(Creator: Edmund Crispin)
Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, is in his early forties when we first meet him. He is a lean, lanky, eccentric, highly literate, very intelligent, witty, demanding, wayward, but also a perverse character, given to sudden enthusiasms and possibly "a bit cracked". He has "blue eyes and brown hair ineffectually plastered down with water ... There was something extraordinarily school-boyish about Gervase Fen. Cherubic. naive, volatile, and entirely delightful, he wandered the earth taking a genuine interest in things and people unfamiliar ... He was a man who lived almost entirely in the present". Like his author, he is easily bored and mentally restless.
He also fancies himself as a detective, and has immense confidence in his own abilities. His personality is "large and overwhelming". He is also highly entertaining, as are the books in which he appears. When really shocked, he is given to quoting Alice in Wonderland: "Oh my fur and whiskers!". He'd "say anything for the sake of an effect", and is well aware that all his exploits are being recorded by Crispin for posterity. He has a wife (who only appears in one book) and children who only get the briefest mention. He was partly based on W G Moore, a don at St John's College, Oxford.
Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym of (Robert) Bruce Montgomery (1921-1978). His first crime novel and musical composition were both accepted for publication while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford. After a brief spell of teaching, he became a full-time writer and composer (particularly of film music. He wrote the music for six of the Carry On films. But he was also well known for his cpncert and church music). He also edited science fiction anthologies, and became a regular crime fiction reviewer for The Sunday Times. His friends included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Agatha Christie.
He had always been a heavy drinker and, unfortunately, there was a long gap in his writing during a time when he was suffering from alcohol problems. Otherwise he enjoyed a quiet life (enlivened by music, reading, church-going and bridge) in Totnes, a quiet corner of Devon, where he resisted all attempts to develop or exploit the district, visiting London as little as possible. He moved to a new house he had built at Week, a hamlet near near Dartington, in 1964, then, late in life, married his secretary Ann in 1976, just two years before he died from alcohol related problems. His music was composed using his real name, Bruce Montgomery.
The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944. US title: Obsequies at Oxford)
It all begins with an amusing account of the main characters travelling with difficulty on the slow train from London to Oxford. One of them was Nigel Blake, a young journalist back to spend part of his fortnight's holiday at his old university town. Another was Professor Gervase Fen: "At no time a patient man, the delays drove him to distraction... he began to invent imaginary crimes and solve them with unbelievable rapidity". Unfortunately, when real crimes start to occur, it takes him a lot longer. However, Sir Richard Freeman, Chief Constable of Oxford, welcomes his help, as they were old friends, "Sir Richard's chief interest being English literature, and Fen's police work". As he tells the long-suffering Sir Richard, " Good literary critics ... are always good detectives. I'm a very good detective myself," he concluded modestly. "In fact, I'm the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction".
Fen enjoys meeting the actors as he'd "always had a naive enthusiasm for the celebrated". Confronted with murder, he drops his "excessively irritating form of boisterous gaiety". But the actors aren't really all that interesting, and the plot begins to get rather tiresome. "I'm getting very bored with all this," interposed Fen suddenly. "I shall go away if it continues. We have completely lost the point in a maze of routine investigation " and "in a mass of irrelevant stuff ... That's all very well in a detective novel, where it has to be put in to camouflage the significant things - though I must say I think some more entertaining form of camouflage might be devised -". Then Sir Richard interrupted him, "Really, Gervase: if there's anything I profoundly dislike, it is the sort of detective story in which one of the characters propounds views on how detective stories should be written." (This sort of in-joking is fun but makes it even more difficult to get involved in following the intricacies of who was where and when.) Fen doesn't believe in letting the reader into his confidence: "Mystification, again," complains Sir Richard. "I know: It can't come out till the last chapter."
A problem facing all crime writers, when characters are interviewed, is how to do it without repeating a lot of information that the reader already knows. Crispin has his own highly original way of solving this one. He simply says "Nigel told his story", with a footnote below explaining: Nigel Blake's account was a shortened version of that given in Chapters 2-4.
