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Jerry Dowlen on... Edmund Crispin, crime fiction author


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“Complicated, lurid, and splendidly melodramatic”: Crime fiction author Edmund Crispin and his Oxford don detective Gervase Fen.


The years 1944 and 1945 brought the end of the Second World War, and also the start of the effervescent literary career of Bruce Montgomery. He wrote under the pen name of Edmund Crispin. His crime fiction stories sparkled with outrageous ingenuity and wit. Born in 1921, he studied at Oxford University from 1940 to 1943 and was part of a literary set that included Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. His central character, the amateur detective Gervase Fen, was cast as an Oxford professor of English literature.


Crispin, as I will call him, wrote only nine full-length stories, but they were enough to gain him his reputation as one of the most popular and respected writers of classic crime fiction. He published eight Fen stories in rapid succession between 1944 and 1952. He lived in Devon. He devoted other parts of his life to writing short stories and articles, composing music (especially film music), and working as a literary editor and reviewer. His ninth and last Fen story appeared suddenly in 1977, a year before his death.


The first two published stories were The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) and Holy Disorders (1945). The war intruded into the second story: a devilish concoction of spying, black magic, and church cloister capers.


I cannot think of any book that I have ever read, in my life, whose early pages captivated me so much as The Moving Toyshop (1946). It was the third of Crispin’s published stories. I was still a schoolboy when I first read the book. The story begins with Richard Cadogan, a poet, walking into Oxford at 1 o’clock in the morning, after having missed the last train. A noise interests him as he passes a toyshop. When he finds that the front door is ajar, he goes inside, looks around, and finds a dead body in an upstairs room. Then he is knocked unconscious by a blow from behind. When he comes round, dazed, he struggles outside and finds his way to the police station, to report the incident. But, when he returns to the scene of the crime in daylight, the following morning, accompanied by the police, he finds to his consternation that there is no toyshop. The shop that he thinks is the one he entered is in fact a grocer's shop. And there is no sign of the dead body.


As I say, I was gripped by that book, with its imaginative and intriguing start: most especially when, a few chapters on, Cadogan finds the toyshop again, but sited now in a completely different road in Oxford! Many years later, when I read The Moving Toyshop again, having forgotten most of the story, I was surprised to see how over-the-top and farcical was much of the plot, the action, the dialogue and the characters. Most of the characters in fact were so colourful and eccentric that they were barely believable: the plot hinged on the famous limericks of Edward Lear, and required that some of the people in the story would look or would behave like Lear's fictional creations. I was also shocked to find that Crispin arguably flouted one of the most basic and expected conventions of a whodunit story, which is to provide the reader with some decent clues and then a proper revelation of the answer! But, never mind this: the book drips with fun and wit, even if the whole might not quite equal the sum of the parts. And although it is set in post-war 1940s Britain, it sometimes sounds uncannily topical if you read it today. For example, in the saloon bar of the Mace & Sceptre in Oxford in 1946 an earnest undergraduate is explaining politics to his girlfriend: “… So, you see, the moneyed classes, gambling on the Stock Exchange, ruin millions of poor investors.” 


I was lucky, though, that ‘The Moving Toyshop’ was my first taste of Crispin. I don’t think I would have prospered if I had instead found first The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) or Swan Song (1947). Those two stories are respectively set amongst a travelling theatre company and a travelling opera company. The characters in themselves are not particularly spellbinding, and their endless bitching and intriguing seems to confine the story inside a tightly-compressed breathing-space. The real enjoyment to be mined from each book is the challenge of guessing how the apparently impossible murder was done. It was the first dawn of a writer whose obituary (in 1978) would say that “His novels have complex plots and fantastic, somewhat unbelievable solutions, including examples of the locked-room mystery.”


In most cases, Crispin's stories are not just "whodunit" but also "howdunit". He throws down the gauntlet to the reader to solve some baffling and vexing practical issues, in addition to guessing the identity of the perpetrators. For example, in Holy Disorders (1945) how did a dead body come to be in a high-up gallery of a church to which there is no entrance of any sort? Did the body take wings and fly there? And the reader had better be warned that it might not be a fair fight: Crispin can sail very close to the wind, and can really stretch the rules of the game. But, at the end of each story when Fen explains everything, you reluctantly have to hand it to Crispin: his villains' far-fetched methods of inflicting murder are truly outrageous, but they do pass the test of being plausible.


I remember an incident in my later life that spurred me on to greater appreciation and recognition of Crispin's literary genius. Some twenty-five years ago, Love Lies Bleeding (1948) was chosen by BBC Radio Four for serialisation in the prestigious Book at Bedtime programme. It is one of the best Fen stories. Murder in a school; a missing girl; the discovery and theft of a rare and priceless Shakespeare manuscript. I think that the later Fen stories are superb: in addition to Love Lies Bleeding there are Buried For Pleasure (1948), Frequent Hearses (1950) and The Long Divorce (1951). They involve poison pen letters, blackmail, murder, car chases and other escapades.


The Fen stories enjoy lasting appeal with crime fiction fans. I reckon that the humour and wit of the stories is a big reason for this. Crispin inserts a rich moment of self-parody into Buried for Pleasure when Fen is walking around a village where he has come to stay. Fen observes a man behaving oddly: the man is excitedly scrambling up and down the banks of the village pond and shouting “Bang, bang, bang.” The man is crestfallen when he realises that Fen has been observing him. Fen defuses the awkward situation by guessing, correctly, that the stranger is a writer of detective fiction and is testing the accuracy of his imaginary murder incident. Much relieved, the man introduces himself as Mr Judd, but confesses that he writes under the pen name of Annette de la Tour. “Ah, yes,” replies Fen, musing privately that this author's books are “complicated, lurid, and splendidly melodramatic”.


One of the many enjoyable quirks that I’ve noticed in the Fen stories is Crispin’s occasional use of very unusual words. So do brace yourself, and be ready with your dictionary if required, when you encounter the likes of “apolaustic”, “atrabilious”, “eupeptically”, “ineluctably”, “insufflate”, “pedagogic”, “priapine” and “scabrous”.


Gervase Fen: tall, lanky, ruddy-faced, spiky-haired, incisive-thinker, effusive, occasionally prankish. He is a much-loved figure in detective fiction. If you need any more proof from me of Crispin's genius for inventing brain-teasing plots, and Fen's brilliant powers of deduction, do try the two splendid books of short stories: Beware Of The Trains (1953) and Fen Country (1978). It's no surprise to learn that in real life, Crispin's favourite crime fiction author was J Dickson Carr, himself a master of the "locked room, impossible murder" genre. If you can solve one in twenty of Crispin's short mysteries, let alone solve the murders that take place in his nine full-length stories, you'll have done better than me!


Jerry Dowlen

March 2015


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...



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