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Edmund Crispin and Gervase Fen – a coda!

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Last month I spent some time with Edmund Crispin and his marvellous detective Gervase Fen, revisiting the wonderful book “The Moving Toyshop”. I lamented the fact that there are some of Crispin’s shorter works uncollected, and several really helpful comments alerted me to the fact that a Fen novella “The Hours of Darkness” had been finally printed in a collection, “Bodies from the Library 2” in 2019 – many thanks to Words and Peace for pointing me in its direction! 😀

Now, I’m a sucker for Fen stories as you might have guessed, and so I was very excited about this discovery; and despite it being digital reading, which I usually hate, I picked up as soon as I could. “The Hours of Darkness” is set at a country house party, and opens with two young people being rather fed up with a game of hide and seek which is going on. However, the discovery of a dead body – one of the house guests who’s found strangled and blood-soaked – soon puts an end to the celebrations. Fortunately, 15 miles away at the home of Professor Fen, a children’s party is taking place and the host is happy for any excuse to get away from building a Meccano crane; so when he’s called away to investigate the murder he exits post-haste in Lily Christine III, leaving Professor Wilkes happily telling lurid fairy-tales to the children and his long-suffering wife trying to sooth everyone down. At the country house, Rydalls, he finds a motley group of guests and evidence of a very nasty murder. The professor’s investigation reveals a killing with roots in a past case and a really vicious culprit whose evil nature even seems to affect Fen’s mood. It’s really quite a dark story.

“Oh, my fur and whiskers,” Fen exclaimed. He generally had recourse to the White Rabbit in moments of high excitement.

Well, this was such a treat. To have an unread Fen novella was unexpected and very wonderful. Crispin is fine form and Fen makes his way through the detecting in his usual idiosyncratic manner, singing carols badly up to the point where the local inspector has to object as “This persistent carolling was evidently fraying his nerves” (I’m sure it would anybody’s!!) The fourth wall is broken too: “…Crispin is proposing to write the case up. I suppose I shall have to get in touch with him about it – poor old chap, he gets terribly muddled…” The cast of characters are amusing too, with the women generally having the upper hand; the plot is devious and twisty; and as so often, Crispin manages to create quite a frisson of danger and horror. I really can’t understand why this story wasn’t collected before. According to the ISFDB, the story was first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1975, so a few years before the author’s death. Whether it was written at that time or earlier, I don’t know (though the quote above hints at it being a later work), but I thought it was an impressive and enjoyable story and I’m so glad to have had the chance to read it! Thanks Words and Peace and of course the editor and publishers of “Bodies from the Library” – let’s hope more uncollected Crispin turns up soon!

Celebrating 100 years of Gervase Fen’s creator…. #edmundcrispin #classiccrime

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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:

Novels:

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!

#1944club – The pure genius of Edmund Crispin

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The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin

Yes, I *do* possess three copies of this book…

That might seem like a hyperbolic heading, but I’ve read and returned to the work of Edmund Crispin many times over the years; each time I’ve become more convinced of that genius and it’s a statement by which I’m prepared to stand! 🙂 I’ve written about his work on the Ramblings before – back in 2012 I revisited one of his novels, and more recently some of his shorter works earlier this year; however, the fact that his first novel “The Case of the Gilded Fly” was published in 1944 gave me the perfect excuse to pick up another Crispin and wallow in the glory of his writing…

‘I’m a very good detective myself… in fact I’m the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction.’

Crispin’s real name was Bruce Montgomery (he adopted his pseudonym from a character in Michael Innes’s book Hamlet, Revenge!); and under that name he was a successful musician and composer, producing everything from choral works to themes and scores for the Carry On films amongst others. He also wrote many film screenplays; but to my mind his greatest achievement was the creation of his detective, Gervase Fen.

Fen (who merits his own Wikipedia page) is an unlikely detective; an Oxford don, often described as lanky, cheerful and ruddy faced with some rather recalcitrant hair, he has a wife Dolly and son John, and when we make his first acquaintance in this book he’s already established as something of a sleuth. As Professor of English Language and Literature at the fictional St. Christopher’s College you would think he had enough to do; but his eternally restless mind seems unable to leave an unsolved mystery alone (he’s often lumbered with impossible or locked room crimes), and “Gilded Fly…” does seem essentially insoluble….