The book ends with Fen and Nigel seeing a performance of King Lear. "There's been too much Shakespeare in this case already," said Fen gloomily."Too much Shakespeare." Fen repeated, as though fascinated with the phrase. "I'm preparing a new anthology Awful lines from Shakespeare. 'Alas, poor Gloster? Lost he his other eye?' will have pride of place." The book only works really well when, as here, Fen himself is present.
Holy Disorders (1945)
Vintner himself is attacked three times before he ever gets to Tolnbridge, and soon meets surprising characters, including Justinian Peace, a psycho-analyst who's losing faith in the existence of the unconscious. As he says, "It's as impossible as a vegetarian butcher ... And when you come to think of it, isn't psycho-analysis silly? Anything can mean anything, you know."
At one point, much to Fen's disgust, it is decided that Scotland Yard must be brought in, and there's talk of them sending down one of their best men, Appleby (see my Appleby page. The pseudonym Edmund Crispin is actually taken from a character in one of the Appleby books.). The books are full of in-jokes like this. When Fen is asked why he describes a special sort of knot as a "Hook. line and sinker", he replies placidly, "Because the reader has to swallow it". Then there's a footnote below: This is outrageous - tantamount to accusing me of invention. The knot does of course exist, is known as the sheet bend, and is much used in climbing. - E.C. Then at the end, when the arch-criminal threatens Fen with "We shall be obliged to dispose of you", Fen replies, with a touch of acerbity. "Do talk English, and try to stop imagining you're in a book."
Fen, of course, won't let Geoffrey (or us) into his confidence. "I know this stage," put in Geoffrey. "You tell us you know who the murderer is, we ask you, and you won't inform us, though there's no reason in heaven or earth why you shouldn't". "Of course there's a reason why I shouldn't." "What is it?" "Because," said Fen solemnly, "you did it yourself." "Oh, don't be so daft," "All right, I know you didn't." But he's not yet letting on who did.
There's a lovely moment when "a gruff, hairy, little old man put his head over the hedge. Fen recognises him as the Regius Professor of Mathematics on holiday. "Don't you know me, you stupid old man?" said Fen irritably. "Yes, I know you," said the head. "You are the New College buttery boy." However he insists on accompanying them to a pub, helps them with a number problem, and then Fen is kidnapped. They set off to look for him, "leaving the Regius Professor of Mathematics drinking gravely and peacably on his own. and never saw or heard of him again." It's all quite crazy.
The story is dated, of course (at one points a clergyman spanks his 15 year old daughter, with no comment from the author - but admittedly later on it turns out that she is a witch), but it's full of wit and invention. "What a pity," said the police inspector with heavy irony, 'that you've nothing more to find out. You must tell me when you make an arrest, "Ah," Fen was pensive. "There's the rub. Means, motive, opportunity all settled. The only trouble is that I haven't at the moment the least idea who did it". He almost ends up as a corpse in a gas-filled room. In fact, the police have to shut down the complete gas supply of the whole district to save him. "That's one reason." says Fen, "why I hope this affair won't go into the Chronicles of Crispin." Then there's a final footnote: Vain hope. - E.C.
The Moving Toyshop (1946)
The long arm of coincidence stretches far: at one point Fen and Cadogan are sitting in a cafe. "What do we do now?" asks Cadogan, "I think we seek out Miss Alice Winkworth (a suspect they haven't yet found). A woman sitting at a nearby table got up and came over to them. "You mentioned my name?" she said.
But what really matters isn't the story; it's the humor, as when Fen and Cadogan pursue a suspect, hacking their way in and out of musicians of the Handel Society as they rehearse: "The second horn, a sandy, undersized man, went quite out of tune in indignation. Brahms thundered and trumpeted about their ears. "Blindly," the chorus roared, "blindly from one dread hour to another". They knocked over the music stand of the tympanist, sweating with the effort of counting bars, so that he failed to come in at his last entry". And that's only the beginning. There's an equally comic hunt through a cinema later on.
