Death at the President’s Lodging
Inspector Appleby - one of the Hound's greatest crime fighters - is called to St Anthony's College, where the President has been murdered in his Lodging. Scandal abounds when it becomes clear that the only people with any motive to murder him are the only people who had the opportunity - because the President's Lodging opens off Orchard Ground, which is locked at night, and only the Fellows of the College have keys.
That means a ‘thief caught in the act’ sort of explanation is pretty much impossible. What’s more, the only ways into and out of the study are through the front door of the president’s lodging (but no-one was seen coming in that way) or through the French windows of the study into the Orchard Ground, which is set apart and locked separately. So the only people who could have killed Umpleby are those who have keys to this ‘inner circle’ of the campus. That limits the group of suspects to the group of Fellows and staff who have that access. So Appleby and Dodd have to look among that comparatively small group of people to see who would have wanted Umpleby dead, and who would have taken the time to leave such a macabre sort of crime scene.
Appleby and Dodd interview the suspects and get each one’s account of what happened on the night of the murder. They also get each one’s impressions of the others and their histories, as well as their opinions of the victim. That information, plus some important clues, leads Appleby to the truth about the chain of events that led to Umpleby’s murder. It turns out that Umpleby’s murder has to do with what went on ‘behind the scenes’ at the campus, and with the personalities involved in the case.This is a Golden Age detective story and it bears some of the hallmarks of that traditional kind of story.
The novel takes place in an academic setting, so another element here is the set of personalities, pettiness and politics that we see in academic mysteries. We also get a look at the daily life and routine of colleges and universities during the era. Innes looks at all of this with a sometimes wry sense of humour: ‘Long after the reform of our ecclesiastical institutions, medieval habits and conventions survive within these venerable establishments…They teach out-moded subjects by exploded methods. They remain obstinately unconvinced of the necessity of the modern amenities either for themselves, their wives or their children. Only recently indeed, did they discover wives and children.’
We see Innes’ humour in other places in the novel too. For instance, he also pokes a bit of fun at traditional detective stories. Here’s a bit of the first meeting between Appleby and Dodd: ‘And now Dodd…sprang up with decent cordiality to welcome his colleague. ‘The detective arrives,’ he said with a deep chuckle when greetings had been exchanged, ‘and the village policeman hands over the body with all the misunderstood clues to date.’’
In truth, Appleby and Dodd have met before, and each respects the other. In fact, that aspect of the novel is a refreshing change from the ‘patch wars’ that we so often see in crime fiction.
Despite the wit, this isn’t exactly a ‘frothy’ light mystery. The murder itself makes a great deal of sense once we know the truth about what happened, but it’s a sad story. The motive is believable and so is the solution. As I mentioned, the reader has to be alert throughout the story, but (at least for me) Innes ‘plays fair.’
Death at the President’s Lodging is an intellectual kind of mystery set in an eminently suitable place for that kind of story – a university campus. It follows a lot of the traditions of the Golden Age story and the academic mystery while at the same time having a bit of fun with them.
About Michael Innes:
Michael Innes was the pseudonym of John Innes MacKintosh (J.I.M.) Stewart. He was born in Edinburgh, and educated at Edinburgh Academy and Oriel College, Oxford. He was Lecturer in English at the University of Leeds from 1930-1935, and spent the succeeding ten years as Jury Professor of English at the University of Adelaide, South Australia. He returned to the United Kingdom in 1949, to become a Lecturer at the Queen's University of Belfast. In 1949 he became a Student (Fellow) of Christ Church, Oxford, becoming a Professor by the time of his retirement in 1973. As J.I.M. Stewart he published a number of works of non-fiction, mainly critical studies of authors, including Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling, as well as about twenty works of fiction and a memoir, 'Myself and Michael Innes'. As Michael Innes, he published numerous mystery novels and short story collections, most featuring the Scotland Yard detective John Appleby.
One night, Josiah Umpleby, President of St. Andrews College, is found shot in his study by his valet George Slotwiner and one of the Fellows Mr.Titlow. The college authorities of course want to keep this murder as quiet as possible because of the school’s reputation. So they arrange to have Scotland Yard Inspector John Appleby come to the college to find out who the killer is as discreetly and quickly as he can. He’ll be working with local detective Inspector Dodd. Unlike the stereotypical ‘patch war’ between Scotland Yard and local authorities, Appleby and Dodd co-operate well and bit by bit they find out about Umpleby, his colleagues, and the circumstances of the murder. And it’s the circumstances that make this an unusual case. For one thing, the crime scene was arranged almost theatrically. Umpleby’s head was wrapped in an academic gown, and scattered around the body was a skull and set of bones. For another, the college is locked at night, so it would be very difficult for an outsider to have gotten in to commit the murder.