The Secret Vanguard

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 17 Jan 2018

Member Reviews

I don’t think you could accuse Michael Innes of being formulaic – each book of his that I’ve read has been entirely different from the last! This one, The Secret Vanguard, was published in 1940 and is the fifth in the Inspector Appleby series. It is set just before the beginning of World War II and is much more of a spy thriller than a detective novel. Our heroine, Sheila Grant, is on her way to Scotland to visit family when she overhears a conversation between some fellow passengers on the train, one of whom is reciting a poem by Swinburne. Sheila, who happens to be familiar with the poem, knows that it has been misquoted and can’t resist saying so – but when she is captured and held prisoner after disembarking from the train, she wishes she had said nothing. It seems that the misquoted poem contained a secret message and that Sheila is now in possession of information which could make her a threat to some very dangerous enemies.

It’s not long before Inspector John Appleby gets involved and begins to link Sheila’s abduction with the recent murder of a minor poet, Philip Ploss, and the disappearance of a scientist who has been working on a secret formula which could help the war effort. There are lots of twists and turns as Appleby tries to track Sheila and the missing chemist through the Scottish Highlands and Sheila tries to escape from her kidnappers, unsure of who she can and can’t trust. Although it’s all very melodramatic and unlikely, I did find it quite a fun, fast-paced read. However, the constant chase scenes, last-minute escapes and cases of mistaken identity became a bit tedious after a while. A good entry in the series, but not a great one.
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A classic revisited. Intrigue, spying and desperate chases across rural Scotland. Fantastic.
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A very atmospheric book, with Innes’s usual writing style.I enjoyed the plot to a certain extent, but felt that the tone jumped all over the place.  Enjoyed the other Appleby books more.
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What a rollicking adventure! It’s full of murder, kidnapping, chases, spies, shoot-outs, escapes, disguises, and rescues. Innes created a fine melodramatic, action-packed, completely unbelievable story. I finally decided that I would enjoy this as simply a pulp thriller and that helped me accept the crazy twists, and wild improbabilities. After a while, it got to be kind of fun just seeing how the author got his characters out of such improbable situations. [ By the end of the book, he had created so many spies he had to bring in the army and the air force to clean them up. But they only get their shot after our heroes rescue each other and the kidnapped scientist in fine dramatic style. Did I mention that it’s a bit melodramatic? (hide spoiler)]
What a boring, irritating, slow story! It’s full of long descriptive passages, literary references, poetry, psychological musings, and more literary references. I am still talking about the same book. After about the first quarter of the book the action starts to move a bit, but before that, it was so slow… I felt that to really understand what was going on, I would have had to be familiar with all of Sir Walter Scott’s works and numerous poets and painters. That stopped after a while, but the annoying digressions into musings continued throughout. That might be fine at the beginning, during the train ride, or over dinner; but as she runs through gunfire? For me, that sort of thing distracts from the action and plot and accounted for most of the parts I disliked. 
I enjoyed and didn’t enjoy parts in about equal measure, but the ending was wild enough to make me say I enjoyed the story. I don't know if I would ever be tempted by anything else Innes wrote though. 
Content warning…
There were a few passages that each had several curse words. There were a couple of side characters that did most of the swearing, so when they weren’t speaking it was quite clean. 
Early in the book, there is a mention of a dirty joke and one of the characters being in a situation in their past when someone ‘tried to make love to them’. There are no offensive details given. 
I received this book as a free ARC through NetGalley and Ipso Books. No favorable review was required.
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I enjoyed The Secret Vanguard very much. It’s the fifth in Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby series and is very different from the first one Death at the President’s Lodging, which I read several years ago, a book that had little action, much description and a lot of analysis.  Set in 1939 on the edge of war, The Secret Adversary is full of action, a story of spies, kidnapping and a race through the Scottish Highlands to save a scientist. It reminded me in the Highlands section of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps.

It begins with the murder of poet, Philip Ploss at his home in the Chilterns and Appleby is mystified wondering why anyone would have wanted to kill him. He had been shot in the middle of his forehead whilst in a gazebo with a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside.

It then moves to Sheila Grant, travelling by train to Scotland when she overhears a conversation about poetry as one of the passengers quotes from a poem by Swinburne. She thinks it is odd that he had added in four lines of his own and realises that the words were a sort of code that he was passing on. And, indeed this discovery leads her into danger but before she can alert anyone else she is captured and held prisoner, eventually escaping in a desperate search for assistance.

I liked all the twists and turns in this somewhat improbable story as Sheila, with much courage and luck scrapes through several dangerous escapades until Appleby comes to the rescue. I enjoyed the descriptions both of London and the Highlands as I raced through this book. I also really like Innes’ writing style, detailed, formal and scattered with frequent literary allusions and quotations. He has packed a lot into The Secret Vanguard.

