domenica 23 settembre 2012

Suggestive British atmospheres of mid-seventies: a strange Michael Innes

Michael Innes : The Gay Phoenix, 1976.
Title in italian edition: Meglio erede che morto - Translation in italian: Antonio Ghilardelli - First italian edition: May 1979; second italian edition: September 2012; Publishing House Mondadori.

To distracted or occasional reader, Innes says very little. But to the most careful and frequent visitor to the library, the same name remembers the extraordinary debut, entitled Death at the President's Lodging (1936),  “Morte nello studio del rettore”, published years ago in the series "I Bassotti" by Publishing House Polillo.
Appleby, perhaps, is the investigator most caught in the literature at all, as much as Philo Vance is in the visual arts and sculptures. Moreover, while Philo Vance was the creature of Willard Huntington Wright, great art critic of  New York and connoisseur of Nietzsche, Appleby was the creature of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, who, just for fun, as he said, wrote the over fifty titles, under the pseudonym Michael Innes. In fact, John Innes Mackintosh Stewart was a professor, lent to the detective story, as Cecil Day-Lewis (aka Nicholas Blake), or as Alfred Bennett Harbage (aka Thomas Kyd): taught at Oxford, English Literature. Of his profession at university, in his novels there are many testimonies learned: quotations from Shakespeare, other English poets, quotations from Latin poets and writers as well as a prose extremely polished and refined. However, if in the earlier novels, these features are amplified, they tend gradually with the passage of time, to fade, although appearing here and there.
The novel that we look today, The Gay Phoenix, was published in 1976, although in Italy was published in 1979. The title refers to the name of the boat, on which occurs an event that affects the entire plot.

