Friday, July 24, 2009

Michael Innes: Apocalypse then

Michael Innes' 1959 novel Hare Sitting Up feels oddly contemporary and queerly nostalgic at the same time.

It's contemporary because of the stunning immediacy of the opening chapter's six-way colloquy about nuclear and biological apocalypse. It's nostalgic because the fear of apocalypse seems so 1980s, if not positively Cold War. These days, our collective fears are less about the end of humanity than about wars that will never end.

Anyhow, here's a bit about Innes, real name J.I.M. Stewart. Here's a bit about his protagonist, Inspector John Appleby. Stewart was a Scottish-born academic who taught at Leeds, Adelaide and Belfast before settling in at Christ Church, Oxford.

This is the first novel I remember reading whose author was a don, and the donnishness comes through in two ways so far, both positive. Stewart taught English literature, and he took his title from Women in Love: "(D)on't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass and a hare sitting up?" That's an appropriate thought for musings upon the end of the world.

But the chat about apocalypse is the real tour de force. Five of the talkers are new Oxford graduates, full of the brashness of youth. The sixth is a schoolmaster: "Juniper found himself taking a deep breath. He hadn't much cared for the conference; he wasn't in very good spirits; he was fifty-two."

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I'm not sure academic mysteries are as much in favor as they once were, and I think they were always more an English than an American phenomenon (though Amanda Cross wrote marvelously barbed academic mysteries set at a prestigious New York university). Still, I'll toss it over to you and ask what's your favorite academic mystery?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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46 Comments:

Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Do you mind if I include this on Friday's Forgotten Books?

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Matthew E said...

what's your favorite academic mystery?

Well, Sayers's Gaudy Night is famously awesome, of course, but the one I most want to mention is Sharyn McCrumb's Zombies of the Gene Pool. It is too an academic mystery!

July 24, 2009  
Anonymous LindaS said...

Amanda Cross is the pseudonym of Carolyn Heilbrun, now deceased, who was indeed a professor at Columbia University, and an avowed feminist. Her mysteries are some of my favorites, witty and smart.
Then the Homer Kelly books by Jane Langton, set mostly in New England, with the occasional foray into, for example, Monticello and Charlottesville, are nice, if uncomplicated, and evocative of the place as well. One takes place in Nantucket, one at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, etc.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Well, if you're not talking about a series, then I would put forward the following titles: PD James' _Death in Holy Orders_ and _A Shroud for a Nightingale_, both of which take place in schools.

Batya Gur's _Literary Murder_ tells of the goings on in a university literature department. (I thought she used the grad school where I went as the model).

And of course, I can't forget Sayers _Gaudy Night_.

The only series set in academia that I have enjoyed, and that I have just recently discovered, is that by Edmund Crispin. Gervase Fen is great. It's a great combination of pure fun, snobbery, and implausibility.

If I have to go with one novel, then it would be Gur's _Literary Murder_. Her depiction of academia is superb, possibly because of her background as a literature teacher in Jerusalem.

July 24, 2009  
Anonymous LindaS said...

Didn't batya gur write a psychoanalytic mystery also set in Jerusalem?

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

Since nobody else is going to mention my academic mysteries, I will. Or at least I'll mention that I wrote a few. My favorite academic novels, however, tend to be things like David Lodge's comic novels, or things like Richard Russo's STRAIGHT MAN.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

LindaS,

Yes, the title is _The Saturday Morning Murder: A Psychoanalytic Case_. Actually she wrote six novels featuring Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon of the Jerusalem police department.

July 24, 2009  
Anonymous LindaS said...

Thanks...I put library hold on Bill Crider' 2004 book _ Bond with Death_ , and Batya Gur _Literary Murders_

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti: Be my guest.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Matthew, I haven't read Sharyn McCrumb, but I note with interest that's she's both American and contemporary. Perhaps the academic subgenre is more alive and more American than I thought. Naturally I also like even the hint that a book with a title like that could have an academic setting.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Peter: It's not so much that the setting is academic (it isn't, mostly) as that the... well, I don't want to spoil it. The book is a sequel to her award-winner Bimbos of the Death Sun. The only problem is that Sharyn McCrumb is annoying: she had two cool mystery series going and scrapped both of them to concentrate on this Appalachian-ballad-novel stuff she's more interested in. Which is fair enough. The annoying part is that she's suggested publicly that a) the Jay Omega mysteries and Elizabeth MacPherson mysteries are kinda beneath her now, and b) she's got an idea for a third Jay Omega book that she will never write.

Sour.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, Crispin came up in another discussion. I mentioned that I'd found one of his opening chapters a bravura piece of description but a distractingly so. Perhaps I'll try him again.

