As a rule, I’m not much of a date watcher and so I tend to miss anniversaries and the like unless someone points them out to me. Today’s post is a case in point; I hadn’t twigged it was the centenary of the birth of Edmund Crispin until someone mentioned it on Twitter (and I’m sorry I can’t remember who). So as I love the Gervase Fen books I thought it was a good time to dig out my collection and share my thoughts on this great detective and his author!!

Edmund Crispin was actually a pen-named, used by the composer (Robert) Bruce Montgomery; and under that name he was responsible for all manner of film scores including a number of ‘Carry On’ movies, as well as documentaries and thrillers. Alongside this he composed church music, operas and orchestral works, although little of this is available in recorded form, and in the main I think his musical work is very much overlooked. However, as an author he’s better remembered and his Gervase Fen Golden Age Crime novels are much loved by aficionados of the genre.

Crispin’s sleuth, Professor Gervase Fen of the fictional St. Christopher’s College, Oxford, appears in nine full-length mysteries and a number of short stories (the bulk of which are collected in two volumes). For reference, these are the titles:


The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944)
Holy Disorders (1945)
The Moving Toyshop (1946)
Swan Song (1947)
Love Lies Bleeding (1948)
Buried for Pleasure (1948)
Frequent Hearses (1950)
The Long Divorce (1951)
The Glimpses of the Moon (1977)

The short story collections are:

Beware of the Trains (1953)
Fen Country (1979)

I’ve read that there are at least two uncollected stories, but have alas never been able to track them down – one day, maybe! 😀

Montgomery himself had attended St. John’s College in Oxford in the 1940s, and amusingly plonks St. Christopher’s right next door to it in his books – it’s obviously a setting with which he’s familiar! At Oxford he was friends with Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Charles Williams (the Inkling responsible for some very wonderful and bizarre fictions). The latter was apparently responsible for urging Montgomery to write the Fen books after Bruce had been kept up all night, spellbound and absorbed, reading a John Dickson Carr novel – and certainly as Crispin he did allow locked-room elements to sneak into his mysteries!

Lovely Vintage Green Penguin Crispins…

Fen himself is a wonderfully entertaining and eccentric detective; erratic, prone to dashing off and tearing round Oxford at the drop of a hat, constantly exclaiming “Oh my paws and whiskers” and trying the patience of all around him, he’s a marvellous creation. His detection methods seem abstruse, but he generally gets to the solution and the books are always huge fun to read (and very, very funny). Darker elements creep in, themes of music and theatre often turn up, and the Oxford settings regularly used are lovely. Crispin certainly could write, too – there are some wonderfully atmospheric passages in his works and reading his books is always satisfying.

I first discovered Gervase Fen and his exploits back in my twenties, and if I recall correctly the first Crispin I read was “The Moving Toyshop”; I believe it’s considered his masterpiece, and if it isn’t, it should be. I went on to amass and read everything else which was available and I regularly return to his books (both “The Case of the Gilded Fly” and “Holy Disorders” have appeared on the Ramblings as lovely re-reads). It’s the wonderful mixture of character and setting and plot and humour which always gets me; and the books are littered with literary references which often have me literally laughing out loud. One particular favourite, which I mentioned in my post on “Holy Disorders”, revolves around a chapter riffing on Poe’s “The Raven” and it has me falling about every time I read it. Really, I shall have to re-read one of his books after having written this post!!

The back of a couple of my old Penguins with Crispin pix and interesting facts

Another aspect I adore about the Fen stories is Crispin’s regular breaking of the fourth wall; he often has Fen or other characters dropping in asides which makes it clear to the reader that the characters know they’re taking part in a fiction, and I think reading “The Moving Toyshop” was my first encounter with this trope. It’s always cleverly done and never fails to make me laugh!

Over the decades I’ve read many, many books and authors, including masses of crime novels; some I’ve loved but don’t need to return to, and some will stay with me all my days. The Gervase Fen stories fall into the latter category; they’d come with me to a desert island, because I would always be guaranteed an absorbing read and a good laugh – I love these books to bits. Crispin/Montgomery had a marvellously productive life, yet I haven’t noticed his centenary being particularly marked, which is a great shame. So happy 100th birthday to the creator of Gervase Fen (amongst many other achievements); here’s hoping his books continue to be read and loved, and if you enjoy Golden Age Crime, great writing and slapstick, I definitely encourage you to read Edmund Crispin’s books!