What a lot of readers find hard to take in Michael Innes's detective stories is the superficial snobbery — the excessive attention to people with titles, to grand houses and social forms. Which can get wearing, I admit.
What I like about him is the way that, under the formal surface, nightmares seethe. The apparatus of nightmare infests his books: doubles, chases through endless dark spaces, messages that evade sense, vanishings, substitutions, betrayals. Often, the stories seem to be elaborate constructions designed solely to contain scenes snatched from dreams (an early book, Appleby's End, is set at a country house called Long Dream). Pigs, women and simple-minded yokels are turned to statues. A boy in a cinema realizes that the boy sitting next to him in the cinema is himself, and that he is committing a murder; on a night train, a middle-aged man encounters an elderly midget, an eight-foot schoolboy, a Chinese lady holding a white monkey on a chain, and a living mummy. A young man on a beach by night falls under the spell of an older, naked man who emerges from the sea. Lions cringe like lapdogs; a man is addressed by a child dressed as a cat; a girl seeking her vanished lover thrusts herself down a darkened crevice into the Library of Babel...
In the Forties and Fifties, Innes was mildly obsessed by the nightmare of mass destruction, of atom bombs and uncontrollable viruses — but hey, wasn't everybody? This is the nightmare of Hare Sitting Up (1959), offered at the very beginning. The title page carries as epigram a quotation from Women in Love:
You yourself, don't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?
The story revolves around a vanished scientist, his twin — so nearly identical that nobody can tell the difference — and a mad, bird-loving lord who wants to leave the world free of the burden of us. Along the way, Sir John Appleby, our hero, is distracted by a big red herring in the shape of the great auk, or garefowl, close relative of the penguin: a rumour surfaces that it has been spotted on a Scottish island, a century after it was hunted to extinction.
As always with Innes, there's a lot of hyper-literary chitchat, some Latin tags ("But there just have to be limits, it seems to me, to the fiat justititia ruat coelum attitude" ... "Ne sutor ultra crepidam is my motto.") and some dreary whimsical banter. But he chills the whimsy with some lines from Measure for Measure: "Our natures do pursue, / Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die."
This is the first Penguin edition, 1964. The cover has one of Alan Aldridge's simpler, more striking designs on a Marber grid. Abundant and cheap, so hold out for a copy in good nick.