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Top mysteries challenge review: The Journeying Boy by Michael Innes

Michael Innes is best known for his Appleby series, but this is a non-series book, albeit one that takes place in the same world. Appleby is even mentioned once in the book, and it is stated that he is no longer with the police. The detective in the story is one of his successors at the Yard.

Year of publication: 1949
Genre: Mystery, thriller
Type of mystery: Kidnapping plot, murder
Type of investigator: Police, special agent and amateur
Setting & time: England and Ireland, contemporary (to publication)

Respectable, elderly private tutor Richard Thewless is hired to accompany the 15 year old son of Britain’s most respected nuclear physicist on a summer visit to relatives in Ireland, when the first choice for a tutor cancels his appointment unexpectedly. Only he didn’t really cancel, he was murdered (unknowingly to the boy and his father), and Detective-Inspector Thomas Cadover wants to know why. The boy, Humphrey Paxton, seems to be both nervous and given to telling stories, so it is not surprising that Mr. Thewless doesn’t at first believe his broad hints that someone is out to get him. Things finally come to a head at the end of the journey, when boy and tutor meet the villains head on.

The three characters mentioned in the overview above represent the points of view in the story, which always shift between chapters and never within them, making it very clear whose POW is being shown. The reader has the advantage of the characters in being the only one who has total overview of all three viewpoints, and can, if she is clever enough, fit together the pieces of this intricate puzzle plot into a picture that makes sense to her before it does so to the characters - provided she doesn’t get lost in a labyrinth of words.

The story is very wordy, and most of it is narrative, making the text very dense. Sometimes it makes for good effect, like in a detailed and very tense scene late in the book when Humphrey is being chased by his enemies and in a somewhat surrealistic ghostly midnight chase through a dilapidated old mansion, but at other times it holds back the action, like when Mr. Thewless’ is searching desperately for Humphrey on a train. That particular scene, which is meant to be at once comic, tense and full of panic, does not come well enough across exactly because of this wordiness. I actually found myself skipping whole paragraphs of this scene, and had to force myself to go back and read them.

Some good points are the humour, which is sometimes subtle and sometimes veers into full blown farce, and the tension, which keeps mounting, with minor climaxes which only serve to heighten the tension instead of relieving it.

Another strong point is the characters. All are expertly drawn and realistic, even the minor ones and there are no stereotypes. Even the funny-speaking servant who at first might seem a very crude caricature of an Irish peasant turns out to be merely humouring his master who expects that sort of thing. Seemingly sinister characters turn out to be totally innocent of any wrongdoing, while others who appear to be innocent turn out to have something to hide, although not necessarily in a bad way.

The ending is a bit over the top (in the classic tradition of Boy’s Own adventures), but satisfying all the same, with a nod to Edgar Allan Poe and all ends tied off into a neat bow.

Rating: A good thriller which could have been made very good with some judicious editing. 3 stars.

Books left in challenge: 117.


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