J.I.M. Stewart (Michael Innes)(1906-1994)
Phil Tombs, a recent trade school graduate and employee of a local machine shop, has just discovered that he’s won 250 thousand pounds on the National Sweepstakes. It takes a while to sink in. He lives near Oxford, England, in a lower class housing development, with his aunt, and is a dogged type: he believes in working and saving and he’s at a loss, initially, about how to invest or otherwise utilize his windfall… He meets people who want to help; some sincere and some shady. One of the first is Jean, with whom he immediately falls desperately in love; she’s the secretary of the Pools manager who administers the money distribution for the corporation. He is blown away by her eyebrows, which appear to be one strip of fur above her eyes(i know this sounds like Peg W., but it’s in the book!). On the train to London, where he travels to inquire about obtaining the check, he meets Mark Thickthorne, son of Lord Thickthorne; they own extensive estates in a nearby shire. A rather wild youth with strenuously aggressive convictions, Mark rattles on about the inefficiency of the modern coal industry and his plans to change all that. In his excited state, he pulls the emergency cord and brings the train to a screeching halt. The conductor is not pleased. But Phil physically tackles Mark, and convinces the conductor that Mark was suffering from a mental ailment and was not responsible for his actions. After a bit of give and take and the sop of a five pound note, the train journeys on with no penalties for the transgressors. On an earlier trip, Phil had met Peter Sharples, an Oxford student majoring in literature. They became fast friends, having the same sort of perceptions about life and work.
Phil invites Jean to lunch and they hit it off fairly well. She is supposedly almost engaged to Sir Aubrey Moore, another student at Oxford, so her availability is open to question, but Phil, having previously met the foppish Aubrey, is not discouraged and looks forward to their marriage as a matter of course. Upon Phil’s next visit to London, he is accosted while entering Jean’s building by two entrepreneurs who take him off to lunch. They drive him away in a Rolls Royce, discussing their grandiose schemes for making huge amounts of money, referring to their many important contacts in London financial circles and their vast acquaintance with dragons of industry. Phil is not taken in. The two inveigle him into visiting one of their local establishments, one of a series of clubs that they apparently run in an off-hand way. But Phil soon realizes that they are merely houses of prostitution. He sees a young girl being treated in an inappropriate manner, loses his temper, beats up the two conmen and is in turn slugged unconscious and dumped by the river. He wakes up in Jean’s office, having been carried there by the beaters-up; she is carried away by his injuries and gives him a big kiss. So Phil imagines that his courtship attempts have met with success.
Later, after Phil has made arrangements for the investment of his funds, he attends a week-end party at a local estate, with a number of high-class socialites and begins to understand in more detail why the English class structure inhibits familiarity and fraternization. But apparently Jean still loves him, so he leaves fairly content with his foray into the upper echelons and returns to the Thickthorne mansion(he’s been staying with Mark for several weeks) in a cheerful state of mind. While staying with the Thickthornes, he has realized that they are much more interested in his ideas involving electrical and engineering developments than any of the persons he had conversed with while determining what to do with his new fortune. The Thickthorne estate consists of a very large acreage with village inclusive, and the family is planning some major alterations having to do with coal gasification and the installation of a network of pipelines to improve the efficiency of delivery of the same: a sort of pilot scheme to demonstrate a better way of supplying heating to homes all over Britain.
A few days later, Phil travels to London to see Jean and meets Peter Sharples en route. Sharples is rather quiet and non-communicative, leaving Phil in a speculative state. Peter seems over-intent on reading the newspaper, but Phil shrugs it off until they reach Jean’s office at which point he discovers that the newspaper had just announced Jean’s marriage to Sir Aubrey Moore. Stunned, he stumbles out of the office and Peter takes him in hand and they immediately leave England and undertake a walking tour for six weeks in Europe. Upon their return, Phil continues staying with the Thickthornes and decides to attend Cambridge in the interests of studying engineering.
I liked this book for several reasons, in spite of the surprising and unexpected ending. Stewart is one of those rare authors who convey character, ambitions, class structure, and personality through the actions of his creations. Instead of telling the reader what characters are like, he shows their qualities by their behavior. This is quite unlike the way Reade, for example, develops his novels. Stewart, thereby, instills a kind of reality that gives the reader the sense of having met and lived with real people in actual places. Under his pseudonym, Michael Innes, Stewart wrote many mysteries featuring Inspector Appleby, which i’ve found, because of his approach to character and plot development, to be splendid reads. In fact, i think his mysteries are better than his non-mysteries. He had an interesting life, writing and teaching English lit at colleges and universities in Australia and Britain, and his experience has steeped his work in a sort of lucidity that i’ve rarely found in other writers. Recommended.