Batya Gur set each of her mysteries in a different professional world, I think: music, psychoanalysis, academia, even television. She must have been fascinated by all these little subcultures.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bill, plug the hell out of your academic mysteries. Are these the ones?

Professor Sally Good
1. Murder is an Art (1999)
2. A Knife in the Back (2002)
3. A Bond with Death (2004)

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linda, Carolyn Heilbrun was a pioneer, too, as I understand it, perhaps the first woman to head a department, or to head the English department, at Columbia. I'm One of her stories has a group of working women -- a cleaner, a secretary and one other whose job I forget -- exact fearsome revenge on a tyrannical academic feminist who makes their lives hell. Heilbrun's feminism appears to have been of the human and humane variety rather than the academic and theoretical.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was the scene of one of the biggest art thefts ever. Does Jane Langton's book predate or postdate that 1990 crime?

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Matthew, the thing I always found annoying about Sharyn McCrumb was that spelling of her first name. No, wait. I was thinking of Sharan Newman.

In any case, anyone who throws around words like zombies and bimbos in her titles deserves consideration.

July 24, 2009  
Anonymous LindaS said...

Hi Peter re Isabella S G -- before. It is such an intimate space and that book recreated that feeling so well that I felt personally affronted by the audacity of the real-life crime!

Question for Bill Crider: should I read the Sally Good mysteries in order?

Carolyn Heilbrun--
The NYT did a Sunday magazine cover story on her before she died, with a nice picture.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

STRAIGHT MAN and the novels of David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury are my favorites along with Batya Gur and Amanda Cross. Both gone too soon.
And I didn't know about Bill's academic mysteries. Off to find some.

July 24, 2009  
Anonymous Fred said...

Peter,

She must have really immersed herself for the other novels, because they seem so complete in the creation of their little worlds. The other two murders involve the Arabs in Jerusalem and a murder on a kibbutz.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linda, if you've been to the museum since the heist, you'll have seen that the spaces once occupied by the missing works were left unfilled except by notes of explanation. That's rather touching, I think. I suppose there is something intimate about the museum's space. But I've always loved Italian Renaissance painting, so I've naturally thought of the museum as grand, with its Titian, Giotto and Piero della Francesca.

Speaking of crime and the Gardner Museum, Isabella Stewart Gardner herself was apparently not above smuggling to avoid paying duty on the art she imported. For some reason, I have never seen this mentioned in brochures or on placards at the museum.

Carolyn Heilbrun was not afraid to ruffle feathers, at least when wearing her Amanda Cross hat. If I recall right, Kate Fansler's husband was a Shakespeare specialist -- not that he taught Shakespeare anymore since the institution of open admissions, the narrator tells us.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, one wonders what further sub-worlds Batya Gur would have explored.

Fred, a kibbutz and perhaps also the world of Arabs in Jerusalem are two more such worlds.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Yes, definitely--a minority member and a member of a close-knit social/economic community. However, one side point made was that some kibbutzes were no longer what they were in the beginning.

Just a guess, but today if she were writing a murder mystery, it might be the world of financial institutions--banks, investment companies, mortgage companies--and the free-wheeling stock market moguls. I think there's room for a murder or two in that world.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Kerrie said...

University of Adelaide - that's where I went! did an English major too - but he was long gone. I have something for you here

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, there's room for lots of murders in that world.

Maybe Batya Gur would have probed the closed world of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Jews if she didn't do it already in one of her six novels.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kerrie, I suspect that many readers of this blog shared a college with J.I.M. Stewart, who taught all over the Commonwealth.

Thanks for that low-key honor. I like the way it seeks to alleviate any possible guilt on the recipient's part.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

As best as I can remember, none of her novels involved the ultraconservative population. So, that could be another possibility.

July 24, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Joanne Dobson's Professor Karen Pelletier mystery series is set at Enfield College, "a small, elite campus in New England." I've only read "The Maltese Manuscript," 2003, which is centered around the theft of Hammett's original manuscript for Falcon. Not great, but fun. I'd agree with Booklist's assessment that Dobson "skewers the pretensions and politics of academic life while respecting the importance of education and a life of the mind." I got a kick out of the pretentious academe titles of some of the sessions at the literature conference that forms the backdrop for the theft and murders. Pelletier "was scheduled to give a talk on murder in American working-class literature: Deconstructing Death: Class Binaries in the Representation of Murder in American Working-Class Discourse, 1845-1945." And many more in the same vein.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I quite like the phrases "deconstructing death" and "working-class discourse," complete with what sounds suspiciously like condescension toward its subject. I suspect Dobson shares Amanda Cross' attitude toward academics even if she may not express it quite so stingingly.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It would have been an obvious choice for an Israeli writer who enjoyed exploring subcultures.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

Robert B. Parker has at least one academic mystery in his Spenser series (the title escapes me).

