This is the first book of my re-read project and it was also Crispin’s first mystery novel. Six years has enabled me to forget pretty much everything about this plot, so I was by and large coming to this book with a clean slate. Though having said that I think there were a number of things that I noticed with this book that I didn’t really pick up on with my first reading. One of these things is how Crispin’s novels do not necessarily have the same light hearted breeziness of earlier 1930s comic crime novels. Written in 1944, with the plot set in 1940, there is a decidedly darker hue to this book, which I hadn’t fully appreciated on my first read. However I am getting ahead of myself…
Over the course of a trying railway trip we are introduced to 11 passengers heading into Oxford. One of course is Gervase Fen, our delightful series sleuth and another is the Chief Constable, Sir Richard Freeman. There is also a motley of characters involved in a forthcoming theatre production, including the producer (Robert Warner), his female lead and mistress (Rachel West), as well as two other actresses who are also half-sisters (Helen and Yseut Haskell). It is this latter sibling who is at the centre of all the story’s quarrelling, tension and animosity. She is independently wealthy, with a strong flirtatious streak, which makes her unpopular with other women, as well as ultimately with men. Being in love with and/or attached to Yseut is no fun occupation, as organist Donald Fellowes can attest to. She had a relationship with Robert a while ago, which he ended, yet she is keen to rekindle it. We have Jean Whitelegge who is desperately in love with Donald and we can’t forget that Yseult doesn’t get on with her half-sister, despite leaving all her money to her in her will. At the end of the first chapter we are informed that 3 of these characters will be dead by the end of the week and it is no surprise that Yseult is first up… her seemingly impossible murder following on the heels of a college ghost story.
One of the first things to grab my attention was how effective Crispin’s writing style is, as I feel he is the sort of writer whose writing style makes any topic interesting and entertaining, including a series of railway delays in the book’s opening paragraphs. I’m sure if he was told to comprise the information for the back of a baked bean tin he’d find a way of making it fun. As with The Moving Toyshop (1946), the story is initially propelled along by a younger male protagonist, in this instance Nigel Blake who is a journalist on holiday. Such a character is invariably a friend of Fen and also allows the reader to soak up a lot of information about the soon to be victims and suspects, who he naturally mingles with. Blake of course is then able to funnel all this information to Fen once the crime has been committed. It is also Blake who gives Oxford a more village like quality when he thinks that ‘in Oxford […] the faces change, but the types persist, doing and saying identical things from one generation to the next.’
In keeping with earlier vintage mystery fiction Edmund Crispin provides a great deal of information to the reader: a crime scene map, a timetable of events and alibis, as well as direct comments by narrator which indicate that the previous scene contains crucial information for solving the case. Nevertheless an unwary reader may start complaining of foul play when Fen repeatedly admits he figured out the identity of the killer within three minutes of the crime. However I would say this theme of the know it all sleuth is partially window dressing. Of course the reader has been given a lot of clues to work with, as I mentioned above and equally I think Crispin removes Fen’s power as the all-knowing detective in quite a clever way. We are told in chapter one, three will die. Yet Fen states that he is reluctant to reveal the killer to the police, as he doesn’t think they will kill again. These two pieces of information therefore clash and the reader is allowed to know something that Fen does not. Perhaps not the most erudite of points but certainly something which struck me quite forcibly during this re-read.
Another trope that I think Crispin plays around with is the one where a murder leads to the young men and women deciding to get married and of course as in most Patricia Wentworth novels, this means the new couple must be innocent. But in Crispin’s hands this trope is taken to extremes, with pretty much all of the suspects separating into couples who plan on getting married. I have never read a book where a murder has propelled so many suspects into matrimony. The astute reader though will realise that despite everyone pairing off, there will be at least one couple who won’t tie the knot, after all within these couples there is a murderer.
It is a bit of a shame, given Crispin’s writing style and characterisation strengths, that he doesn’t do more with his female characters. Independent women are a bit thin on the ground and there is a decidedly uncomfortable moment in Fen’s solution to the case. Matters are equally not improved with comments like this: ‘Fen gazed at her with something of the triumphant and sentimental pride of a dog-owner whose pet has succeeded in balancing a biscuit on its nose.’ However one of the key ways this inequality is redressed is in characters such as Mrs Fen. On the surface she seems quiet, benevolent and meek, whilst she perpetually knits. Yet if you look at what she says more closely, especially when she is talking to her husband, you can see hints of a strong, in control and capable woman, who is very good at bringing Gervase Fen back down to earth. When he is in a moral quandary about what to do, it is she who gives him the most effective reply, out of all the characters he talks to about it. In some ways like Miss Marple she is unsurprised by the vagaries of human behaviour and her approach to the extraordinary is a strong dose of matter of fact common sense and logic. It is Fen who is the more fanciful one. Though I am no major fan of continuation or spin off series of books, I think it would be a cool idea if someone tried to write a story where both the Fens solved a crime or perhaps just Mrs Fen on her own – she’s definitely smart enough.
One passage which has stuck with me quite well from the book is when Gervase Fen is in Blackwells. Another character tells us that ‘he was reading a book off one of the shelves, and going to the rather extreme length of cutting the pages with a penknife.’ When told to desist, Fen tells the assistant that ‘this bookshop was dunning me for enormous bills long before you were born. Go away at once, or I’ll cut out all the pages and scatter them on the floor.’ It sort of shocks and amuses at the same time. After all I am the sort of the person who would never fold a page in the book. Although one can read the Fen novels out of sequence I think there is a strong case to be made for reading the first novel, …well first, as Crispin provides such a vivid and intricately complex picture of who Fen is and I was quite drawn to the suggestion that Fen ‘was a man who lived almost entirely in the present.’
As I mentioned in the opening of this review, Crispin’s works are not quite so light-hearted and care free as you might imagine and I think WW2 had quite an impact on this. In particular I think the war influenced how the characters respond to Yseult’s death. Granted she was not the nicest of people, but it is fair to say that the suspects are fairly heartless in their reactions in the short and long term. Discussion of her death is blunt and forthright, especially with how the suspects clinically dissect Fen’s progress with the case. In some ways they far more concerned whether he will tell the police who the killer is, than the fact there is a murderer amongst them. I am not criticising this but Crispin is an interesting writer in the ways he straddles 1930s and 50s mystery fiction.
So as my rating suggests, this book has lived up to its expectations. Crispin’s writing style and humour, like Alan Melville’s and Richard Hull’s, definitely works for me. On a final note I got quite a surprise when I was re-reading this book, as there is one small and inconsequential event which I had completely forgotten about. This might be forgivable considering that the event is trivial, but seriously how could I have overlooked that one of the academics at the college has a room with 12 live monkeys in, accompanied with twelve typewriters??? Fen caps off the scene by suggesting that it could be the ‘Junior’s Common Room.’ Crispin does of course go on to construct even more absurd situations in his fiction, but it is nice to see the early beginnings of this in his debut book.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Locked Room
Favourite Metafictional Comments:
- ‘Although detectives aren’t necessarily good literary critics […] good literary critics, if they bother to acquire the elementary technical equipment required in police work […] are always good detectives. I’m a very good detective myself […] In fact I’m the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction.’
- ‘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.’
- ‘Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy; I should never hear the end of it.’