A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I was going to review a very serious work this week, full of tragedy and human wickedness. Then I caught a heavy cold and instantly that seemed like a very bad idea. So this piece is intended mostly as a reading prescription for someone with a bad cold (and a Head Like a Boiled Owl, as the Provincial Lady so eloquently put it), a murder mystery from the ‘classic’ post-war era, uniquely ingenious and literate and fun.
Because I have been spending some time in Oxford with Lord Peter, my thoughts turned to another favourite Oxford ‘tec, this one completely devoid of angst or acutely exquisite self-consciousness or visible signs of PTSD (not Morse, then….). Professor Gervase Fen, of St Christopher’s College Oxford, discipline: English Language and Literature, is the creation of crime writer Edmund Crispin, who in turn was the alter ego of Bruce Montgomery, musician and composer (famed for his film scores, including some for the ‘Carry On’ series). I picked up Swan Song to read, which has a splendid operatic setting, but I could just as easily have chosen The Moving Toyshop, or The Case of the Gilded Fly, or Holy Disorders, or any one of half a dozen. All are pacy, clever (ingenious even), literate and witty. In Swan Song, a fictional opera house is created in Beaumont Street, and a new company comes together for the first post-war performance of Die Meistersinger. One of the company has outraged so many people that he has it coming to him, and so the first body turns up very soon, in the proverbial locked room. Professor Fen, St Christopher’s being next door to St John’s, is close at hand and quickly on the scene.
Fen is a benign egomaniac, tall and lanky, with unruly hair. He seems to be ageless – I must look for evidence, because I can’t recall seeing any, but his energy and powers put him in that vague territory, the prime of life. About as unlike LPW as it is possible to be, Fen is eccentric, vague and good-humoured, with no discernible back story. (We discover that he has a wife only when his notoriously dangerous and unreliable motorcar, Lily Christine III (an illicitly-kept sportscar confiscated from a hapless undergraduate), lets him down and he has to borrow her bike to ride furiously away in pursuit of a clue, and in Swan Song we never hear of her again.) Crispin has a playful time breaking the ‘fourth wall’ with Fen, who boasts in character that he is the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction. In Swan Song, he preens himself when the sparky young heroine approaches him for an interview in the press in a series about famous detectives, alongside the likes of Mrs Bradley and Albert Campion (“Famous detectives,” said Fen with great complacency. “Oh my dear paws. You hear that Dick?” he went on, banging the Chief Constable suddenly on the chest to make sure of his attention. “Famous detectives.” Fen is such fun.).
Crispin novels are full of energy, wit and sparkle, literary jokes and the most convoluted and ingenious mysteries that you can imagine. The author relished a locked room problem above anything else, and the murder plots are wildly implausible, not so much from the point of view of the scene-setting which is invariably well-plotted and psychologically sound (in Swan Song the victim behaved so egregiously to so many people that it is a marvel he’d survived that long), but from the misplaced genius of the perpetrator. In every Crispin novel, if the villain had applied a fraction of the ingenuity employed in covering his tracks to world peace, the world would be a paradise. The other great pleasure is the affectionate and accurate portrait of Oxford – such a pleasure to careen through its streets in Lily Christine III, or on Mrs Fen’s bike, in the company of Gervase Fen. And for readers who like me enjoy a novel with a musical background, Crispin’s other life as Bruce Montgomery ensures Swan Song is spot on perfect.
I am not surprised to learn that Crispin’s playfulness with the murder mystery genre and his passion for a seemingly insoluble mystery, along with the charismatic and even slightly shamanistic character of Fen, has made him an inspiration for the likes of Dr Who. There is an element of pleasing fantasy about any Edmund Crispin novel. In fact, while I wait for my sinuses to return to normal, I’m hooked. For today’s therapy I’ve just grabbed my elderly copy of what is regarded by many as Crispin’s finest, The Moving Toyshop (and have just found a fifteen-year-old train ticket to Oxford in it serving as a bookmark. It is a sign, but of what, I have no idea). I know whodunnit, but that doesn’t matter. I shall just sit back with my box of tissues and enjoy the ride.
Edmund Crispin: Swan Song. London: Vintage, 2009. 208pp
ISBN 13: 9780099542148
First published 1947.