July 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's what happens when one spends enough time in Robert B. Parker's city. Maybe Spenser must find a kidnap victim in twenty-four hours, and his only clue is that the victim is concealed at an institution of higher learning in Boston.

July 25, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

No, it's very "academic" in the manner of Amanda Cross. Hush Money.

July 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, that would not be Spenser's first venture into the multicultural swamp of politics.

July 25, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Paul Erdman wrote nine books about crime and high finance. Looking at the list of titles, I'm amused to see "The Crash of '79" published in 1976 followed by "The Panic of '89" published ten years later. It reminds me of an unwritten rule of economic forecasting: "forecast often."

July 25, 2009  
Anonymous LindaS said...

I just want to say that I have never written on a blog before --but it was so fun! Esp the Amanda cross, batya gur, Isabella SG ---And I got a bunch if new stuff to read, including Sharyn mccrumb's Zombies...I never read her b/c all her stuff seemed to be virginia mountain tales--I mean I like local stuff, eg, john lamb in shenandoah or John briant in the adirondacks--but there's a limit!

July 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I had not heard of Paul Erdman, but I can now safely say that his is the most interesting Wikipedia biography I have ever read, and the contest was not close.

With respect to forecasting often, I am reminded of something my grandmother is said to have said: "Did you ever meet a rich financial columnist?"

July 26, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linda, you have warmed my heart. Many thanks! I am pleased to no end that you've enjoyed reading and writing here.

It appears that you're not the only reader who found that Sharyn McCrumb's Appalachian tales may have pushed the limit. They seem to have done well by her, though. I see she's won a number of awards for them. Also, since this blog is primarily about international crime fiction, I am naturally at least curious about writing that lays heavy emphasis on setting.

July 26, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, thanks for drawing attention to this novel. I wanted to read it as soon as I read the quotation of the title's source from "Women in Love" (time to read that again, too). I have to assume that your blog is why both copies in the L.A. Pub Lib collection are now checked out!
And how could I not have remembered Ross Macdonald's "Black Money," 1966, as great crime fiction with an academic setting?

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, it's nice to think that I may have helped empty your public library.

The epigraph from Lawrence, as well as passages about him in Innes' book, are enough to give anyone second thoughts about him. One character in the book attributes to Lawrence some rather scary political sentiments. The epigraph whiff of eradicating humanity and starting over with something better ought to be a hint. Such thoughts also form the novel's philosophical underpinning.

And thanks for the Ross MacDonald title.

July 28, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Because humanity seemingly had been bent on eradicating itself in the Great War, Lawrence's idea of starting over without the presence of Man (WIL was published in 1920) was a common theme in the visual arts and literature in the years immediately following the war. I think this theme frequently was revisited (particularly in science fiction) in the post-WWII and Cold War years. I suppose the theme goes back at least as far as the Garden of Eden -- where paradise was lost due to Man's tinkering with the status quo.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Innes has a character muse that the seeds of fascism were full-grown in Lawrence, or something in similar.

A Lawrence-like conceit seems at best a precious affectation in these decidedly unapocalyptic times.

July 28, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Perhaps Lawrence-was-a-fascist is Innes' late-1950s notion. I don't think it's widely believed now that Lawrence was a fascist, although, like many intellectuals of his time, he was initially drawn to fascism's promise of order out of post-WWI chaos. It seems he later changed his mind when he saw that fascism was just more totalitarianism. And Lawrence's literary modernism was anathema to fascists.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe Innes' (or his characters') skepticism of the notion is a sign that cooler heads were beginning to prevail in England a decade and a half after the war.

I wonder if John Lawton considers such attitudes in his novels. Have you read him?

July 28, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

No, I have not read any Lawton. But I'm game; I read your blog entries on him. I'll start with the first of the Troy series, "Black Out," I believe. Doing a pre-read Web search I see mixed reviews. If, as one reader says, Lawton "himself is on record as having no time for any politicians of any persuasion" then he is a man after my own heart. But some readers balk at his seeming references to current affairs through the events of pre- during- and post-WWII. I'm always leery of what I think of as contemporary fiction in period dress.

July 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The one that I've read, Second Violin, does not stray too much into anachronism, I think.

July 28, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, thank you for bringing this one to our attention. It made a pleasant, "civilized" detour from my more usual hard-boiled fare. One of my favorite lines seemed a fair description of readers of crime fiction: "He reads too many modern novels, full of accessible women and inexpressible men."

August 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a wonderful line.

August 06, 2009  

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