I’m not a big mystery or crime novel reader even when it comes to the “golden age of detective fiction.” So it was with some trepidation I signed up for the Classics Circuit tour (be sure to check out who else is hosting and what they are reviewing). I chose to read Michael Innes’ The Ampersand Papers because, one I had never heard of Innes before, and two, it had a literature theme to it.
When I do read mysteries I like a certain type generally exhibited by P.D. James and Amanda Cross. That type is either a story in which character is just as important, if not more so than the crime. Or, barring that, there is something quirky and gently humorous about it. In The Ampersand Papers I happily got both.
Lord Ampersand, tired of all the scholars showing up at his castle’s door wanting to have a look through the family papers, scours the castle and has every last scrap put up in the tour that looks out over the sea. The inside stone staircase is crumbled and impassible, supposedly due to a long ago attack on the castle, and the only way up to the “muniment room” is via a rickety wooden staircase that curves around the outside of the tower built by a previous Lord Ampersand who liked to go up to the tower roof for a bit of birdwatching.
Not long after all the papers are hoisted up to the muniment room, Lord Ampersand learns that there might be some actually worth quite a lot. A cousin, Adrian Digitt, it turns out, was good friends with Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and other literary luminaries of the day. Lord Ampersand and family live in genteel poverty at this point so the prospect of tidy sum see him charging his son, Archie, with finding a scholarly expert to go through all the papers in the tower for as little pay as possible.
This brings Dr. Sutch to the castle and to his death on the staircase which just happens to plunge onto the beach at the feet of Sir John Appleby, a well known and retired Scotland Yard Inspector.
The death of Dr. Sutch doesn’t take place until over a third of the way through the book. Up until then we get to the know the family quite well. Lord Ampersand’s son, Archie, is next in line to inherit the estate. Next in line after Archie is cousin Charles Digitt. We also meet Lord Ampersand’s ditzy wife, his two daughters, neither of whom have married, and cousin Deborah Digitt. Then there is the butler, Ludlow, who would do Jeeves proud. Oh, and how could I forget Mr. Cave, the speleologist who Dr. Sutch meets on the beach below the castle tower one day and strikes up a friendship, two geeky peas in a pod.
So by the time Dr. Sutch plunges to his death, we know that just about everyone has a motive. And Sir John’s investigations turn up a further complication. In addition to the valuable papers, there might be Spanish gold hidden somewhere in the castle.
In the end, of course, Sir John figures everything out. He uses the same information the reader has which I appreciate. I hate it when the solution is one I could never get because the author has withheld a vital piece of information. Even with the clues, however, I didn’t figure out who did it, but that’s ok. I just appreciate that Sir John’s explanation for everything is completely plausible and not surprising.
I can happily add Michael Innes to my short list of mystery writers to read when the rare mood comes upon me. I think in addition to what I have already mentioned, Innes’ appeal comes from a certain light charm. There is a sense that Innes, who is actually an Oxford academic named J.I.M. Stewart, while not slumming, is writing just for fun and because he loves it. When the author is clearly enjoying himself and inviting the reader along, it would take someone entirely lacking in good humor to deny the pleasure on offer.