Vulpes Libris

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.

Swan Song. A Gervase Fen Mystery, by Edmund Crispin

9780099542148I 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.

9 comments on “Swan Song. A Gervase Fen Mystery, by Edmund Crispin

  1. Kate
    February 6, 2015

    You make them sound such fun, but I tried Holy Disorders and found it so aggravating and badly written I threw it across the room where it landed in the jumble box. It began with such promise, and ended as a mess. I also found Fen totally unappealing as a character (but then, I don’t like Holmes either, or The Doctor.) Give me Campion, or Wimsey, or Alleyn, or even Marple at a pinch, but no pretentious erratic don detectives for me. It’s probably the don expert thing: I’m writing my next VL piece on a don-written novel about dons who save the world, and they are all appalling. (Disclosure: I AM a don.)

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings
    February 6, 2015

    Isn’t Crispin fun? I just love his in-jokes and asides to the reader. In fact, now you’ve made me want to go off and read them all again….🙂

  3. bolexy jiboku
    February 6, 2015

    i really love songs

  4. Hilary
    February 6, 2015

    How do you define badly written in Crispin’s novels, Kate? I agree that his mysteries are preposterous in their convolution, but that is part of the fun for me, along with Fen’s childish irresponsibility at times and his implausible powers of deduction at others (and sometimes both at once). It all feels like a slightly anarchic extended joke, his approach to detecting, maybe even a bit of a mickey-take, and I just love the energy and the verve of it. But sometimes I’m looking for something else from a murder mystery, and then yes, give me Winsey, Alleyn or Campion! Looking forward to finding out about the appalling but world-saving dons! Maybe I look on from the outside, mistakenly wishing I were one🙂

  5. Kate
    February 6, 2015

    Fair question! Here’s what I put in my reading diary shortly after the throwing episode, so this is white-hot, ragingly disappointed reader stuff. ‘Being too clever to write a decent novel with a plausible setting and society. Far too concerned with a watertight plot to write a believable plot – Nazis in the Devon cathedral indeed. Too many changes of focaliser. Red herrings everywhere. No attempt to tie up the London goings-on with Miss Butler. Too many in-jokes for Eng lit graduates. Tiresomely clever and not very good.And hopeless as a novel set in wartime, since all wartime aspects are ignored: rationing, blackout, clothes call-ups etc’. Maybe I can’t take preposterous, though I do like all-out fantasy and silliness.

  6. Hilary
    February 6, 2015

    And fair comment! I don’t stop possibly as I should to consider the holes in reality that are left behind in the attempts to sew up the plot – I just hang on for the wild ride. But this tells me there’s a graph with preposterous on one axis and fantasy on the other, and our tolerance points on it are at different places. The plots are, I freely admit, bonkers!

  7. nancy
    February 6, 2015

    Sorry, but your descriptors ‘eccentric, vague, and good-humored’ were confusing in the sentence. Were you referring to Fen or LPW? Fen is certainly eccentric and vague, but I would hardly think of him as good humored. LPW is certainly good humored,sometimes eccentric and vague. You were saying that he is as unlike Wimsey as possible…I enjoy reading Crispin, but they are a bit Dr Who-like at times, thanks to GF!

  8. Hilary
    February 6, 2015

    Sorry, Nancy – I’ll think of a way of editing it so that it’s clear that it’s Fen I mean. I find him good-humoured myself, and I love his camaraderie, which can be, I concede, sometimes either heavy-handed or waspish. As I’ve been focused on LPW’s introspection and angst recently, and Fen is wholly free of both, that is where I think one might use the same adjectives about them while talking about two extreme opposites. (Actually, if I think of a drastic way of editing, these comments will be meaningless, so I’ll let the conversation stand, with just a tiny tweak to clarify who I am talking about!)

  9. nancy
    February 7, 2015

    Fen certainly does not have angst or introspection to the reader’s knowledge, but I often find his humor rather heavy handed and sometime downright nasty to those who are supposedly his friends. I am reminded of Holmes with Watson,or a Nero Wolfe approach to others..

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