If a sense of humour is like a piano keyboard, then mine has two dud notes, farce and black comedy: Looking at ‘The Journeying Boy’ by Michael Innes.
February 13, 2013 § 1 Comment
Apart from The new Sonia Wayward (1960) and The Journeying Boy (1949*), I have forgotten most of what I read by Michael Innes. But, for me, memory is no yardstick when it comes to testing literary merit: I forget everyone’s work, Jane Austen’s, Henry James’s, Leo Tolstoy’s . . . The only novels I remember are those I have read more than once.
However, a body of work leaves an impression and we can recall its terrain. My recollection of Mr Innes’s work is that there was more humour than could be realistically contained in serious crime novels, and characters displayed more learning than their equivalent in real life were likely to.
Michael Innes is a good writer, and an amusing one but his humour has a dangerous tendency to teeter over into farce; at that point, Mr Innes and I are no longer in sympathy.
On the 100 best crime novels list, The Journeying Boy finds a place at no. 54. Does it deserve a place on the list?
Sir Bernard Paxton was a scientist of International repute and considerable wealth, Mr Thewless [Clueless?] was a private tutor of modest repute and no wealth. He was therefore pleased and flattered to have the chance of becoming tutor to Sir Bernard’s wayward son Humphrey, who was in some ways normal, and in others horribly advanced.
But Mr Thewless didn’t get the job – it went to an intellectually limited field-sport enthusiast, Captain Cox. Or rather it would have gone to Captain Cox if the latter had lived long enough to start it. Taken from Penguin’s blurb (1964).
For Humphrey’s protection, Mr Thewless takes him to Ireland to stay with the Bolderwoods (some unknown and distant relatives). Various misadventures, en route and in Ireland, follow. On the journey over, they meets a Miss Liberty who is apparently going on holiday. Miss Liberty, we think, is not telling us the full story. I can’t believe in Miss Liberty any more than I can believe in the criminals who are in hot, and ham-fisted, pursuit of Humphrey. Their villainy is that of characters in a child’s cartoon.
You must choose whether you are going to plump for drama or comedy. (You can’t have both unless, of course, like Shakespeare, you separate dramatic scenes from comic ones. ) When the two are intermingled, an author writes a farce. At least, this is my understanding of a farce. Farces don’t work for me because they pull me in two different directions: Is it funny? Or is it dramatic? My reactions are confused. The dramatic aspects mute the comic ones and vice versa. Farce makes me anxious rather than amused.
The obvious villains in The Journeying Boy can’t frighten us—they are too absurd—but neither do they succeed in amusing us because we have the expectation of being kept in a state of suspense, and we are not. So we neither feel one thing nor the other and the reading experience is spoilt.
For all that Miss Liberty and the criminals fail as characters, Humphrey, Mr Thewless and the Bolderwoods succeed. Although the Bolderwoods are marvellous, I can’t help being disappointed in the use Mr Innes made of them. But, I think, other readers will not necessarily share my feelings about that. The point is: if Mr Innes can portray such believable characters, why have unbelievable ones? Is he so irresistibly drawn to farce that he must introduce unrealistic characters to carry through the farcical elements of his plot?
When Mr Thewless rises in the middle of the night to investigate some strange goings-on in Killyboffin Hall (applause for Mr Innes’s portrayal of the Irish), Mr Innes out Henry-James Henry James. I skipped ahead at this section to see how many pages were before me and then—with a terrible sense of being imposed upon—I read them. Michael Innes can be long-winded.
The new Sonia Wayward is much shorter than The Journeying Boy and has fewer flaws. Yet I would not consider it to be a better book. We have, amongst other things, to believe that one character was able to successfully pass herself off as another. Whereas, whatever the weaknesses of The Journeying Boy, its strengths far outweighed them. Perhaps the most important thing for a reader is to be able to like, or take an interest in, some of the characters. Some of the characters appealed to me a great deal in The Journeying Boy but none did in The new Sonia Wayward.
Where Mr Innes is successful in The Journeying Boy, he is very successful. And he can be very amusing, so long as he falls short of farce: the ending was an inexcusable piece of farce. However, I am willing to accept that the limitations of my sense of humour make me incapable of judging this book fairly.
In conclusion, The Journeying Boy deserves a place on the CWA’s 100 best list.
* Originally published by Victor Gollancz