Although published in 1944, the book is set in 1940, and playwright Robert Warner has decided to launch his new work in repertory in Oxford rather than on the London stage. So he and an assorted cast of characters (both from his play and in the book!) decamp to the university city bringing with them all their dramas and issues. Central to the anguish is Yseut Haskell, a sulky, self-obsessed nasty piece of work attempting to make her way as an actress. Yseut causes havoc all around her, particularly involving a young organist who’s in love with her, the women in love with *him*, Warner himself who’d had a previous fling with Yseut, Warner’s mistress Rachel Ward – well, you get the picture. The situation is volatile, to say the least….

Needless to say, Yseut is murdered and in a fashion that makes it seem to be a real locked-room style mystery. No-one can have got into the room. No-one can have got close enough to have shot her without her knowing. There is no weapon. So who did it, how and why? (The latter may seem to be the simplest one to answer, but any number of the characters had a very good motive to put Yseut out of action, so the final solution is actually ingenious).

‘There are only a few relevant questions to be asked, and the whole thing’s over. Yet they have to be submerged in a mass of irrelevant – stuff.’ He pronounced the word with a disgust intensified by his inability to think of a better one. ‘That’s all very well in a detective novel,. where it has to be put in to camouflage the significant things…’

Fen, of course, works out how it was done and why whom quite early on, but has no real proof and so he therefore spends much of the book annoying the rest of the characters! There is also plenty of moral agitation about whether he should actually intervene when the police have decided it was suicide, since Yseut was nothing but bad. Complications abound in the form of a ghostly legend; Fen spars with the local Chief Superintendent, Sir Richard Freeman, who is as much inclined to be a literary critic as Fen is a detective; various characters fall in and out of love; an ancient and deaf don called Wilkes (who will turn up in later books) provides light relief; and the whole book is a glorious, funny, clever, scary and thought-provoking work. As you can tell, I loved it…!

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

I could say so much about the skill of Crispin’s writing; the opening chapter alone offers a masterclass example of how to start a crime novel, with a sequence of paragraphs introducing each of the characters as they travel by train to Oxford. The setting is of course important, and brilliantly conjured; and the book is laced with humour, so much so that I was regularly laughing out loud because it was so very, very funny. There is a surprising frankness in the book (although not in the graphic sense) in the discussion of sex as a motivating factor and an honesty in dealing with love affairs, and this may be because the book was written and published during WW2 when peacetime morality and restrictions were known to have loosened. As a consequence, there’s a darkness in the story, from the events of the ghost story to the motivations and emotions of the various characters. There’s also the bizarre in a very funny, yet alarming cameo appearance of an enclosure of monkeys – about which I will say no more. You just have to read this!

The book bristles with literary allusions; and one of the things I love most about the Fen books is the way Crispin plays with the reader and the genre. He’s notorious for his in jokes and for regularly breaking the fourth wall; an early reference to a bored young pianist called Bruce in the orchestra pit of the theatre is surely a self-deprecating acknowledgement of Crispin’s other career; and Fen’s exclamation of “Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy; I should never hear the end of it” is a knowing nod to the king of locked room mysteries. I could of course pick out many more!

Every time I return to the Gervase Fen stories I realise why I was so bowled over when I first read them; and I think that I really should sit down and read them all again. It’s hard to believe “Gilded Fly…” was the first, as Fen springs onto the page so fully formed you have to remind yourself he’s only making his debut. I’m so glad the #1944Club sent me back to Crispin’s work; and as this book is the first in the series, I’m awfully tempted to make a winter project of re-reading all of his books in order…. 😉

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As an aside, when digging in the stacks to find my Crispins, I realised that I actually possess three copies of “Gilded Fly…” (as you can see in the photo at the top of this post). The old Penguin I’ve had for decades (like all of my old Crispin Penguins). And it’s an intriguing edition as it claims to have been published in 1937 not 1944 as the other versions do – which is patently impossible as there wasn’t a war yet in 1937….

Anyway, as you can see from my pile of Crispins I have all of his works, and the two modern “Gilded Fly…” editions may have to go (one came from ex library stock and one was gifted by BFF J. at some point). I may give these away if anyone is interested enough – give me a shout! 🙂

But anyway – I have no excuse not to re-read, now do I???

Cryptic challenges

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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! 🙂

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