My thanks to Ipso Books for a review copy via NetGalley.
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An Appleby mystery that contains but a wisp of Appleby and focuses, instead, on a 39 Steps/Rogue Male redux with a heartily annoying young woman whose knowledge of poetry and general toffee-nosed-ness gets her involved with some genuine nonsense in Scotland.  Look, one of the positives of a Michael Innes novel is that it eschews that formulaic but here he rather over steers into the skid. As such, we end up on on the other side with almost a parody of this type of novel rather than a work itself.  I recommend approaching this one as source material for an early Hitchcock and it gets better, if not by much.
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This was a good mystery novel but definitely not for everyone. I would say that it gives you a complex feel for the story and makes you feel like your actually in the book but some might find all that confusing. I did enjoy this one even though i had to stop a few times and reread parts to actually get what was going on.

AGAIN NOT FOR EVERYONE. Thanks NetGalley and everyone involved!!
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I enjoyed The Secret Vanguard very much.  It is a departure from Michael Innes's previous Appleby mysteries, which are extremely intricate, donnish puzzles; this is a 1939 tale of spies and kidnapping set largely in the Scottish Highlands and which has strong echoes of John Buchan in its plot and setting, but which preserves much of Innes's dry wit in the telling.

The death of a minor poet and an overheard conversation on a train lead to the discovery of a sinister plot (presumably by the Nazis, although this is never explicitly stated) to steal a vital chemical formula.  This develops into a lengthy chase story with plenty of close shaves and unexpected turns.  It's a hopelessly improbable romp with just sufficient plausibility to be an enjoyable and rather engrossing read.  In addition, Innes's characters are nicely done – the doughty young woman, the distracted but determined academic, and the great Appleby himself, among others – and he paints a good picture of remote Scotland.

As usual, the chief pleasure for me is in Innes's style and in his sometimes quite acute observations about people and social mores.  As a distinguished Professor of English, Innes expects his audience to be unfazed by references to Swinburne, for example, or exchanges like this about the murder victim, with no further explanation:
"He had been listening to Opus 131."
"Ah."
Innes rejoices in the use of quite recondite language – the words otiose, belletrist and crepuscular all occur in a single paragraph at one point, for example – which gives the narrative a wry, slightly ironic feel.  Personally, I find all this very entertaining, and if you feel the same way, I can recommend The Secret Vanguard as an amusing and surprisingly rewarding read.

(I received an ARC via Netgalley.)
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A somewhat interesting story. I love a good mystery but this one has some rather boring moments. Not one of the best of the Sir John Appleby series but definitely interesting.
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This is not a bad mystery but unfortunately it didn't age well and it shows the influx of the time when it was written.
It is more interesting as a documentation of a specific historical time than as a mystery.
Many thanks to Netgalley and Ipso Books
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I would blame it all on me, this time. I guess I picked up the wrong book. But it isn't often that I come across a blurb that promises something but the book itself doesn't deliver any of it. What I thought I was getting into was a good mystery that would keep me engrossed in the story but all I found was irrelevant topics, characters, instances and build-ups. It's one thing to read a complex mystery and another to read a confusing one. Evidently, this book was the latter. Except for a few bits here and there, nothing made sense to me--nothing, nada! I wouldn't call it my writing tastes differing because as far as I could grasp, the author's writing style was good enough, even though the descriptions might have well be cut-off. Then again, I wouldn't have mind if most of the story had been trimmed to get straight to the point. Anyway, I can feel this review getting out of hands and before putting in any more energy into this, I would wrap it up with simply asking those who like complicated mysteries to look for some positive reviews and analyze if it's good for you, and then pick it up. Don't read it on whim like I did.
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Thank you Netgalley for allowing me to read this book.  However I am sorry to say that I could not get into it, due to the ageing style.  It is a shame as I do not like "modern" novels any better and have read older style ones fairly recently, but this one defeated me.  Many apologies. I am sure it is a good book, just not for me.
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I had forgotten what rousingly good mysteries the “Appleby” books are!  Appleby himself takes second stage to the main characters, amateurs Stella Grant and Dick Evans, who get caught up in a nest of spies and with relatively minor help from the authorities (including Appleby himself), manage to bring down the baddies and rescue the valuable boffin.
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Who had J.I.M. Stewart been reading? That seems to me a secret of its own. Surely he had read E. Phillips Oppenheim, Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, some Buchan, Edgar Wallace, but not, perhaps, the more social police procedurals of John Creasey, under whichever pseudonym. Innes touched espionage from time to time, but in the early part of his career it was still a question of amateurs protecting Britain. The delicate bit was the interwar period in which war was coming, and coming ever closer, but not yet arriving. The Secret Vanguard leans toward Buchan, but it has at its heart an intelligent woman capable of holding her own against crowds of treacherous spies. She is on her way to relations in Scotland when distracted by poetry exchanges by two men in her carriage. It gnaws at her that two of the lines quoted don’t sound like Swynburne, and, after a while, she realises that it was code. Well, not every 24-year-old Scottish woman could do that. Not to mention her ability to read a compass.
	There’s a very sensible American, too, which was pretty daring at the time. But there’s no romance here, more the cliché of the scientist-to-be-kidnapped. I would quite like to think of Innes reading Eric Ambler, with that repeated man-who-walks-into-danger character. Oh, yes, of course there’s a puckish ending. Well, it’s less an ending than just a full stop. That’s what that generation became famous for: doing their duty, then shutting up.
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A collector's piece from 1940 that has plucky Brits pursued by rather incompetent Nazi spies... Given the time this was written, it's more propaganda of the Keep Calm and Carry On type than anything else. More enjoyable as social history than as a detective yarn.
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A number of fellow bloggers have been reading works by the mid-century novelist, Michael Innes recently, some more enthusiastic in their praise than others.  I haven’t really been in a position to join in the conversation as Innes was a name I knew but not a writer I had ever read, The Secret Vanguard, number five in the author’s series centred on Inspector Appleby of Scotland Yard, has helped to put that situation to rights.

