I offer this ruminative prologue to introduce Appleby Talking (1954), a collection of 23 short (some of them very short, running only around five pages) stories by author Michael Innes featuring his most famous detective, Sir John Appleby.
True to its title, the stories in Appleby Talking feature the thoughtful detective recounting memorable (and sometimes far-fetched) cases to a small but appreciative audience. The Vicar, the Doctor, or the QC brings up a news item about a robbery or murder that just occurred, that reference in turn reminds Appleby of a curious affair from his own experience, and we’re off.
There’s a lot to recommend in Innes’s writing, as the short pieces collected here showcase imaginative and inspired scenarios that often turn on a clever clue or a curious paradox. Someone sees a Stone Age man in the mouth of a cave during a village fête. A dead man is found on beach rocks, with only one set of limping footsteps in the sand leading to the body. And lights go off during a college anatomy lesson; when they return, the freshly deceased professor has switched roles with the now-missing cadaver. With nearly two dozen short crime stories here, I was impressed with Innes’s ability to consistently craft intriguing premises over just a few introductory pages.
And while all the stories are entertaining, many of them made me wish that these compelling constructions had been explored more leisurely. This is where my key frustration with Appleby Talking lies: many of the shorter pieces feel rushed, with their details merely glossed over rather than carefully developed. The reading of these clever tales was frustrating because of the fact that the concepts and scenarios were so promising; I wanted further exploration in order for the story and its teller to achieve the best effect.
It’s no surprise, then, that two of the most effective stories for me were also of a longer length. With “Lesson in Anatomy” – the story of the murdered professor and the missing cadaver – Innes uses the additional pages to develop tone and characters while giving Appleby time to actually investigate instead of simply inferring a conclusion through brief observation. (“Lesson” is also one of the few stories here that does not use the anecdote-for-an-audience framing device, and it benefits from that difference.) And in the novella-length “Dead Man’s Shoes,” the Inspector looks into a curious, twisty case that begins with mismatched shoes and ends in a smart reveal anchored in authorial misdirection. Perhaps the conclusion is simply this: I owe it to Michael Innes to sample more of his writing, and to see what he can do with one novel-length story instead of 23 too brief but promising little ones.