"Fen steps in,"said Fen. "The Return of Fen. A Don Dares Death (A Gervase Fen Story) .... Murder Stalks the University. The Blood on the Mortarboard. Fen Strikes back." "What's that you're saying?" asked Cadogan (who had almost been suffocated by one of the villains and was only slowly recovering). "My dear fellow, are you all right? I was making up titles for Crispin".
A little later, Cadogan and Fen are pursuing a suspect and have to decide whether to turn left or right when they reach a fork in the road, "Let's go left," Cadogan suggested, "After all, Gollancz is publishing this book." (Of course, it helps if you know that Gollancz was a celebrated left-wing publisher.)
There's even a mention of an undergraduate called Larkin whom Fen describes as "the most indefatigable searcher-out of pointless correrspondences the world has ever known". It is no coincidence that the book is dedicated to the poet Philip Larkin.
It's all very amusing and, as usual, full of literary references, but just at times there's more to it than that. Faced with a sudden death ("a thrust into unimagined and and illimitable darkness"), the poet Cadogan is brought short: "Something took root in him that in a week, a month, a year perhaps, would become poetry. The words of his predecessors in the Great Art came to his mind: 'They are all gone into the world of light.' ... 'Dust hath closed Helen's eye...' The vast and terrifying significance of death closed round him for a moment like the petals of a dark flower". Yes, Crispin can write, and this is often claimed to be his best book.
Swan Song (1947. US title: Dead and Dumb)
Then there is "a minor hitch over positioning" on the stage during a rehearsal and a lead singer and the inexperienced young conductor are soon at each other's throats. "Although it was an eruption which everyone had expected, the embarrassment was general, since the sight of two grown-up men bawling at one another like children is at the best of times dispiriting". Then the conductor "stalked out, after smashing his baton on the conductor's desk in an access of blind fury". Eventually the singer is found hanging from a rope. The police are sure it must be suicide.
Gervase Fen thinks differently, but it's not until the end of the book that he realises just what really happened. His age, by the way, in this post-World War II story, is given as 42. Yet he was "about 40 years of age" in the pre-war The Moving Toyshop. But I don't suppose Crispin was too worried about inconsistencies of this sort.
Another amusing character who reappears from previous books is Wilkes. Fen describes him as "a deaf and very aged colleague of mine at St Christopher's. And he's dishonest," said Fen aggrievedly. "He steals my whisky". "You don't seem to realise how difficult it is to get," complains Fen . "It isn't difficult to get," Wilkes pointed out, "when one has access to your rooms". "You must put it back at once, Wilkes". "Can't hear you." "I said thief." "Yes," said Wilkes thoughtfully, "The wind's bitter. I shouldn't be surprised if we had a heavy fall of snow."
As mentioned elsewhere, Crispin doesn't waste time telling us what we already know. Here he simply covers it by saying, "She went on to narrate, in detail, the events of the afternoon". If only some other crime-writers had learnt to be as economical.
The book starts with a brief but interesting introduction to Crispin by Michael Innes. Amongst the points he makes is that "It is never easy to render plausible the acceptance of a meddlesome private investigator by a group of professional policemen standing round a corpse". But Crispin "solved this credibility problem with a beautiful simplicity": he made Fen a close personal friend of the Chief Constable of Oxford.
Love Lies Bleeding (1948)
What comedy there is, is more restrained than usual, but I liked the middle-aged master who approached Fen on Speech Day: "I am Etherage. He took Fen's hand and then dropped it suddenly.."I'm very pleased to meet you," he went on. "Your boy is doing splendidly. I have great hopes for him." Then off he goes to meet another couple with just the same words.
Instead Fen gets himself involved in solving the mystery of murders of two schoolmasters, and a girl's disappearance, and there's even the discovery of a long-lost possible Shakesperian play. "Murder's a bit outside my usual province," the local police superintendent had told him. "So if you'd like to lend a hand, sir, your experience would be most valuable". But it all gets too prolonged. It is significant that Crispin eventually takes as many as 30 pages to describe in rather tedious detail all that Fen has worked out.
