Thursday, 13 May 2010

"The Gaudy" and "Young Patullo" by J.I.M. Stewart

John Innes MacKintosh Stewart was a career academic who was better known as Michael Innes, as whom he wrote a number of very fine detective stories featuring Appleby of Scotland Yard. These are as good as anything one may come across in the genre. Not quite Sayers or Marsh, perhaps, but definitely well up there with someone such as Allingham.

Under his own name he was a serious novelist and I have long wanted to try his work. I finally managed to retrieve from the bowels of Camden libraries' reserve collection the first two of a series of novels he wrote featuring a character called Duncan Pattullo, who becomes a playwright after he leaves Oxford.

I so wanted to enjoy these books and be able to recommend them that it comes as a great disappointment to relate that I cannot. They are stilted and formal and could have been written at least thirty years earlier (i.e. in the 40s rather than the 70s). Both the settings and the characters have a strongly institutional feel to them, and the storylines are slow-moving to say the least. A pity, since I am a great admirer of the Appleby books, which are written with a much lighter touch, a degree of wry humour, and move along at a cracking pace.

The writer who comes most strongly to mind when reading this Staircase in Surrey sequence is C.P. Snow, stylistically at least. They pale into insignificance alongside Simon Raven, who populated his college settings with larger than life characters and surreal events to produce two series (really just one long one) which are truly memorable: Alms for Oblivion and First Born of Egypt.

Life is full of disappointments. Back to the reserve collection will these two books go, where, it may be said, they richly deserve to stay.

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