Michael Innes is the pseudonym of J.I.M Stewart who served as a lecturer at Queens College in Belfast and eventually as a professor at Oxford until retirement in 1973. Under his pseudonym, he wrote nearly 50 crime mysteries between 1936 and 1986. His most famous character is Sir John Appleby, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. All my encounters with Innes’ work up until now were works in which Appleby appeared.
From London Far is not one of these. The plot centers around Richard Meredith, an Oxford don comfortable in the study of Martial and Juvenal, who wanders into a tobacconist shop and in a scholarly reverie mutters, “London, a poem”. This sounds close enough to a secret password gaining him admission into an underworld of art thieves, which he quickly realizes as he comes across stolen works of Titian and Giotto. He discovers he is being mistaken for a German conspirator, Vogelsang, and that a woman being held, Jean Halliwell, has also gotten mixed up in this plot. Through quick thinking, he succeeds in pretending to be Vogelsang, kills the real Vogelsang when he turns up, and leads Jean in a hair-raising escape through chutes and across rooftops.
As they compare notes, they decide not to do the sensible thing and go to the police, but to take off to an island off the coast of Scotland to confront the apparent mastermind of these art thefts, Sir Properjohn, who ends up being the front man for the real mastermind, Don Perez. Along the way, they encounter a pair of eccentric sisters living in a rundown castle on the island, learn of the abduction of Higbed, a distinguished psychiatrist, and end up captured only to be abandoned on a sinking sub.
In Bond-like style, they manage to escape, which leads to the third part of this story, their encounter with the eccentric millionaire industrialist, Otis K. Neff and his crazy conveyor-belt mansion. It turns out that he is the buyer of all the stolen works. I will leave the denouement, and the role Higbed plays in all this, for you to discover if you wish.
It all seemed to stretch plausibility a bit, but probably not more than a James Bond novel or movie, and likewise with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. I wondered if this was Innes’ way of poking fun at this genre of books (although this novel antedates Fleming’s first Bond novel by six years). This is also another in the genre of detective fiction that revolves around Oxford settings and characters, including some of the works of Dorothy L. Sayers and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books and the Lewis spinoff. If you like these kinds of stories, From London Far and other Innes’ works might give you a new vein to explore.
I have to say I am one who does enjoy such stories, but I still found this one a bit far-fetched, though not unenjoyable. I want to return to the Sir John Appleby stories that I have not read (a good number). For literary style, and storytelling Innes is right up there with P.D. James, Sayers, and others of his period, and worth discovering if you have not read his work.