Crispin is by no means a forgotten author, but I feel this is one of his book’s which gets overlooked or deemed as vastly inferior to some of his earlier output. On first reading this book several years ago I absolutely loved it and on my second reading… well I can definitely see the flaws in it, but nevertheless still found it a wonderfully fun and entertaining romp of a read.
Anyways on with the story… Gervase Fen arrives at the village of Sanford Angelorum. It is election time and wanting a change of pace Fen plans to run for parliament in this constituency. It is a week to go until the voting and he is only beginning his campaigning. However as the book progresses we’ll see Fen is far more successful than he ever wanted to be when it comes to election campaigning. This is a story of many small incidences which do ultimately come to together at the end: there’s the nude escaped lunatic, (he does eventually get some clothes on I hasten to add), a mysterious woman who gets run over, (was it an accident or something worse?), oh and an undercover policeman who is on the hunt for a blackmailing poisoner. Whilst canvassing the public and making speeches, Fen of course has his fingers in these other pies as well and as all experienced readers of Crispin will know, the ending is a whirl of organised chaos.
So positives first…
Whilst a mystery writing character in the book deplores the need for characterisation in fiction, finding it very overrated and a limiting aspect of the art form, Crispin himself does not stint in this respect. Gervase Fen is wonderful as ever. Hard not to enjoy his company really and I think another character called Diane sums him up rather well: ‘In particular she liked his eyes; they showed charity and understanding, as well as a taste for mischief.’ His election agent is also a delight and adds to the comicality of the piece. The comedy of this book is wild and amusing, yet weirdly never feels out of control.
Crispin’s deftness at entertaining and meaningful setting descriptions are also still in action in this book and crop up from the very first pages: ‘A stunted, uneven platform offered itself to his inspection, its further margins cluttered with weed-like growths which a charitable man might have interpreted as attempts at horticulture. An empty chocolate machine lay rusting and overturned, like a casualty in some robot war. Near it was a packing-case from which the head of a small chicken protruded, uttering low, indignant squawks.’ Understandably Crispin returns to the chicken at a later point, taking in the various election posters – no parallels to be had there of course… The election campaign and political milieu is well conceived in the story and the author has a lot of fun with it. The dubiousness of the campaign material, the lack of pressure to fulfil election promises and one cannot forget Fen’s final campaign speech. It is a treat in and of itself. Crispin also manages well the number of small incidents which punctuate the narrative and I enjoyed how these unusual and odd moments bring characters together, often in mutual disbelief.
However we must know move on to the imperfections of the book. I think one of the reasons why this story is underrated is because it does not have a conventional mystery plot/structure, in that it does have a murder case, but it is not up front and centre a lot of the time. It eventually gains a bit more prominence though perhaps not in the expected manner. Equally whilst the small incidents are managed well they do ultimately perhaps spread character and reader attention over slightly too many points. The truncated nature of ending, (as this book is only 175 pages long), may also upset some readers. The clues for certain points are in there, but are maybe not established or timely enough, giving a short notice sort of feel to them. The final solution is like an appealing newly built building, yet I think most readers would want a few more timbers and bricks put in place to be really sure it won’t fall down in a storm. The ultimate ending is also quite odd, but I rather enjoyed it and found it in keeping with the maverick nature of both sleuth and creator.
So whilst I now have a record of this book’s weakness, I still found this story to be a lot of fun. Don’t make this your first Crispin read, but equally don’t knock it off the TBR pile completely.
Query with spoilers with in it:
One of the characters is nearly bumped off with insulin. Yet I was surprised when a character says that insulin was so easy to pick up, not even needing a doctor’s prescription. It’s left me wondering if this was the case in the 1940s. Could you just pop around to your local pharmacy and ask for some?