|Cover by John Sewell|
Nothing in this story is quite what it seems. As with the landscaped surrounds of Benison described in the passage quoted above, many things are simulated, affecting to be something they are not. The paintings hanging in Benison's Octagonal Hall and believed to be by Titian, for example, are actually modern reproductions. And at nearby Candleshoe, the decaying residence of an older but more impoverished branch of the same family, Miss Candleshoe and her private Chaplain Mr Armigel maintain the fiction that they rely upon a multitude of servants, when it is clear that they live virtually alone. Even their vacuity masks an acuteness they choose to keep hidden.
The fakery seems to extend even to the Christmas box, a marble monument built many years before by the master carver Gerard Christmas. Its dimensions suggest a hidden compartment, though the means of by which its secret chamber can be accessed has long since been forgotten. Old Miss Candleshoe and Mr Armigel assert that it conceals a priest's hole, but their young ward Jay Ray has a more romantic notion of its function. He chooses to believe that one of the earlier Candleshoes amassed a fortune through piracy, and that the Christmas box was built to preserve such ill-gotten wealth for more propitious times.
With this interplay between reality and pretence, the reader cannot be sure, for much of the story, if the narrative is concerned with a crime at all. Jay, who may be romantic or who may be paranoid, feels certain that thieves have learnt of the treasure concealed within Christmas's monument and will soon lay siege to his home, but there is always a possibility that this is simply a figment of his imagination. And if so, he is playing a potentially deadly game, for Jay has organised the local children into a defensive force, arming them with the various outdated weapons which are scattered about the ancient building. Jay intends to defend Candlehoe, whatever the cost may be.
But he also intends to defend it from every conceivable threat, and it is not only the possibly-imagined thieves which concern him. He is also wary of the threat posed by the uninvited visit of Mrs Feather, a wealthy American, and by her cheque book and her sense of destiny. She looks upon the mouldering Candleshoe as her own special discovery, and she is keen to encourage old Miss Candleshoe to part with it. It is perhaps ironic that the thieves are only able to breach Jay's well-prepared defences because of the actions of Mrs Feather.
This is the second Michael Innes book I have read which does not feature Appleby, and what struck me most was how similar it was to the other, Old Hall, New Hall. The plots may be different, but the structures and concerns are very similar, so that it could almost seem as though they had both been written to a recipe. Each book begins and ends in the present, but features a middle section which quotes passages from a diary written hundreds of years before. The diary entries explain the mystery, which in each case features ancestors behaving worse than they should have. Two branches of a family, one in tighter straits than the other- now oppose each other in laying claim to a treasure squirrelled away all those years ago. And underpinning both stories is the question of what should be the fate of old buildings which have become anachronisms, with no function in the modern world.
I haven't watched the Disney film Candleshoe, but judging by the synopsis provided by Wikipedia, it seems to have only the vaguest similarities with the book on which it was based.
First published by Gollancz 1953. Published in Penguin Books 1961.
By the same author:
Penguin no. 1286: Death at the President's Lodgings
Penguin no. 1299: Stop Press
Penguin no. 1576: Appleby Plays Chicken
Penguin no. 1577: Appleby on Ararat
Penguin no. 1578: The Weight of the Evidence
Penguin no. 1640: Hamlet Revenge!
Penguin no. 1641: Old Hall, New Hall
Penguin no. 2080: Silence Observed
Penguin no. 2201: Hare Sitting Up
And as J.I.M. Stewart:
Penguin no. 1960: A Use of Riches
Penguin no. 2037: The Man Who Won the Pools
Penguin no 2533: The Last Tresilians