Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin

After wearing myself out with the #1977club, I was sorely in need of something a bit relaxing and comforting; and my go-to type of book in situations like that is always Golden Age crime. It’s not as if I don’t have plenty to choose from at the moment, but I was nudged in the direction of this collection of short stories by the excellent post at The Reader is Warned Blog.

I thought I had an interesting hardback version – alas, I have an old paperback with crispy pages…..

Edmund Crispin has been a long-time favourite of mine, and I’ve written about him on the Ramblings before. His detective stories, featuring the Oxford Don Gervase Fen as the sleuth, are gems: funny, entertaining, clever and readable, they often push the boundaries and break the fourth wall, which I love – early meta-detective fiction maybe! 🙂 I own, and have read, all of his books but it must be decades since I read this collection; and it seemed like the perfect thing to pick up at the moment.

And this is a particularly interesting collection, because the premise with all of these stories is that they are playing fair; i.e. in theory, the reader has all the information the detective has and should be able to solve the puzzle by him or herself! I must admit that I don’t mind being bamboozled – I quite enjoy the author pulling the wool over my eyes – but conversely I *do* quite like the odd occasion I work the plot out.

Anyway, as with most collections of short stories, it’s hard to know quite how much detail to go into; I think I’ll just mention a few of my favourites! The title story is a particularly striking one, which I believe has been anthologised, and the puzzle is the murder of a train driver with the culprit seemingly vanishing into thin air. A Pot of Paint seems breathtakingly simple when the solution to who murdered a householder painting his fence is revealed; but I challenge most readers to come up with the solution! The Name on the Window is a kind of locked room mystery concerning a body found in a summer house with only one way in or out and a single set of footprints which could not have been tampered with in any way. And in The Golden Mean, a short, sharp tale of a very nasty family member, Fen is rattled by meeting with a character who embodies pure evil.

Thinking about it, these tales (often quite brief) are all what you might call impossible crimes and the puzzle element is strong. However, Crispin’s writing is such a joy; I love the humour he laces his stories with, and he’s brilliant at conjuring atmosphere and character efficiently in works that are in many ways minimalist. Fen is often accompanied by Inspector Humbleby, who’s as much of a maverick in the police force as is Fen in the University establishment, and they make a perfect Holmes and Watson team with some wonderful repartee.

Intriguingly, the last two stories in the collection are ones which *don’t* feature Fen, and the final one, Deadlock, is a particularly dark and memorable tale. Despite Crispin’s surface levity with Fen and his various sidekicks, he’s not averse to tackling more downbeat settings or situations, and this tale, set on a remote kind of estuary, was very affecting. Unusually, the story is narrated from the viewpoint of a character who was a teenager at the time of the events; and it’s a little different in feel from Crispin’s more familiar Fen stories.

…the second porter, who was very old indeed … appeared to be temperamentally subject to that vehement, unfocussed rage which one associates with men who are trying to give up smoking.

One of the joys of reading Edmund Crispin, though, is the humour and the in-jokes, and there are plenty of these. The above description of a character from the title story is a perfect example of the kind of thing you get when reading a Fen story, and in another story Crispin manages to drop in reference to a fellow practitioner:

Gideon Fell once gave a very brilliant lecture on The Locked-Room Problem in connection with that business of the Hollow Man….

However, he’s also wonderful at capturing atmosphere and I make no apologies for quoting at length this paragraph that vividly brings to life post-Festival of Britain London:

The gathering darkness was accentuated by a fog which had appeared dispiritedly at about tea-time. Looking across the river, you could no longer make out the half-demolished Festival buildings on the far side; and although October was still young, the sooty trees on the Embankment had already surrendered their stoic green to the first spears of the cold, and there were few homekeeping folk hardy enough to resist the temptation of a fire. Presently, to a servile nation-wide juggling with clocks, Summer Time would officially end. In the meanwhile, it seemed that Nature’s edict had anticipated Parliament’s by a matter of several days; so that more than one belated office-worker, scurrying to catch his bus in Whitehall or the Strand, shivered a little and hunched his shoulders, as he met the cold vapour creeping into London from the Thames…

I’m so glad I chose to pick up this collection at this moment and refresh my love of Crispin and Fen. If I was recommending a book of theirs to start with, I would probably suggest “The Moving Toyshop”, which I think seems to be generally regarded as his masterpiece. However, if you want some short, fiendish and funny puzzles this is a great place to go. I have to agree with Dan at The Reader is Warned that Crispin is vastly underrated as a crime writer; if you have any interest in Golden Age crime (or indeed just good writing generally) you really should read him! 🙂