Another of my all-time favorite mysteries, beautifully written by Michael Innes, the third in his series of novels featuring Scotland Yard's John Appleby. Here's a slightly edited version of my original podcast review from 2007.
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In a remote castle, deep in the Scottish highlands, strange things are happening. The laird of the castle, widely detested as a miser, roams the hallways of his castle, reciting a 500-year old Scottish poem, while plotting…what? The laird will soon die – but was it suicide, or accident, or murder? There, in a nutshell, you have the central problem of the novel Lament for a Maker, by Michael Innes.
To tell the story of the strange death of the laird of Erchany castle, Ranald Guthrie, Innes uses a series of narrators, each of whom reveals a portion of the story. The result is a narrative written in a variety of styles, which peels away the mysteries of the events in the novel very much like peeling the layers of an onion. Just when you (and the characters) think you finally understand what has really happened, there will be a plot twist that will take your breath away.
The events, surely, have a Gothic flavor about them. In addition to our early glimpses of the laird, stalking through the halls of his freezing castle, reciting verses from William Dunbar’s early 16th century poem, "Lament for the Makers,” we are shown the very odd composition of the household at the castle. In addition to the laird, we have his ward, a young woman whose presence there will only be fully explained when we reach the end of the novel. We have his two main servants, the apparently villainous butler, Hardcastle, and his wife. There is also what was called in those days a sub-normal lad who takes care of the manual chores outside the castle. And there are the rats – legions of rats, and they will play a very significant role in the story as well.
As I say, it sounds rather like the stock characters of a Gothic novel, but there is a great deal going on here that will not be fully understood until the end of the book. The various narrators will explain the action – and do so in some of the best prose you are likely to encounter in any mystery. It is to Michael Innes’s credit that he provides each narrator with a different and appropriate voice. From the Scottish shoemaker Ewan Bell, whose narratives will open and close the book, you will get Scottish dialect – and a familiarity with some Scottish vocabulary will be helpful here; think Robert Louis Stevenson and Kidnapped. From an English traveler who happens on the scene, you get a flippant commentary on the events he observes. From the detective, John Appleby, you get a more clinical view of the investigation. And so on.
Throughout, Innes uses language (and Dunbar's powerful poem) to captivate you and draw you into his story. Near the beginning of Ewan Bell's narrative, he is describing the reaction in the village of Kinkaid when the news comes down from the remote castle that the laird has died in very strange circumstances. We have been told that Guthrie was “near” – that is, a miser, apparently pathological, a man who scoured the local scarecrows to see if anyone might have left a penny in the scarecrows’ pockets – and the laird’s servant Hardcastle is widely considered to be as bad or worse. Here is what Ewan Bell has to say:
“When the word got round Kinkeig that Guthrie had done himself a fatal mischief, there were many that were right glad and a few that were sorry. The many were glad, hoping surely for a better laird. But the few with a spark of imagination were sorry, for to them, the pity came that Guthrie had not thought to take the coarse creature Hardcastle with him, to do his pinching and screwing for him when he was set-up – as syne he’d be sure to be – among the propertied souls in hell."
You’ll find a fair amount of humor like that – sometimes a very dark humor – in the telling of the story. Each narrator approaches it a little differently, and most manage to find at least a little humor to relieve the situation. For instance, that English traveler, who is stranded near the castle when his car breaks down, describes Mrs. Hardcastle this way:
“And isn’t she a beauty? No doubt, Hardcastle, who can’t be more than fifty, took her for the sake of her old-age pension – or perhaps she made a little fortune as the Bearded Lady in a circus. If these appear brutal remarks, think of a fine gentleman-like Renaissance poet having a good go at describing a witch; that will serve for the rest.”
As you read the book, you will be rather grateful for these humorous asides, for there is little to laugh at in the central mystery itself. As with any such "impossible crime" novel, you must be willing to suspend disbelief – to avoid saying, “that couldn’t possibly have happened.” It’s fiction, after all, and we make allowances. But the action is fast and furious. The case is “solved” – in fact, it is solved several times over – but each solution in turn is destroyed by further revelations, and the ultimate unraveling of the story is deeply shocking and poignant, even as it is satisfying.
Of all the Michael Innes novels, I have always preferred the ones featuring Appleby, although I do think that some of the later books are more than a little forced. Innes had the sense to allow Appleby to grow and mature from novel to novel; he is a young Scotland Yard detective inspector in Lament for a Maker, while, by the end of his career, he had retired from his position in charge of Scotland Yard’s criminal division.
But I don’t think Innes ever quite matched the intensity or brilliance of Lament for a Maker. The use of the different narrators, reflecting different viewpoints and interests, is extremely effective. The story moves along and carries us with it to a largely unexpected and extremely satisfying conclusion. I cannot urge you strongly enough to get and read this book.
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If you would like to hear the original podcast review, you may listen by clicking here.
Next week: Necklace and Calabash, a Judge Dee mystery by Robert Van Gulik.