Right at the end Fen threatens the headmaster, "I can finish telling you about the plot of my detective novel (It's all about a beautiful girl shivering by the fire on a dark and stormy November night in the Catskill Mountains). The headmaster groaned. "Oh Gervase," he said, "if you must write a detective story - and far too many dons write them as it is - why not use the events of this weekend?" Fen waved the suggestion aside. "My dear fellow, no one could possibly make a detective story out of them ... Now this girl in the Catskill Mountains, you see ..."
Buried for Pleasure (1948)
He soon comes across a naked man, possibly an escaped lunatic, and discusses his possible identity with the locals at the pub where he is staying. "'E must hav'a bin a exhibitor," someone volunteered. "People as goes about showing thesselves in the altogether is called exhibitors".
Then there is MrJudd, whom Fen heard calling out "Bang, bang, bang" before seeing him throw an old revolver, attached to a piece of string into a pond, then retrieve it again. Then shouldering an imaginary burden, he staggered to the edge of the field. When he saw that Fen was watching him, "I'm not mad'" he said. "No, no," Fen assured him. "I never had any doubt about what you were doing. But I imagine few detective novelists can be as scrupulous." "One's plots are necessarily improbable," the man said a trifle didactically, "but I believe in making sure that they are not impossible." Fen said he supposed it also helped him to get into the mind of the murderer. "An expression of mild repugnance appeared on the man's face. 'No,' he said, 'it doesn't do that ... the fact is that I have no interest in the minds of murderers, or for that matter,' he added rather wildly, 'in the minds of anyone else. Characterisation seems to me a very overrated element in fiction. I can never see why one should be obliged to have any of it at all, if one doesn't want to. It limits the form so.' Fen agreed with no special conviction that it did, and particularly in the case of detective novels. 'I read a good many of them,' he said, 'and I must know yours'." Judd explained in some embarrassment, that he wrote under the name of Annette de la Tour. "Ah yes," said Fen. "Annette de la Tour's books were complicated, lurid and splendidly melodramatic, And certainly they made no concession to the Baal of characterization. He said, 'Your work has given me a great deal of pleasure, Mr Judd.' 'Has it?' said Mr Judd eagerly. 'Has it really? I've been writing for twenty years, and no one has ever said anything like that to me before. My dear fellow, I'm so grateful' ".
Another unusual character is Captain Watkyn, Fen's political agent, who explains to him why he had to rewrite his election leaflets. "You see, old boy, it's no use trying to stray away from the usual Independent line ... just Judging Every Issue on its Own Merits: Freedom from the Party Caucus; that sort of thing." "But look here," said Fen. "This says I advocate the abolition of capital punishment, and really, you know, I'm not at all sure that I do." "My dear sir, it doesn't matter whether you do or not," said Captain Watkyn with candour. "You must rid yourself of the idea that you have to try and implement any of these promises once you're actually elected." It turns out that Fen has no problem mouthing platitudes ("the command of cliche," Fen points out. "comes of having had a literary training"). "Then we're in the money," said Captain Watkyn. "Here, we must have another drink on that."
It seems that as the other two candidates can hardly put two words together, Fen is in with a real chance. In fact, he has "a growing fear that he might actually be elected". But then an undercover policeman gets murdered, and Fen has other things to think about. Also his loudspeaker van never seems to work. "VOTE FOR FEN'" it said. "THE CANDIDATE WHO is this ruddy thing still working old boy well what were you making faces for then oh I see WHO WILL PROTECT YOUR INTEREST AGAINST CLASS DISCRIMINATION AND FACTIONAL STRIFE BY WHICH I MEAN THE LABOUR AND CONSERVATIVE GANGS."
In the end, Fen, tiring of the whole parliamentary business, makes a speech telling the electors how stupid they are. He admits to them, "For some days past I have been regaling the electorate with projects and ideas so incomparably idiotic as to be, I flatter myself, something of a tour de force". but. to his dismay, even this only increases his appeal. He ends up by winning the election by one vote - but then is happy to be disqualified. It's all makes an amusing, if unconvincing, parody of the electoral process, but not a very gripping detective story.
