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Lament for a Maker

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Innes, Michael - Lament for a Maker (1938)



Review by Nick Fuller


One of the true classics of the detective fantasy, this, one of Innes’s masterpieces, recalls Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series in its denseness, doom-laden atmosphere which achieves its greatest effects by making the horrible amusing and the amusing horrible, and the delight in the possibilities of the English tongue. The plot is beautifully constructed, every narrative solving the previous narrative’s questions and posing new ones in a manner reminiscent of Carr’s Arabian Nights Murder, yet the final solution comes as a distinct surprise (despite certain resemblances to Trent’s Last Case). Wonderful.



A masterpiece of the 'Scotch' ilk (lairds, castles, and Highland villagers), told in the form of narratives and journals by various participants. Involves a lost heir, guilt-driven madness, and revenge. Superbly written with the narrators providing their own personalities by voice (especially Ewan Bell, the learned sutor/cobbler). The plot, as with most Innes's, is absurd, but it is the telling that counts. In addition, there are some beautifully descriptive passages about the Highlands in winter. One of the best mysteries of all time. But an atmospheric flaw: That impossibly Peter-Wimsey-ish Gylby English git who can quote Dunbar out of his head without reading a book -- Innes's quotation habits of his 'smart' people are really out of hand. The stodgy prose of the Edinburgh lawyers, etc. one can brook, but not these idiotic Bartlett's quotation characters that Innes habitually puts forth as the only intelligent people in the world. Gylby recognizes a quote from Coleridge's "Christobel" when the equally brainy American girl comes out with it and then feels ashamed when he comes back with the "Childe Roland to the dark tower came" phrase because he thinks it is trivial and unworthy -- whereas, in my opinion that is the best thing that could have been said under those circumstances. (Some characters from Hamlet, Revenge! reappear.)


Wyatt James



The edition I got from the library has an intro by Michael Gilbert, in which he appears to say that not only is this one of MI's two best books but the others aren't worth much.


Lament seems to me a cross between Scottish Gothic, John Buchan (the same thing?), and something else which I can't remember, having finished it several days ago and read several other books since. It has a few scraps of MI's wit, a fairly good mystery with some unexpected twists, but I only made it all the way through because I'm a fan of MI. Wit is surely one of his distinguishing characteristics, and there isn't enough in this. Another of his strengths is a wild imagination, but Lament seems to me pretty derivative.


Note all the "seems to me." I wouldn't set myself up as a critic against Michael Gilbert. It all just goes to show that tastes differ.




Somewhat of a disappointement, maybe because I expected too much based on its reputation. The multiple solutions and the final revelation, which I didn't see coming, are brilliant and fairly clued in retrospect. There are moments in the book when this reader wondered what the hell Innes was up to, but everything ultimately makes sense, the mark of a good detective story in my opinion. Also, the writing is top-notch even in translation - more on this later - with lots of witty dialogue and remarkable descriptive passages (the Australian section in particular is superb) 

So why am I disappointed, you'll ask? Well...

First, the plot is more dense than genuinely complex. Everything would be solved sooner if some characters "said it right" instead of delaying the truth or outright lying. Also, while I usually like narrative experimentation I found the multiple narrators device in this one arbitrary and a distraction. As I read I couldn't help thinking that it was designed to flesh out a rather thin plot by muddying the waters and stretching it as much as possible to achieve novel length. 

I also had an issue with the characterization. Other than the narrators the players never really come to life; they aren't even described (we have to take Innes's word for it that Sybil Guthrie and Catherine Mathers are beautiful - we never get to "see" them) The book I had read just before was very character-driven so it was a shock and a setback to meet what I can't call but cardboard cutouts. 

So overall my opinion is mixed. I wonder, though, whether part of the book's flavour was not lost in translation. Most English-speaking reviewers praise the book's "local colour" and use of language, especially in giving the narrators different accents and voices. Translation perhaps inevitably tones down this aspect, so it's perfectly possible that I missed something because I didn't read the book in the original language - so I'll try to re-read it in English someday. And I'll definitely read more Innes as this book left me curious about him and his work.





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