The true identity of detective novelist Michael Innes

Academic created a series detective who went on to have a 50-year career

The cover of the Agora Books edition of the first Appleby novel
The cover of the Agora Books
edition of the first Appleby novel
Michael Innes, who has entertained millions of crime fiction fans with his novels and short stories featuring Scotland Yard Detective Inspector John Appleby, was also a distinguished academic who was well known for his works of literary criticism.

Innes, who was born in 1906 in Edinburgh, 116 years ago today, was, in fact, John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, who became a university professor and published more than 20 contemporary novels and volumes of short stories under his real name.

Between 1936 and 1986, Stewart, writing under the pseudonym, Michael Innes, also published nearly 50 crime novels and short stories.  

The author had attended Edinburgh Academy and went on to study English Literature at Oriel College, Oxford. He went to Vienna to study psychoanalysis and on his return became a lecturer in English at the University of Leeds.

He became Jury Professor in English at the University of Adelaide in South Australia and then a lecturer in English at the Queen’s University of Belfast.

In 1949, he became a Student of Christ Church, Oxford, a position that was the equivalent of being a Fellow at other Oxford colleges. He was a professor of the university by the time of his retirement from academia in 1973.

Innes was able to use his knowledge of university life as the setting for his first Appleby novel, Death at the President’s Lodging, which features a murder at a fictitious college belonging to a fictitious university.

The reader first sees Appleby being driven out of Scotland Yard in ‘a great yellow Bentley’ to the crime scene in the President’s Lodging at St Anthony’s College, which purports to be at a university situated in the vicinity of Bletchley, about halfway between Oxford and Cambridge. A useful line-drawing of a map showing the layout of St Anthony’s had been provided for the reader at the beginning of the book.

John Innes Mackintosh Stewart - alias Michael Innes - pictured in 1973
John Innes Mackintosh Stewart - alias
Michael Innes - pictured in 1973
In the first paragraph on the first page, Innes announces that the President of St Anthony’s College, Josiah Umpleby, has been found murdered in his lodging.  Appleby has been quickly dispatched on the orders of the Home Secretary to take over from the local Inspector and handle the investigation.

Inspector Dodd, who is an old friend of Appleby’s, explains that the college is locked up at the same time every night and only a small, select group have their own keys and would have been able to access the President’s Lodging. He shows Appleby the dead body, still lying in the President’s library, with its head swathed in a black, academic gown, next to a skull and a scattering of human bones.

By the end of the first chapter, Appleby has realised he is up against an ingenious and somewhat whimsical murderer. The scene has been set and the hunt is on, with the reader able to sit back and enjoy the rest of the novel.

The story is told in an entertaining writing style and Innes allows his own interest in the genre of detective stories to shine through in conversations Appleby has with the dons while staying in their college as a guest.

Death at the President's Lodging is available from or



Strong Poison

Author departs from tradition by letting her detective fall in love

Strong Poison is the fifth of Dorothy L Sayers's Wimsey novels
Strong Poison is the fifth of
Dorothy L Sayers's Wimsey novels
Dorothy L Sayers allows her noble sleuth to have a love interest in Strong Poison, the fifth novel she wrote featuring the exploits of amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey.

The author introduces the character of Harriet Vane, a crime novelist, who, like Wimsey, is Oxford educated and has had an unhappy time romantically.

When Wimsey sees Harriet Vane for the first time, she is in the dock, accused of the murder of her ex-lover, the poet Philip Boyes.

Strong Poison, which was published in 1930, is considered to be a major departure for a Golden Age mystery as it shows the detective falling in love with a woman accused of the murder that is central to the plot.

Dorothy L Sayers fans have speculated that the writer modelled Harriet Vane on herself. The writer had suffered a romantic disappointment and by creating the long-drawn-out romance between Harriet Vane and Wimsey, which was to run through four novels, it allowed her to have a vicarious affair with the detective herself, far-fetched though this might seem now.

Dorothy had been very impressed with the novel Trent’s Last Case by E C Bentley, published in 1913. In the story, the detective, Philip Trent, falls in love with the wife of the murder victim.