Arthur and Charles Povey are two brothers, minor and major. They have embarked on a sailing boat and are going through the ocean. There aren’t other people on that boat: two personalities in comparison. In childhood you have never taken so much, if Arthur in a woodshed has cut off the index finger of the left hand of Charles. Beyond that, and beyond the fact that Arthur is the lower, the two brothers are linked by an identical fate: they were never the shanks saints, even if what they did was more an expression of a life bored, than a personality prone to crime.
However, something must have crept not honest, if it is true that their activities are more prone to legal situations not clear. And it is for this reason that we understand how Charles had at some point decided to take off, that is, to escape, to disappear without a trace, on board a boat. But since not practical, has repeatedly asked and obtained from his younger brother Arthur, who accompanied him, since more experienced than him driving a sailboat.
The fact is that is not explained, why Arthur has embarked himself, and because no one else is on board, you might as well assume that, fleeing the economic unclear, they would not have witnesses.
During a storm, a mast breaks and falls on poor Charles, smashing his skull. Arthur, poor and helpless, and also under the thumb of their financial situation is not rosy than his brother, heir to the family of substances and skillful and ruthless businessman, suddenly becomes the heir of all the assets of fellowship. However, while changing its basic economic prospects, he realizes that his personal situation becomes more delicate: how will you convince not to have deliberately killed his brother to steal birthright and property of the family, as well as substances of which Charles became heir?
First it has to dispose of the body before it starts to decompose. So throw overboard the body. He puts up his masterpiece: he will behave in such way that the people he may have to do, on his return (they will appear as a castaway who has been through a lot), convince him to be that Charles, he decided to impersonate since the incident: for that thing, he cut (and that act of courage! or despair!) the index of his left hand. Curious (and brilliant )by Innes. that one can become another person, only cutting a finger! But it is so because the two brothers, roughly resembled a lot.
Arthur will tell he has left alone without Charles, because a tree fell on the ship, smashing his skull (which is true). To Arthur will miss only a finger that to Charles was missing before departure, not to Arthur . And he will tell to suffer severe headaches and memory loss (but this is the truth). And psychiatrists will worry about  to convince him he is not Arthur but Charles. When he will be convinced of it, they let him go.
What a masterpiece! Arthur reached the summit and the longed-for economic happiness with a trick worthy of a brilliant mind. But he does not know that one of the psychiatrists speaks at a meeting of friends and acquaintances, and among they at least two are more doubtful than the others: a judge, and the Chief Police. Which is Appleby.
The story weaves in practice various levels of fiction: in the first person, and what is told by others, either. In the same way, in which in the poor mind destroyed by accident, the two personalities of the two brothers alternate. Poor Arthur is suffering about a split identity, a question relating to schizophrenia:  when he is in itself, it is Arthur must behave as if he were Charles; when his personality is subject to Charles, he knows him to be, but does not understand the rest. In short it is a situation disarming.
The poor (or rich, depending on your point of view) Arthur, begins to make the life of the Nawab. His misfortune, however, is to meet a day, the only person who should never meet: one of his servants, that have functions in the family home abnormal, going in the garden or in the house as needed, who helped him in more occasions when he (Arthur) was young, as when he, Arthur, had taken a cigar from the house of a wealthy landowner in his neighborhood.
The servant, who, in the hotel where Arthur is, performs the task of emptying ashtrays, recognizes a particular that no one so far had not noticed: the hair, which, unlike his brother, grew in their own way . The fact is that from that moment, Butter becomes a ball of foot, if not the true master of Arthur. Arthur promises to the hush money in exchange for ten thousand pounds, but Butter is not of the same opinion: he realized that he had caught the goose that lays golden eggs and does not want to pass up.
For a moment Arthur is also believed to kill him. This happens when by accident, in a pub on the pier, he is mistaken for another character, and learns that Butter is a criminal and he is in a bad situation: his accomplices, believing that he wants to betray them, they decided to kill him
Arthur thinks at first to play the game, and to provide them a way to kill him, so his problems will be solved. But at the last moment ... he decides to help Butter: he is not a murderer, despite Butter believes that he has killed his brother, and in doing so Arthur signed his life sentence. Here are comparing two persons: the villain, who manages to get away with it (Butter) and half a point (Arthur) that just can not be the villain that is Butter.
Butter convinces him to build the personality of the rich tycoon who does not want to have relations with the world andto return to his birthplace. It 'a big mistake. Because if the first he was just trying to unravel the network of companies and uncleaned businesses of Charles, fleeing creditors, taking refuge in a place like Brockholes, with the personality of Charles, he confronts himself with a reality not assumed: reality of many sexual adventures of Charles. As Arthur could not know "the ladies" friends of Charles, but as Charles they should become familiar.
Charles not only had fucked servings and maids, not only he made sex with "innocent girls" campaign of a desire to please the landowner, but also, by virtue of so much money he had, he had collected a series of adventures with ring and paid prostitutes by other board, with maintained women that they had replenished his book of playboy but he could not remember anything. Imagine how Arthur must feel, whom he had heard mention in the confessions of his brother, but that he had never met! The fact is that one day he meets a bitch, who, in turn, doesn’t recognizes him as his brother, despite the severed finger, by the way he had sex with her: another ball and chain.
It isn’t a Innes of first manner, but a novel of great charm, The Gay Phoenix, with a strong psychological tension, arising from the mastery by Innes, who plays with the infinite possibilities that imagination suggests. Furthermore, also here he inserts the theme of substitution of persons, which is one of ihis characteristics. This time he associates it with a split personality, which leaves banned until the end. It is a contortion, a scrambling that reminds me, in some ways, Cat and Mouse by Christianna Brand, in a situation which is known from the beginning, but then there for the duration of the book a grueling chase, and a continuous rollover situations, as in this case. At Innes's novel, however, there isn’t the murder: there is an accident, that people thinks to be murder, but it is not. At the end of the novel is feared the possibility that the disappearance of a person can be framed in a murder, but it is a possibility that fades as it appears.
Poised between “feuelliton” situations and adventure novel, The Gay Phoenix, seems to retrace the atmosphere of the novels of Henry Holt and Sax Rohmer, with the corollary of the characters and the whirlwind of adventures that surrounds the main action. In this novel has everything: the international bandwidth, fraud, impersonation, the split personality, a murder-incident, a double blackmail, embezzlement, investigation and solution to the wire, the bluff. In other words, situations, always to keep the tension high.
There are marked sexual connotations of the situations that the plot suggests, and especially in this mystery, sex acquires its meaning: if Charles had not collected casual encounters and relationships with high-class prostitutes and maintained, and he had not obsessed Arthur with the story of his amatory exploits, Arthur  would not have thrown caution to the wind and proposed to one of those "sluts", Perpetua Porter called "Pops," that ".. there are times when the facts are more urgent than words"; and if it were not this fuck, on the park’s grass, Pops would never have realized that Arthur was not Charles, as she accuses him, he should be very careful when he should go to bed with any kind of ladies who were friends of Charles. In practice, and to be frank, she strongly recommends him going  to make elsewhere these things. And before she had said it (sex)  had been quite nice but not as good as it was with Charles Povey.
In short it is as if she had stabbed him with a dagger, so his words were sharp, says Innes ".. studied with malice. To put it short, Charles had made her enjoy, not Arthur.
So, if Pops had never realized that Arthur was not Charles, there would be no subsequent blackmail Pops against Arthur.
And even more, if Charles had not collected sex with the girls in the village, no one would ever reproached alleged paternity to Arthur.
Furthermore there is also a certain connotation gay or better a connotation bisex: the sailboat on which it consumes the story is called The Gay Phoenix. It seems to me the title might suggest a certain value homosexual or bisexual by Arthur: when he make sex with women, doesn’t get great results and it is as if sex was something for him must be done to prove something (perhaps to himself or to others), rather than something he chooses to make. In this case, The Phoenix Gay would be nothing but an elegant way (refined in the choice of terms) with which Innes marks the latent homosexuality of Arthur: the phoenix is
​​a mythical bird that rises from its ashes, and in this case Charles rises from its ashes, in the person of Arthur. Arthur  is the Phoenix. His homosexuality mentioned in several parts of the story, his bad luck with women, it could also be derived from the reports it says he entertained when he was young with his servant Butter, which then recognizes him, and becomes, as Pops, his master.
Furthermore, the fact that Arthur becomes slave of both, voluntary (he could facilitate the murder of Butter by his former accomplices, but he does not, knowing that it will sign his sentence; he throws his arms, even better, we should say, between the legs, of Pops: doing so he gives himself unconsciously to his rule), it may give rise to the suspicion that he masochistically basically wants to be dominated. But, the fact then he circles in all ways to break free from their heavy yoke, and he will succeed at the end, could mean that only one, between the two figures that in him act, is passive, while the other is not it.

Pietro De Palma