Tidings from the Crew – hamlet, revenge! (Michael Innes) – the keep or keelhaul edition!

Ahoy there me mateys!  Blustery winds and crazy seas are still severely limiting the time I have to read.  So here be a Tidings post with a twist!  The First Mate has been reading like a fiend.  I ordered asked him to write a review of something he recently read because I be going through withdraw and NEED to hear about books.  At the end of his review I will decide whether the book is kept in the hold for me future reading pleasure or be keelhauled into the watery depths.  Hope ye enjoy!

From the First Mate:

Things I did not know before reading Hamlet, Revenge!:

1) Hamlet, Revenge!  is book two in the John Appleby series of mysteries. I had no idea that there even was a series of John Appleby mysteries. According to ye olde wikipedia, the series lasted for 50 years (1936-1986), including 32 novels and 5 short story collections (the last being a posthumous publication in 2010). Not knowing that there was to be an actual detective involved in the story, the first 80 pages had me convinced that the crime was going to be solved by our up-till-then POV character, academic and part-time mystery writer Giles Gott.

2) Michael Innes was the pseudonym of academic J.I.M. Stewart. I’ll confess that I was unfamiliar with either Michael Innes or J.I.M. Stewart. Stewart appears to have published literary fiction under his own name and exclusively crime fiction under his pseudonym. In both cases, the fiction was used as a point of departure for psychological observations and critiques of society, manners, and the changing of social mores in the 20th century. The opening of Hamlet, Revenge! is, in part, an extended examination of the shifting landscape of what it means to be part of the upper class in the mid-1930s.

3) My patience and attention span for early 20th century English fiction has atrophied. I found the first 80 pages of Hamlet, Revenge to be a bit of a slog. Innes tells us of the history of Scamnum Court, introduces us to over 50 different characters (30 of which are briefly considered suspects after the crime), runs through the various reasons why a group of upper crust people are putting on an amateur production of Hamlet, goes into the history of
productions of the play throughout the years, pokes fun at Americans through four different characters, engages in some polite colonialist racism towards the lone Indian in the group, establishes some political intrigue, and critiques the idea of taking mystery novels seriously. Reading this book in bed, I actually fell asleep on two consecutive nights while reading these first 80 pages. It’s a pretty dense infodump. Some of the info is important to the later mystery; some is really just critiques of a society that hasn’t existed for almost a hundred years.

4) The Shakespearean stage was different than the modern stage used today. It’s a thrust stage with the only curtain present covering a small part of the rear stage. An upper stage with trap door is built above the rear stage. The particulars of this stage arrangement end up being important for the murder in that the small part of the rear stage separates the victim, playing Polonius, from the rest of the players when he’s murdered. Because of the trap door to the upper stage and the design of the backstage area many characters have a theoretical possibility of having committed the murder.

5) Pre-WWII Britain was teeming with espionage and the fear of it. About a decade or so ago, I read a bunch of pre-WWI British adventure novels (starting with Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps) and was amazed how many of them featured spies (usually Germans) trying to undermine the British empire. For a long time, I’ve also enjoyed Cold War era spy novels, and those almost always include a spies in Britain element. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that there was lots of spy activity in Britain in the 1930s, but it hangs heavily over Hamlet, Revenge! Indeed, the only reason that our detective even gets involved is because of the possibility of the murder having been politically motivated.

I will say that after the primary murder occurs and our detective shows up, the book becomes a lot of fun. Appleby and Gott have an amusing relationship where they both respect each other and are willing to use each other’s talents to further the investigation. While the initial suspect list is around 30 people, they quickly whittle it down to a nice half dozen. And all of the final suspects
are pretty reasonable as suspects. It’s fun to watch Appleby and Gott interrogate these people (largely their social betters) and figure out what was really going on during the murder. Multiple red herrings, of course, and even a classic “bring all the suspects into one room and lay out the case” scene. The final conclusion is suitably tense for a few pages.

Hamlet, Revenge! didn’t make me want to read any other books in the John Appleby series. That said, I suspect had I read The League of Frightened Men as my introduction to Nero Wolfe, I probably wouldn’t have continued with that series either. Appleby and Gott are both interesting characters, though I guess I just don’t find their world (British high society) all that interesting. I did ultimately enjoy the book, and it has made me curious about what the author may have published under his own name.

Recommended to fans of early 20th century detective fiction. Avoid if
80 pages of infodump setup is simply too much.

Yer Captain’s Verdict:

KEELHAUL!  Arrrr!  The First Mate got a rather tattered copy of this book from a Free Little Library based solely on the title.  Cause the title is awesome.  As a Shakespeare nut, I avidly waited to hear his book report.  I may have enjoyed the 80 page infodump but I am pretty sure the rest of it would have bored me.  It was placed back into the Free Little Library and has already disappeared from same.  Must be the awesome title.  Arrr!

Goodreads has this to say about the novel:

At Seamnum Court, seat of the Duke of Horton, The Lord Chancellor of England is murdered at the climax of a private presentation of Hamlet, in which he plays Polonius. Inspector Appleby pursues some of the most famous names in the country, unearthing dreadful suspicion.

To visit the author’s Goodreads page go to:

Michael Innes – Author

To buy the novel visit:

hamlet, revenge! – Book

To add to Goodreads go to:

Yer Ports for Plunder List

2 thoughts on “Tidings from the Crew – hamlet, revenge! (Michael Innes) – the keep or keelhaul edition!

  1. It does have an awesome title! And I’m jealous of the Little Free Library. I just looked up on a map, and there are some close enough to me that I could drive to them, but none within walking distance. And we don’t own the land our condo is on, so I can’t install my own. Alas.


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