the science of why such things are so very good for us. Who knew that forest bathing was a prescription? Baird urges us to pay attention; to embrace the soothing power of the ordinary; to seek nature; to experience awe whenever we can.
Awe makes us stop and stare. Being awestruck dwarfs us, humbles us, makes us aware that we are part of a universe unimaginably larger than ourselves…
Wonder is a similar sensation, and the two feelings are often entwined. Wonder makes us stop and ask questions about the world, while marvelling over something we have not seen before, whether spectacular or mundane.
Nearly thirty years ago, in mid-1991, I woke from a dream. We all have lots of dreams, and most of them vanish from our minds almost as soon as we wake, but this I’ve never forgotten. It was nothing Freudian or Jungian or fantastical, just a voice, saying something I still find deeply mysterious. It said, “In-dwelling light.”
Every now and then I think about that phrase. Where did it come from, what does it mean, was it a mantra, was it a message? Phosphorescence has me wondering and pondering all over again.
Phosphorescence Julia Baird Fourth Estate 2020 $32.99
When their parents leave for New Zealand to sort out a family emergency, sisters Tash (aged 12) and Clancy (who’s 14) are sent to stay with their aunt. When when she goes away for the weekend, what could possibly go wrong?
The girls impulsively bust their grandfather out of his aged care facility and go on the run, that’s all.
Pa has been living at The Elms since he had a stroke. He’s in a wheelchair, and he’s suffering from aphasia – which means he’s lost his words. But he’s still full of spirit, and a willing accomplice to his grand-daughters.
They want to find a better place for Pa. Anxious by nature, Clancy is at first hesitant, and tries to hold her older sister back. But they’re united by love for their grandfather and in the end, they’re simply carried along by the momentum of their adventures. The journey takes them from the empty family home in a leafy suburb, to a mysterious bookshop in a derelict inner-city arcade, to an ashram in the bush and a beach-house by the ocean. An elderly gent in a wheelchair doesn’t make for easy travelling, and the trio need all their resourcefulness and grit to manage. Which they do, with maybe a little extra help, as sensitive Clancy begins to suspect they’re being guided by the spirit of their dead grandmother.
This is a warm-hearted and heart-warming story. It encompasses many large and significant themes – such as the pull-and-push struggle between the family and the individual, the challenges of ageing and of caring for our elders – but these are wrapped up in the two girls’ endearingly shambolic quest. Over their time on the run, bold Tash and anxious Clancy develop a closer and more understanding bond as they come to see that though they have very different personalities, together they make a great team.
Road-trip novels are by their nature episodic, and I thoroughly enjoyed the cast of vivid and diverse characters – taxi drivers, shopkeepers, booksellers, public transport staff, messy apartment-dwellers, kind and helpful strangers – who pop in and out of the adventure.
When I was a bookseller, I noted that there seemed to be a gap in the market. Middle-school children who read above their age level, but who want gentle realistic family stories – not fantasy, horror or gross-out humour – weren’t well catered for. The January Stars is one book I’d have been delighted to recommend.
The January Stars Kate Constable Allen&Unwin RRP $16.95
It’s counter-intuitive, but there’s something so calming about old school detective fiction. It’s often been said that it’s all about the ‘moral universe’; these are stories with a certain outcome in which the good prevail and the bad are punished. I’m not sure it’s just that. I like the process, too, the problem solving, the working out of motive and opportunity, the separation of red herring from genuine clue and the patient untangling of knots and snarls until it all comes out in the end.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve continued my Wimsey crime spree on Kindle. It’s coincided with (and I hope it hasn’t caused) a bout of insomnia. So, midnight reading has been Whose Body?, The Nine Tailors, Clouds of Witness, Murder Must Advertise and Unnatural Death. But enough is enough, and especially enough of Lord Peter with his monocle and silly-ass pose – and the unquestioned hilarity of the lower and middle classes. Ow, t’ funny way they do talk!
I have a trial membership of Kindle Unlimited – around $15 a month, and any book you want from the dedicated list – so after exhausting Dorothy Sayers, I decided to cross the Atlantic and move up a couple of decades.
I tried searching for an old favourite, Ross McDonald. There were none available on Kindle Unlimited, but what I did find was a fascinating book called Hard Boiled Anxiety by Karen Huston Karydes.
It’s Freudian literary criticism, zeroing in on three masters of the ‘hard-boiled’ genre – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet and Ross McDonald – and the twisted origins of their fiction. Behind the tough-guy private eyes are three seriously messed-up writers. Each of these men had complicated relationships with their parents and with women, so Karydes’ Freudian interpretations are an easy fit. And of course, what is the underworld but the subconscious? McDonald is a particularly apt subject, because he’d had extensive psychoanalysis and was perfectly aware that his clingy, demanding women and their sons or younger lovers referenced Oedipus. Even more revealing were the excerpts from McDonald’s confessional memoir. It seems that McDonald used his detective hero Lew Archer to heal himself.
This is lively, entertaining and illuminating lit crit. And what a great cover.
