31 December 2010

All the Crispins

Among the goodies Keith gave me for Christmas was the one remaining detective novel by Edmund Crispin that I didn't have: The Long Divorce, which is one of his best - hurrah! and other such exclamations. It's always satisfying to get the last of a set of books, especially when it's a previously unread one.

I've been collecting Crispins since the mid 1990s, on the recommendation of another favourite author, Antonia Forrest, who has one of her characters say that she prefers Gervase Fen to Peter Wimsey (but no clue as to author). In those pre-Google days, I was wondering how to find this out most easily when a colleague obligingly took The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin out from the library and passed it to me to read, and the rest is history. Gervase Fen is Professor of English at Oxford University, which seems to interfere delightfully little with his other interests; the same could also be said for his wife, Dorothy, and children (who are quite young in the early books).

There are nine novels: The Case of the Gilded Fly, Holy Disorders, The Moving Toyshop, Swan Song, Love Lies Bleeding, Buried for PLeasure, Frequent Hearses, The Long Divorce and The Glimpses of the Moon; the two collections of short stories are Beware of the Trains and Fen Country. The titles are almost always quotations, and can make little or no sense without recourse to the originals : The Long Divorce, for example, is nothing to do with divorce per se, but is from a speech of Buckingham's in Shakespeare's Henry VIII and does relate to the plot of the novel:
"Go with me, like good angels, to my end;
And, as the long divorce of steel falls on me,
Make of your prayers one sweet sacrifice,
And lift my soul to heaven".
(What doesn't relate to the plot in the Felony & Mayhem edition that I have is an emphasis, on the cover and in the blurb, on the cat Lavender, whose psychic gifts, it is claimed, help to unravel the mystery of some unpleasant anonymous letters - just discount that if you read this edition).
Fen appears for most of it under the alias of 'Mr Datchery' (as in The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and has a very enjoyable time ferreting about in everybody else's business in the village of Cotten Abbas. The villagers are mostly what would now be called NIMBYs, and among other things object to the chapel of The Children of Abraham having been built in their midst. On the other hand, maybe they just object to the standard of the congregational singing:
'The key he had set resulted in the low notes being too low for the high voices, and the high notes too high for the low, so that a sinister drone alternated with a surprised mewing; the text selected was of that lengthy narrative sort which almost always has to do with fish, apostles and storms on Galilean lakes; and the total effect gratified Mr Datchery extremely.'

While I wouldn't claim that the novels are all equally good, people who like 'Golden Age' detective novels often do seem to enjoy them. I particularly like this one and Buried for Pleasure (Fen stands for election as an MP), and am pleased that so many of the books have been reissued recently. There's also now a Wikipedia entry on the author, whose real name was (Robert) Bruce Montgomery, and who was also a composer, notably for the British film industry.