I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.
From London Far a.k.a. The Unsuspected Chasm – Michael Innes
Richard Meredith is a middle-aged classics professor who specializes in Martial and Juvenal. As an absentminded intellectual (is that redundant?), he finds himself in his tobacconist’s shop and mutters a phrase from Dr. Johnson’s London, a Poem. He is surprised when the clerk opens a trap-door and ushers him down into the depths of London. He comes upon scores of art masterpieces. Against the smugglers of looted art, he finds an ally in Jean Halliwell, a young scholar in archeology with a specialty in Minoan weapons. In an exciting if far-fetched scene, they and two bloodhounds escape being put in a sack and dropped into the Channel by fleeing across the rooftops of London.
They proceed to have adventures that are so zany as to lead us readers to think that John Buchan’s rousers like Greenmantle are being parodied. As usual, the villains are bizarre. For example, one is an eccentric rich guy – with the typically American name of Otis K. Neff – that will call to mind the unhinged oil millionaire Jo Stoyte in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley.
Also as usual, there are plenty of erudite laughs:
Mrs Cameron was given to religious enthusiasm and so, in Jean’s view, was on the thither side of sanity also.
The man was … simultaneously enjoying the remains of a cigar and a thoughtful study of the girl’s knees. Habit apart, there seemed to be no reason why he should not study the superincumbent parts of her anatomy as well, for the girl was stripped for bathing to a degree which Meredith could not at all approve.
At 300 pages, some snipping in the middle and near the end would have been in order. But members of the thinking audience – i.e., us avid readers -- will be able to pat themselves on the back for understanding allusions to The Perfumed Garden and knowing already what pygmalionism is.
It’s not, however, merely learned yuks. Innes describes rural Scotland and its remote fastnesses so vividly we wish we could visit Caledonia someday. He makes wise observations of religion in Scotland, art appreciation, and the mentality of collecting. Published in 1946, it also touches on the heavy subject of Europe pulling itself together after the most destructive war in history.
I think that Innes had a middle-aged, middle-class, educated and bookish target audience in mind. However, he always portrays his female characters with lots of smarts and capacity for action. Against stereotype, Jean Halliwell combines dedication to fighting evil-doers with a zest for adventure. There’s a wonderful parody of academic disputation near the end when Jean incisively supports her position in an argument where she and Meredith are trying to account for the art collecting mania of Otis K. Neff.
Michael Innes was the pen name of J.I.M Stewart (1906 – 1994), an English prof in the UK, Ireland, and Australia until his retirement in 1973, after which he wrote mysteries full-time until about 1985. Most of his mysteries starred Sir John Appleby, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. But many of his books are independent novels like this one and Lament for a Maker.