Dress Down Sunday: Hamlet, an adventuress in a nightie, and a book of 1937



Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes

published 1937

Hamlet Revenge!

[The middle of the night at Scamnum Castle: a performance of Hamlet has been interrupted by a murder, and the investigation is ongoing.]

Without warning the door flew open and Anna Merkalova swept into the room. ‘Gervase,’ she demanded tragically, ‘have they found out?’ And she tossed a small metallic object on the bed.

Gott wondered if too much concentration on Hamlet was inclining him unwarrantably to assess things in terms of stage effect. The Merkalova’s entrance had been excellent theatre…

Noel twisted his neck to contemplate the exhibit which the Merkalova had cast on the bed and then straightened it to observe the more compelling exhibit of the Merkalova herself. She was not very adequately clothed; she was a maturely and unambiguously attractive female, her Russian eye underlined for emphasis, and lit up, at the moment, with the most lovely intimations of passion. The lady, he said to himself, is about to throw a temperament.

Hamlet Revenge 2

commentary: This is my book of 1937 for Rich Westwood’s Crimes of the Century meme over at Past Offences.

I was planning to illustrate the entry just with pictures of performances and costumes for Hamlet, very respectable and serious – but in the end, who can resist an adventuress in her nightie? (My book for 1929 in this meme featured Agatha Christie’s Seven Dials Mystery, in which ‘The Countess flinched and sat up. She drew the folds of a very transparent negligée closer around her. It was a mere veil of orange chiffon.’)

This was the second of Michael Innes’s Appleby mysteries, and has an excellent set up: a semi-amateur production of Hamlet at a lordly Gothic castle, featuring members of the family and entourage as actors alongside a professional actor. One of the amateurs is the Lord Chancellor of England, who is carrying a most important document of state, one that would be very valuable to unfriendly governments. A murder is of course staged to occur during the performance, and the vital paper goes missing.

Hamlet Revenge 3

I must say, Innes does not go to much trouble to tell us what this doc could possibly contain – I can’t be bothered to copy down how the Prime Minister describes it (‘organization – industrial interests – international’ oh I’ve fallen asleep), but it’s rather hard to believe in. I think the author learned here from the mistress of the ignored detail – Agatha Christie never bothered much with telling us what was in the Secret Plans, she expected us to take it on trust. And Innes was definitely a reader/fan – one character in the book wants a private detective to be brought in: ‘There is a very good man whose name I forget; a foreigner and very conceited – but, they say, thoroughly reliable.’ Not much doubt that this is Hercule Poirot.

But Appleby does his best: I guessed who did it before he did, but only because of long experience of reading detective stories.

My criticism of the book is that there were far too many indistinguishable characters (well Hamlet does have a large cast…) -  many of them had a title, and a name, and a part they were acting, and Innes used them interchangeably and confusingly.  And the book took too long to get going.

The mystery I couldn’t solve was: who was Noel, an important character, featured above? He is described as ‘a scion of the house’, but he is not the son of the Duke nor of his brother, and he is not the heir, and he has a different last name from everyone else. And talking of names - the Duke’s name is Teddy Crispin, and his brother is called Gervase. Could it be that this is where crime writer Edmund Crispin got his pseudonym and sleuth’s first name? His real name was Bruce Montgomery.

There were many other felicities about the book, once you got used to the hundreds of names on offer. I liked the all-purpose question to engage an academic in conversation, no matter what his subject: ‘And what do you think of this young German school?’

There is a theory put forward that since the advent of the talkies, an audience can cope with fast speaking – ‘they bring the ear up with the eye again’ – and so these actors can perform Shakespeare’s lines much faster.

Innes was obviously very interested in psychology, which features a lot in the book in a rather heavy-handed way. But then there is a fascinating disquisition by an advertising copywriter on selling chocolates – she wants to get women to buy them for other women rather than waiting for men to buy them – the whole section could come from a book of today. (The author, writing under a different name, was also very interested in the psychology of advertising in this book, The Last Tresilians.)

As a book of 1937 – there is a lot of vague political talk, and the secrecy, the spies and the important affairs of state are all indicative of the long slide into war. Meanwhile the social structure remains untouched with the frightfully quirky and eccentric toffs. Viva la revolution.

Hamlet has featured on the blog a lot – click on the label below to see the many posts. I did an article for the Guardian on the many many crime books with titles taken from Hamlet. (This is not one of them – the phrase ‘Hamlet, Revenge!’, as the very erudite characters in the book know, is not from Shakespeare’s play.) And there are posts on books influenced by Hamlet, or about performances of the play.

The top picture is from Kristine’s photostream.

The second one is from the Library of Congress and combines two themes from the book – it is meant to be Ophelia, ‘dressed in a flimsy negligee’ as the helpful caption says.

Hamlet himself is John Gielgud, from the NYPL – they have a collection of Hamlet photos to lose yourself in.


  1. Really interesting reference to Poirot and Christie in this one, Moira. I know what you mean, though, about too many characters who aren't really fleshed out. They can be distracting, and make the book seem 'flatter,' if that makes any sense at all. Still, glad you found some things to like about this one.

    1. I was delighted to find that little linkup, Margot, as I know will you understand. And overall it was an entertaining read.

  2. I read a lot of Innes (mainly the Appleby books but not only those) when I was younger. I am almost afraid to try the books again since I have had mixed results with reading authors I liked when I was younger. Of course, I have a lot of them on the TBR piles (or to be reread) so I shall try some of them someday.

    1. I too have mixed reactions to the Innes books - I don't like the thriller-y ones, and sometimes a good start seems to peter out into nothing much. But he's always worth a try. And goodness he wrote a lot.

  3. Alfred Hitchcock did the same with the "Maguffin" - that thing everyone is searching for, but it doesn't really matter what it is; what's important is how it motivates the characters to act. I have never been inclined to read Innes, but if any title would change my mind, this should be the one!

    1. Yes, what a great and useful phrase! And actually I think you would very much enjoy the putting-on-a-show aspect of this one - something tells me it hasn't changed all that much in 80 years and you'd recognize a lot!

  4. Another author that I read voraciously in the 1980s. Have been meaning to try him again someday and this sound like a good one to go back to. Personally I couldn't care less what the secret plans are - it's quite enough that they are secret - and I always find it pain to have to explain similar things in my own novels

    1. Yes me too, though I'm not sure I loved them THAT much, I think I read them because he was such an iconic figure. Many of them I found very unmemorable. This is the best one I think.
      I'm loving everyone taking a firm line about not caring what's in the documents - authors who waste time making it all make sense must be very disappointed. And yes, I am all for keeping it simple.

  5. Sounds as though both authors were thinking of Petty girls.


    1. Oh fascinating, that is an amazing picture. I had to look up Petty, I hadn't heard of him, and was very interested. He certainly did a nice line in skimpy negligees.

  6. Crispin definitely got the name from this book! I'm not really such a huge fan of his, but this is probably Innes' finest hour, wouldn't you say?

    1. Oh thanks Sergio, good to know. And no, as I say to Chrissie above, I think I read them from a sense of duty, and this one is definitely the only really good one, for me.


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