LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Nicolette, Lady Simney, is roused late at night by the butler]
When Owdon came stumbling out of the study calling murder I was in the bathroom… There I was trying (you may say) to wash Hazelwood off myself at midnight – when I head Owdon’s voice raised in a ghastly yammering. Nobody could have mistaken the gravity of what such an uncontrolled hullabaloo must portend. I didn’t stop to dry but grabbed what was no more than a towel and was out in that corridor in a flash… I was at once struck by the immensity of our butler’s dismay.
Somebody had to be controlled, more or less; and I pulled myself together. The first consequence of this was the reflection that even if the whole of Hazelwood was dissolving in chaos that was no real reason for looking like an advert for bath-salts. I dodged back got rather damply into my wrap. And then I came out again. “Come, come, Owdon,” I said. “What’s all this?”
commentary: I read this because of last week’s Verdict of Us All - the meme whereby a group of us all answer a question concerning crime fiction books, giving our important opinions. The question this time was ‘Is there an author whose work you generally can’t stand but who has nevertheless written one book you absolutely love?’ In my case the answer was Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train the exception).
My friend Kate over at Cross-Examining Crime came up with a Michael Innes books she liked:
It is What Happened at Hazelwood (1946). For once I found Innes’ prose lively and entertaining, his characters engaging and gripping, as you try to figure out what they are really like. The murder method is unusual to say the least, yet fits beautifully with the setup and location Innes picks... the different narrators all bring their individual stance on events. This is indeed an Innes novel I can confidently recommend.I have a similarly shaky relationship with Innes – I do like some of them (see Hamlet, Revenge! here), but seem to have read a lot of long, dull ones, so I was curious to see what I would make of Kate’s choice.
And I agree with her completely – this one took a very standard trope and made something quite unusual of it. A country house, the head of the family is killed, the place is full of relatives with motives, including a batch of cousins unexpectedly turned up from Australia. So far so normal.
But Innes experimented with different narrators, and with having Nicolette, Lady Simney, doing the first section. I thought he made a brave stab at doing her voice, and she was an interesting character – she seemed terribly nice, but because of the way the book went you knew that perhaps she wasn’t telling everything, you couldn’t be sure of her innocence.
As Kate says, the annoying Inspector Appleby doesn’t appear, though he is mentioned: the sleuth here is not named (so far as I can tell) but his activities are tracked by his assistant Harold, in the form of letters to relatives. I did enjoy all this, and although I guessed some of what was going on (any crime reader would) there were enough surprises to keep my interest, and the weird atmosphere of the house was nicely done – funny and entertaining. And it was short, always a good point.
An old incident in Australia forms a part of the plot, and this was related in terms that would be quite unacceptable now, though at least there was an assumption that this treatment of the original residents of Australia was unconsciable.
There was a somewhat subversive take on the toffs, inheritance, family bloodlines – Innes is often over-respectful in these areas, in my view, but no such nonsense this time. At one point Nicolette says
A fire had been lit in the study – I can’t think by whom, for it was my impression that by now pretty nearly all the servants had quit.I thought the book resembled more the books the author wrote under another name, JIM Stewart (actually his real name, Innes was a pseudonym), such as The Last Tresilians.
It was a pleasant afternoon’s reading on a very hot day in England, and so particularly enjoyable that snow blanketed Hazelwood for the duration of the book. So - opportunities for footprints, signs of scuffle, no-one could have gone HERE, even a mention of a ski in a completely ludicrous suggestion, instantly dismissed, for how the crime could have been committed – now was this a tip of the hat to an Agatha Christie, a much earlier book? The ski is a spoiler in that case, so don’t click on the link if you don’t want to know which book it is. there is also a second connection between the two books, in the name of the setting (US title of Christie would be the giveaway here.)
So thanks Kate for the tipoff.
The top picture is by Whistler, from the Athenaeum website.
The kimono picture is by Frederick C Frieseke, is in the Indianopolis Museum of Art, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.
Much is made of Lady Simney’s appearance in this section of the book, there is quite some disussion of how revealing the towel and wrap are.