"By noon the local papers had their posters on the streets — and in no other town would they have read as discreetly as they did: Sudden Death of the President of St Anthony’s. For in the papers themselves the fact was stated: Dr Umpleby had been shot — it was suspected deliberately and by an unknown hand.”

This welcome compliment to the Oxford press comes in an early chapter of Michael Innes’s Death at the President’s Lodging. Specifically, I suppose, the compliment relates to the Oxford Mail rather than The Oxford Times, the bills having more likely been put up by the daily paper. Founded in 1928, the newspaper was in its infancy when Innes published this novel, the first to feature his elegant sleuth Inspector John Appleby. At the time (1935) Innes — in real life Dr J.I.M. Stewart — was working as a professor of English at the University of Adelaide. He completed the book during the voyage to Australia, nostalgically recalling in it the Oxford he had known as an undergraduate at Oriel College ten years before.

Discussing the novel in his autobiography Myself and Michael Innes, published in 1987, he wrote: “Taking the book from the shelf and rereading it now for the first time since its composition (an experience strange in itself), I am chiefly struck by the sheer hard work that must have gone into slogging out an orthodox and extremely intricate plot.”

(Its intricacy amazed me, too; and I was lost in its confusions way before the end.) Stewart continued: “There are other elements designed to have a different appeal: dons talk donnishly, and undergraduates are routinely high-spirited. But the nub of the thing is the clues and where they lead to.”

To the modern reader, the city he describes is very different from the one we know and love today. This is especially the case where the roads are concerned. One forgets these days, when virtually all through traffic passes east and west of the city, how it was before the bypasses were built.

As Innes notes: “By night the place becomes an artery only: regularly, remorselessly, with just enough interval to allow uneasy expectation, the heavy night-travelling lorries and pantechnicons of modern commerce rumble and thunder through the town. And day and night as the ceaseless stream goes by, the grey and fretted stone, sweeping in its gentle curve from bridge to bridge, shudders and breathes, as if at the stroke of a great hammer upon the earth.”

Innes/Stewart was to know in later years the Oxford transformed by the expulsion of through traffic. From 1949, he returned as Christ Church’s English fellow — ‘Student’, in the quaint language of the House. He remained in post till 1973, allowing him to witness the not entirely happy return of its famous alumnus W.H. Auden.

That Stewart belonged to a different age of literature is evident from the fact that he was present in Westminster Abbey on January 16, 1928, for the burial of the cremated remains of most of Thomas Hardy. His heart was set aside for burial among other Hardys in the churchyard at Stinsford in Dorset, though it is widely believed to have been eaten by the family cat. Present were J.M. Barrie, John Galsworthy, A.E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling and Bernard Shaw and, from the world of politics, both Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald.

In a letter to Stewart, the poet Philip Larkin expressed his amazement that he was old enough to have been there. A few months later, in February 1986, Stewart was back at the abbey — for Larkin’s memorial service.

Bernard Richards, who later became English fellow at Brasenose College, was a junior fellow under Stewart at Christ Church. He was able to tell me a number of amusing stories concerning him

“I can still hear him in a lecture telling us that ‘Virginia Woolf was under the misapprehension that Old St. Paul’s had a dome and that you opened champagne bottles with a cork-screw’. He was always very kind to me. I remember him once correcting me. I pronounced the title of George Meredith’s novel as Bowchamp’s Career. ‘Beecham’s Bernard, as in the pill.’ Quite right.

“At Christ Church the butler Cyril Little had a wedding anniversary, and Roy Harrod, as curator of Common Room, wanted him to come in during the evening so that the Fellows could congratulate him. Stewart said that he thought that ‘Little might, with more propriety, reside within the bosom of his family’ during that evening. A friend and I spent a lot of time imitating this precious remark.

"He used to tell the story of  a lecturer with a wooden leg. One day a colleague of  his went to hear his lecture. When he arrived he found there was no one else there. He heard the wooden leg stumping along the corridor, and decided to beat a hasty retreat before the  lecturer arrived. Later in the day he met the lecturer, and told him he had very much enjoyed the lecture. 'Oh, were you there? But then, impossible to distinguish one face in a sea of  faces.' Good, eh? It would be nice to retrieve the name of   the lecturer . . .

"JIMS always used to call the First World War 'the Kaiser's War'. I suppose a certain number of  people did then. He once came back to my room for coffee after dinner, and was much shocked that I was offering him instant coffee instead of  some concoction made in the kind of  globes and retorts alchemists use. 'I shall have to revise my view of  your persona.'

"Stewart was once on a plane, and noticed, while they were sitting in the runway, that some vital piece of the wing had fallen off. He spent a long time wondering whether he should inform the stewardess. Finally he did. 'And then they served champange, which they always resorted to in emergencies.'"

While Stewart’s prolific pen created shedloads of detective stories under the Innes brand, he also published as J.I.M. Stewart more serious works of fiction. This included his five-novel sequence A Staircase in Surrey — an entertaining portrait of Oxford University life — which I read with great enjoyment as they were appearing in the mid-1970s. Intending to revisit their pleasures, I was dismayed to find only three of them still on my shelves. An Internet search, however, resulted in the happy discovery that the books were all republished last year by House of Stratus. This Cornish-based company is in the process of producing the entire 32-strong Stewart oeuvre (with the single exception of his volume on modern writers for the Oxford History of English Literature). The 46 Innes books are already out from Stratus.

David Lane, the firm’s boss, tells me: “We greatly admire his writing for its wit, plots and literary quality. We go in for quality work, not supermarket best-sellers. The Innes mysteries have always done well, but the Stewart books were out of print for many years and it’s taking time to get them back up there. But they are starting to sell very nicely, especially A Staircase in Surrey.”

The books, he says, are a neat fit with C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers sequence, dealing with academic life in ‘the other place’, which Stratus also publishes. I am sorry to see, though, that the Stewart books do not appear to be stocked at Blackwell’s. This is a great pity, for their appeal to the local readership can hardly be doubted.