Right until the end of the novel the reader does not know for certain that the wife is not the murderer. E C Bentley’s novel was intended as a send up of the classic crime story and it also involves the hero detective identifying the wrong person as the murderer close to the end of the story, completely at odds with the conventions of the genre. But Dorothy, along with many other readers, really liked the novel and went on record as saying that Bentley’s novel ‘holds a very special place in the history of detective fiction.’

In Strong Poison, the victim, Harriet’s ex-lover Philip Boyes, has died from arsenic poisoning. He has attempted to engineer a reconciliation with Harriet on the night of his death and she has given him a cup of coffee while listening to what he had to say. She is accused of the murder because she is found to have bought poison under an assumed name. She has claimed this was to test one of the plot points in the crime novel she is currently writing.

Sayers herself had suffered a romantic disappointment
Sayers herself had suffered
a romantic disappointment
Fortunately, the trial results in a hung jury and the judge has to order a retrial. With no time to lose, Wimsey visits Harriet in prison to tell her he is convinced of her innocence and is determined to catch the real murderer. He also asks her to marry him, but she turns him down politely.

The jury has failed to return a unanimous verdict because one person sitting on it could not bring herself to believe in Harriet’s guilt. This is Miss Katharine Climpson, a spinster who, coincidentally, sometimes works for Wimsey by carrying out inquiries and undercover work because she has to live in difficult financial circumstances and needs to earn some money.

Wimsey deploys her to gather evidence for his inquiry and, in one hilarious scene, she is obliged to pose as a medium and hold a séance to obtain the information he needs. Miss Climpson first appeared doing undercover work for Wimsey in the novel, Unnatural Death, two years before Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, also a spinster with a talent for detection, was introduced on the crime fiction scene.

As well as being an intriguing mystery, Strong Poison explores some of the issues of the time, such as sex before marriage and the double standards that were applied to the behaviour of men and women. The novel is intricately plotted and written in a very entertaining style and I would highly recommend that you read it. 

Strong Poison is available from or





The Secret of Chimneys

A light-hearted caper with a satisfying ending

The cover of the 2017 edition,  published by Harper Collins
The cover of the 2017 edition, 
published by Harper Collins
Agatha Christie once again chose the adventure story format for her fifth novel, The Secret of Chimneys, rather than the detective story conventions she had employed in her first and third novels, which both featured her Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot.

Published in 1925, The Secret of Chimneys details the exploits of a good-looking young adventurer, Anthony Cade. The story starts in Africa, moves to England and is influenced by the political intrigues going on in the Balkan state of Herzoslovakia.

Needing money and looking for a new adventure, Cade accepts two jobs from a friend. He has to deliver some potentially controversial political memoirs safely to a publisher in London and restore some stolen letters to a woman who has been blackmailed because of them.

Linking these two jobs is an English country house called Chimneys, which is famous for hosting informal weekend parties, where politicians, heads of corporations and foreign dignitaries are able to mingle socially and conduct their business privately in its comfortable surroundings.

A shooting party is to take place at Chimneys, to be hosted reluctantly by its owner, Lord Caterham, who has been asked to assist the Government. Prince Michael of Oblovic is to be a guest at the party and it is anticipated that important Government business will be done.

In the course of carrying out his tasks, Cade goes to Chimneys himself. A murder occurs in the house just after he arrives, starting off a series of fast-paced events. Cade finds himself caught up in an international conspiracy and it soon becomes obvious that someone will stop at nothing to prevent the monarchy being restored in faraway Herzoslovakia.

ITV reimagined the story as a Miss Marple mystery, with Julie McKenzie as Marple
ITV reimagined the story as a Miss Marple
mystery, with Julie McKenzie as Marple
Despite the presence in the house of officers from both Scotland Yard and the French Surete, Cade has to pursue his own ideas in order to find the murderer, to be with Virginia, the woman he has fallen in love with, and ultimately fulfil his own destiny.  

Agatha Christie, who was born 132 years ago today in 1890, was widely praised for writing The Secret of Chimneys. Reviewers said it was more than just a murder mystery as it involved a treasure hunt. In July 1925, The Times Literary Supplement praised the ‘most unexpected and highly satisfactory ending’ of the story.