The novel, now being favoured by a reprint, was first published in 1940 and the events are clearly contemporary as the action takes place just before the outbreak of World War II. When a young woman by the name of Sheila Grant goes missing as she journeys to stay with relatives in Scotland her disappearance is linked with the murder of a (very) minor poet with the wonderful name of Philip Ploss.  Both of them have apparently, although separately, had encounters with fellow travellers in dispute over the value of poetry during the course of which the works of a famous poet have been misquoted.  In the case of Sheila Grant she comments on this misquotation to the man who provoked the discussion and thus seals her fate for, unbeknownst to her, the ‘error’ has been deliberate, concealing within it a clue to the whereabouts of Rodney Orchard, the best chemist in the country and a man who might well hold the key to inventions vital to the war effort.

As an apparently high up civil servant comments,

In Germany his opposite numbers have a bodyguard and travel behind four-inch glass.  We don’t need all that - if a man has some sense.  Orchard has none - only genius.
Orchard has gone off on a walking trip somewhere in Scotland and a foreign force, which it appears is not only working for the enemy but which is also attempting to establish a permanent presence in British society, is out to find him and rob him of his work.

Ignorant of all but the oddity of the misquotation, but nevertheless seen as a threat by those who make up this silent vanguard, Sheila Grant is kidnapped.  Gallant British woman that she is, she manages to escape and much of the novel is taken up with her attempts to stay one step ahead of those who pursue her through some of the wildest and least inhabited parts of Scotland.  I have to say that during this section of the book my concentration and credulity began to be stretched.  There are only so many instances of narrow shaves, coincidentally placed means of escape and feats of ingenuity that I can take.  I am full of admiration for Miss Grant, I’m just not sure that her like ever really walked the earth, even in pre-War Britain.

You won’t need me to tell you that it all works out in the end.  Once a message is passed through to Inspector Appleby it is just a matter of time before the baddies are vanquished, our wandering genius is found and Miss Grant is returned to her concerned relatives.  With war on the horizon, I can’t promise you that they all lived happily ever after, but you end the book with the feeling that right has prevailed and a jolly good thing too.

Drawing on my limited experience, I suspect that the book is typical of its period, not only in its characters, its plot and its setting but also in its certainty of the ultimate supremacy of all things British, including the eccentricity of our geniuses. And, coming out, as it did, in the first year of the war, who would expect anything less?  It’s the crime novel equivalent of Olivier’s film of Henry V.  Despite appalling odds, the upper hand falls ultimately to the little guy, or in this case the intrepid young woman.  In terms of its appeal to me as a reader it proved to be a bit of a mixed bag.  Having read one or two modern novels recently where at times even the grammar was suspect, the quality of the prose was a delight. Innes always finds the exact word and he can turn a sentence beautifully.  However, the way in which the novel was plotted didn’t appeal so much.  As someone else has said recently, there is very little in the book about Appleby himself.  While not exactly a minor character, he certainly isn’t central to the action.  I prefer my detectives to take more of a lead role in the narrative and I also like to have more of an idea of who they are and what motivates them.  Apart from the fact that he is clearly a Jolly Good Chap and probably a Jolly Good Thing as well, Appleby remains something of a cipher.  I’m glad that I’ve read at least one of Innes’ novels, but I don’t think I shall be going back for more.  I suspect that they might all turn out to be much of a muchness and that even two would be just too much of a good thing.

With thanks to Netgalley for providing a copy of this book.
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