Every time I go to see my chiropractor, there’s a little ritual. After the half hour drive to Daylesford, a pot of tea. Of course. There are two Op Shops right across the road from the clinic. And afterwards, since I have to walk around for twenty minutes or so before getting in the car again, there are the shops. The bookstore in Vincent Street – Paradise Books, new and second-hand – is great for browsing. And there are oodles of places selling dreamware. Dreams, as in ‘my impossible perfectly curated life’. Silk scarves, French cookware, alpaca throws. Hand-crafted jewellery and chocolates and gin. Soap made by artisans in Sicily from virgin olive oil which look like large lumpy baseballs of snot…
In one particularly beautiful shop, Frances Pilley (also in Vincent Street), I buy these spiral-bound notebooks with a beetle on the cover.
I’ve been keeping a journal (and I mean actually keeping it up for any length of time) this year and so far, I’ve filled two of these notebooks. I have three more, which should last me to the end of 2020. I’ll be onto my next one by the end of the week. and I suppose if I’ve had a summer book and a coronavirus book, this next one will be my winter book. Right on cue, the season has changed. I am looking out of the window right now, and rain is falling and the last bright leaves are shaking on the wind-tossed quince tree. A poor, wet grey shrike-thrush is sitting on a bare branch right only three or four metres away through the glass. Oh! He must have felt my gaze, because now he shook himself and flew away.
Apart from the mundane and daily and ephemeral, the Summer Book is about heat and smoke and fires. Some anger, but mostly grief, that in this country we can’t seem to get past politics and just do what’s needed to cut our emissions. And Coronavirus Book contains a fair bit of uncertainty and fear and obsessive checking on the figures, as well as sorrow and sadness and a selfish nostalgia my old life, including those lovely and indulgent trips to Daylesford which seem like something from a fairy tale past.
The notebook also contains what I could call my Covid-19 Epiphany.
After 24 years as a bookseller, I decided that I need a change. So I have finished up – goodbye Bookroom! – and I’m hoping to start a Cert III in Aged Care in mid-July. As well, at almost the same time, I’ll be sending the first draft of my new novel to the wonderful freelance editor Janet Blagg. She worked with me on “How Bright” and she’s very kind, but it’s always a racking process. Is this book rubbish? Does it make sense? Did it achieve any of what I wanted it to achieve?
Maybe Winter Book should actually be Scary Book. Or “Are You Mad?” Book.
Or just New Book.
“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that tell true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort.
And that is why we write.”
From Neil Gaiman’s acceptance speech for the 2009 Newbery Medal, which was awarded to The Graveyard Book.
After finishing Square Haunting by Francesca Wade, I decided to look up some of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I remembered Gaudy Night was one of my mother’s favourite detective novels so I decided to start there, near the end of the series and not at the beginning.
It’s the mid-1930’s, and detective novelist Harriet Vane arrives in Oxford for a ‘gaudy’ (a college feast or reunion) at Shrewsbury, her old college. Scarred by the publicity and scandal of her murder trial (see Strong Poison), she’s reluctant to go…but once she’s there, she finds herself back under its familiar spell. Harriet rediscovers Oxford; the mellow old buildings, the river, the streets and shops. She also renews her love for the university, the institution; the traditions of scholarship and learning and ‘the life of the mind’. She wonders if she could insulate herself from the worries of the world, and become a scholar…
But (since this is a detective novel) she also finds herself in the middle of a mystery. Someone in this all-female community has been sending poison pen letters and committing minor acts of vandalism. Is it a member of the staff (‘scouts’), a student, an academic?
This book was written in the 1930s, when women’s demands to participate in higher education still met with resistance. Female academics and intellectuals were commonly caricatured as unlovable and unfeminine, if not downright bitter and twisted. (Well, why not be bitter? Oxford did not admit women to full academic status until 1921 and Cambridge – can you believe it? – not until 1947!). It soon becomes clear that Shrewsbury College’s female intellectuals are the targets of an anti-feminist who wants to cause a scandal in the academic community. With the attacks becoming nastier and more frequent, Harriet is asked to investigate. Eventually, she turns to Lord Peter Wimsey, her friend and unsuccessful suitor, for assistance. In its final pages, the mystery is tragically solved and Harriet and Peter find each other at last.
Back to my mother. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to see her in a different light (like, she was a person!). Yes, she was strong, stoic, intelligent, self-disciplined, brave – quite the feminist icon. She was also – if I read her rightly – a raging romantic. In my youthful self absorption, I’d missed that. Gaudy Night is both a mystery and an achingly romantic love story. It’s the book where Harriet (at last!) realises that Peter is her soul mate. And he, after years of fruitless courtship, gets his heart’s desire. The scene on the riverbank, where Harriet studies Peter’s face as he sleeps, had me reaching for my (metaphorical) fan. Hot! and yet with nothing explicitly sexual.
I can imagine that for my mother, as a fiercely intelligent young woman in the early 1940s, the fiercely intelligent Harriet might have been a heroine. Not bitter, not twisted. Successful, capable – and lovable, too.