The novel has since been called ‘a first-class romp’ and been judged to be one of the author’s best early thrillers. I thought it was a light-hearted caper and found it enjoyable to read. I admired the way Agatha kept the ‘secret’ of Chimneys up her sleeve right to the end.  

The novel introduced the characters of Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard and Lady Eileen ‘Bundle’ Brent, who were both to appear in later novels.

It was the last of Agatha’s crime novels to be published by Bodley Head as the author then moved to Collins, later to become Harper Collins. It is known to have been translated into 17 different languages.

The Secret of Chimneys was adapted as a stage play by Agatha in 1931, but its world premiere did not actually take place until 2003 in Canada. It has also been adapted for television and as a graphic novel, although a version made by ITV in 2010 turned it into a Miss Marple mystery and took several other liberties with the plot.

The fictional Eastern European country of Herzoslovakia is also referenced in two Poirot stories, The Stymphalian Birds and One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.

Agatha went on to become such a popular and successful novelist that even though we are now well into the 21st century, her books are still being purchased from shops and online and are regularly borrowed from public libraries. New film and television adaptations of her wonderful stories are constantly being made and she remains the most translated individual author to this day.

Buy The Secret of Chimneys from or  




Danger Point by Patricia Wentworth

Not so much a whodunit, more a question of who is trying to do it

Danger Point was first  published in 1941
Danger Point was first 
published in 1941
The self-effacing, elderly lady detective, Maud Silver, is sitting on a train about to depart to London when a young woman who is clearly very upset bursts into her compartment.

The woman is a wealthy heiress, Lisle Jerningham, who has recently got married and should have been blissfully happy. But she has overheard a sinister conversation in the garden of a country house, which has terrified her.

Lisle confides in Miss Silver about fleeing from the house party she had been attending after hearing total strangers discussing how her husband’s first wife died in an apparent accident. After Lisle’s new husband inherited his first wife’s considerable fortune, he was able to save his family home. The unknown people seemed to think her husband was broke again and were speculating about whether he would attempt to engineer a second convenient misadventure.

Miss Silver does her best to calm Lisle down and gives the distraught young woman her business card in case she wants to consult her professionally at any time.

But the beautiful heiress has mixed emotions once she has started to feel better. She loves her new husband, Dale Jerningham, and can’t allow herself to believe that he would wish to harm her, even though she has started to wonder about a recent incident when she nearly drowned while swimming with him and other members of his family.

Miss Silver does not know whether Lisle really is in danger or is simply being paranoid. But after another attempt is made on Lisle’s life, the young wife gets in touch with her at her London office and then subsequently cancels the appointment she has made. After reading in the newspaper that another young woman has been found dead near Lisle’s coastal home, the detective decides to travel there in order to investigate further.

Danger Point is Patricia Wentworth’s fourth Miss Silver novel and was first published in 1941. Like her previous Miss Silver story, Lonesome Road, it  involves a rich young woman who someone is trying to kill. But is it Lisle’s handsome husband, another member of his family, or a disgruntled former employee?

Patricia Wentworth could draw on a depth of life experiences
Patricia Wentworth could draw
on a depth of life experiences
Patricia Wentworth was the pen name of Dora Amy Elles, who was born in India, where her father was stationed with the British Army, in 1877. She was sent to England to be educated, but returned to India and married George Dillon in 1906. He had three children from a previous marriage and they had one child together. After his death she moved back to England with the children.

In 1920 she married again, to George Turnbull, and settled in Surrey. She had begun writing while in India and in 1910 had won the Melrose Prize for her first published novel, A Marriage Under the Terror, which was set during the French Revolution.

Under the pen name of Patricia Wentworth, she wrote 32 crime novels featuring Miss Silver, beginning with Grey Mask in 1928 and ending with Girl in the Cellar in 1961, the year of her death. Miss Silver develops as a character during the series and works closely with Scotland Yard. The reader eventually discovers she is a retired governess with a passion for Tennyson as well as for knitting.

I would recommend Danger Point, which is very well written with good descriptions of the coastal scenery that form the backdrop for the story. Patricia maintains the mystery and the suspense right until the end. It is less a question of whodunit and more a matter of the reader finding out who is trying to do it.

Buy Danger Point from or