The murder is eventually solved, but only after page after page of explanation, so it's not really one of Crispin's best stories.
Frequent Hearses (1950. US title: Sudden Vengeance)
It all starts with Fen on his way to the studios (to provide expert advice on the poet Pope who was to be the subject of a new film) and being overtaken by his old acquaintance, Inspector Humbleby of Scotland Yard, whom he'd met at Sandford just under two years before. He is coming to investigate the suicide of one Gloria Scott, a young minor actress who had just thrown herself off Waterloo Bridge. Further deaths follow. Humbleby tells Fen, "You seem to be a great deal more serious than I remembered". "As I get older," Fen explained, "I get less resilient and more predictable. It depresses me sometimes". But he is still able to work out when a girl needs rescuing and find his way to her in the middle of a garden maze by following her footprints (easier said than done), and unwinding a ball of string. A rather obvious idea perhaps, but in the process he is able to grasp how the maze is constructed, so is able to find his way out again without it when he has to. And it is, of course, he who eventually identifies the murderer.
At one stage there's a brief mention of Fen, back at home, "vilifying his children" - and this is the only indication we've had that he had more than just a son. But as usual, it's the parts where he is actually present that work the best. As he explains at the end, "From the deductive point of view it wasn't at all a satisfactory case, for the simple reason that there were so many alternative ways in which the mystery could have been solved: with the aid of the footprints report, for example - or by any one of numerous combinations of mere chance and mere routine .... Still, one can't, I suppose, expect life to conform with the pattern of detectives stories, in which but for pure reasoning no criminal would ever be caught".
The Long Divorce (1951)
Many of the residents have been receiving very unpleasant anonymous letters, and one of the recipients commits suicide. Enter Mr Datchery (the name comes from a character in Edwin Drood) who is a Professor of English who talks and behaves very like Gervase Fen. This isn't so astonishing when it is eventually revealed that he is Gervase Fen. More emphasis in the story, though, is placed on a local GP, Dr Helen Downes, and, although I found her a sympathetic well-drawn character, she hasn't the same entertainment value, and, despite the usual interesting start, I found the plot soon got rather tedious. Could Crispin be running out of ideas?
The Glimpses of the Moon (1977)
Richly drawn comic characters abound. There's Old Gobbo, for example. "Like many native Devonians off the beaten tourist track, Gobbo gave the impression of having been left over unaltered from a very early novel by Eden Phillpotts. He cackled pruriently at references to love or courtship. He cadged drinks. He reminisced racily, if not particularly engrossingly, about a boyhood whose chief amusements had apparently been poaching and voyeurism. He proferred recipes for long life." He turns out to be a key witness.
Then there's the Rector: "If you took the Rector from the top downwards, the first thing you saw was iron-grey hair thatching a high, noble forehead. Below this point, however, matters deteriated abruptly. No doubt about it, the Rector's actual face was simian - so trhat the overall effect was as if Jekyll had got stuck half-way in the course of switching himself to Hyde.The clothes were a crumpled, laurel-spattered clerical black, with dog-collar and with outsize cracked black shoes. Despite bow legs, the height was six foot three, and the frame was formidable. 'I'm not,' the Rector had once complacently remarked, 'the type of thing you want to meet unexpectedly on a dark night.' " It is he who chooses to appear at his church fete as Madame Sosostris, Fanous Clairvoyant, wearing a highly inappropriate bombardine dress, a wig and a peculiar hat with an impenetrable veil, complete with high falsetto voice. The descrption of the fete makes a fine sustained piece of comic writing.
"The opener of the fete was a short, slim, affable , loquacious Negro, educated at Winchester and New College (Oxford), who lived twenty miles away, writing lucrative science fiction stories under the name of Dermot McCartney. ("He had begun his writing career with delicate studies of coloured men teetering between two cultures, but these, though gratifying to the Observer and the New Statesman, had in addition to selling poorly proved to be too much like hard work, since the author had no recollection at all of what Negro culture was like and was obliged to look it all up in books.") As he confides later, "My people are mostly dolts, I'm afraid. Dolts or barbarians or both. They believe things that are either nonsensical or manifestly untrue, such as that they are collectively capable of managing their own affairs, and that black is beautiful, and that jazz is an art form". And you can't get much more politically incorrect than that.
