It's reality...but not as we know it...


I was listening to the radio a few weeks ago when they were discussing the possibility of bringing in guidance ratings, similar to those currently used for film and computer games, for books. This set me wondering how would you rate books? As something that's commonly studied in schools, and often palatably presented as a musical Oliver Twist, for instance would probably be rated a U or perhaps a PG - and yet it deals with prostitution, child abuse, and murder. And how would you deal with a crime novel? You can hardly compare Agatha Christie with Patricia Cornwell at least in terms of blood thirstiness, and yet both deal with murder...

This thought struck me again when reading Michael Innes' Inspector Appleby mystery Sheiks and Adders. I like Michael Innes, he was one of the great names of English golden age detective fiction along with other such luminaries as Christie, Sayers, Allingham, and Edmund Crispin. But this novel written towards the end of his life in 1982 is really not of his usual high standard.

The now retired Appleby stumbles across a weeping girl in a forest near his home, and is invited to a fete run by her parents. At the fete Appleby realises that there is something distinctly odd going on, and is soon involved in an attempt to save a sheik from being assassinated. Ok, it does all sound a bit Boys' Own Adventure, but it could have been a reasonable, if rather far-fetched tale, but instead it all becomes completely silly. The villains are run to ground with the aid of Boy Scouts and rampaging vipers (yes, really!); while the Emir is whisked to safety courtesy of a hot air balloon. The reasons for the assassination remain vague, while the assassins stay as nebulous characters who are never fully revealed.

Written and set in the 1980s it would have felt dated even then. I think it's extremely unlikely that the siege of Mafeking would have been re-enacted at a village fete of that period (to me it felt as remote as Nelson's battles even then) while the racist language makes for uncomfortable reading now, and was, I think, an unpleasant piece of retrospective thinking even when it was first published. Subordinate characters fade in and out with no clear reason for their existence while Appleby seems remarkably happy to suspect absolutely no-one but the most obvious suspects. It's a very odd book, sort of  Arabesque meets Dead Man's Folly. 

It's a shame that this tripe was ever published because Michael Innes was a really good writer, so don't let the dreadful Sheiks and adders spoil this. Go for his earlier books such as the great Death at the President's lodging, and let this novel rest in peace.

The video at the top of this clip shows the final chase scene from Arabesque, a scene very reminiscent of Sheiks and adders; but also dear to my heart as it was filmed at the Crumlin viaduct, not that far from where I lived as a child. The viaduct sadly is no more, it was demolished shortly after filming, but Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to the valleys of South Wales.

Comments

McGonagall said…
Sounds daft as a brush, and the film doesn't do it any favours, either. I'm forgiving about falls from greatness, or I couldn't enjoy the good stuff. Not read any Michael Innes - Dorothy Sayers defines 30s detective fiction for me - but perhaps I'm being too parochial.
Book-hound said…
It is completely silly, one of the daftest things I've ever read. It's also got bizarre digressions into the oddities of the English language. I suspect that sadly Innes wasn't altogether there when he was writing this!
Ray Girvan said…
The chief thing I remember from Arabesque was the exchange after Beshraavi stuffed a minion's pocket with money as a "bonus", then set a bird of prey on him.

Beshraavi: Don't mention it, Hemsley. Would you like another bonus?
Hemsley (bleeding): Oh, not just now, sir, if you don't mind, sir.

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