But Crispin laughs at himself as well: there's a film composer stuck in a rut. He "resentfully specialised" in music for monster films: "A bachelor of forty-six, he existed in an aura of inveterate dispondency, lamenting his wasted life, and various real or imagined defects in the luxurious large bungalow he had built himself" and had "a whole manifest of aches and pains, some of them notional, others the inevitable consequences of smoking too much, a sedentary life, mild obesity, not being young any longer." This sounds very like Crispin himself, although he ended up by drinking himself to death. His friend Kingsley Amis points out in his Memoirs that Crispin had two very real talents, but they had both dried up by the time he was about thirty, and he quotes him as saying, "I can see no point in anything any more and don't get any fun out of anything I do".
The Major is one of Fen's friends. One of his characteristics is to invite people to lunch then refuse to talk to them while they are eating. He explained this policy to the Bishop. "What is the good," the Rector had said, "of God giving us delicious-tasting foods, if every time we lift a forkful to our mouths we have to break off to cope with the inane prattlings of our guests?" "The bishop, though he prided himself on his conversational skill, had taken this very well, on the whole. In any case he found the Rector much less of a burden than the incumbents of some other parishes in his diocese, who were given to composing pop masses, blessing motor-cycles and other similar unedifying practices, thereby offending such congregations as they had without permanently, or even temporarily, recruiting anyone new."
The policeman in charge is Detective-Superintendent Ling who can't even light his pipe successfully. Even Fen finds it all very puzzling. He admits that he can't identify the murderer(s). "But you must know by now, my dear fellow." said the Major plaintively. "We're practically at the end of the book".
However, it ends with all problems solved, and the Rector going off to meet the Pope (!), a visit arranged by an old school pal of his called Woppie "because he was a Wop, see?", who is now a Cardinal. Although the Rector disapproved of Romish practices, "the interview had developed surprisingly well, both men of God bemoaning not so much the Laodiceanism of their laymen as the follies of their clergy. 'Not a bad chap at all,' was the Rector's verdict on his return, 'if only you could hammer some sense about Christian doctrine into his noddle.' "
Fen never does get round to writing his book as his publisher goes bankrupt, but he decides instead, "I shall write my own novel". He tells a reporter who is thinking of taking up crime writing and wonders if he could start by describing some of Fen's cases: "Crispin writes those up," said Fen. "in his own grotesque way. And there's not much money in it ".
The Glimpses of the Moon was described by Kingsley Amis as "the novel we had all been rightly dreading" and it has been generally criticised as an overlong and weak detective story, but I found it to be one of Crispin's liveliest books, with a wealth of comic characters. Admittedly it does all get rather protracted, but it is such fun to read that it remains my favorite of the nine Fen novels. Recommended.
There are also two books of short stories: Beware of the Trains (1953) and Fen Country (1979). Fen is in most of them, some involve Inspector Humbleby, but my favorite includes neither. This is We Know you're Busy Writing (in Fen Country) in which a man "forty-seven, unmarried, living alone, a minor crime-fiction writer earning, on average, rather less than £1000 a year" and who lives in Devon (he sounds remarably like Crispin himself, doesn't he?) finds his attempts to write constantly interrupted by unwanted visitors. He happily buries the last two under his cabbages. Who can blame him?
There are quite a number of web references to Crispin, but there's a particularly informative page about him, with a list of his books, on the Finnish Pegasos site, and a useful page about him on Grabius Shortling's Mystery List (by the late Wyatt James) that includes individual comments on each of his books.
|The American paperback edition of Crispin's first book certainly had a colorful cover.
|This 1st English edition hardback was published by Gollancz - hence their usual Spartan look.
|This was the rather more enticing hardback cover of the English Macmillan reprint in 1999.