Gervase Fen ends up with a lot of crimes on his hands to solve when he goes to Castrevengford school to give out the prizes at speech day. Firstly, there is the disappearance of Brenda Boyce. A note left behind suggests she has run away with someone, but few seem convinced by it. Why was she so frightened the night before, after the rehearsal of the school play? Is she still alive or not? On top of this there has been a break in, at the science lab and Fen and the local police also have to deal with a double homicide of two of the schoolmasters, in two different locations; the times for which are very closely narrowed down by various witness testimonies. And if you think that is the last of it, then you would be very wrong…
I would say this book was somewhat of an oddity within the Gervase Fen canon, as it structurally differs from the others. In particular I am thinking of the high volume of crime which takes place within the opening chapters, which does not happen, (if my memory is correct), in the other books. And with this array of criminality, we have the additional intrigue of wondering how all of these deaths and crimes link together. Again, I am not sure this is something we get in the other books, which tend to revolve around one key unusual event or crime, such as in The Moving Toyshop (1946) and The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944). There is less of a natural centre within Love Lies Bleeding. With several crimes to investigate I wonder if it can be said that this is Crispin’s most complex puzzle – after all he did dedicate this to his good friend, John Dickson Carr. I don’t know that I would say this mystery is one most readers can solve, (well this one couldn’t at any rate, though that may not be saying much). Nevertheless, Crispin does pepper the text with an assortment of clues ranging from a piece of blotting paper, to a remark written on a student’s paper and an unfinished letter. Also, if you enjoy busting a good alibi then this book will also appeal, as timings and alibis are very important within this story.
In keeping with Crispin’s other stories, today’s read maintains his high standard of characterisation and I think he is a strong writer in his use of minor characters in moving a story along. You may not get to spend much time with some characters, but they always make their mark and remain remarkably memorable. He also seems very comfortable using the school setting, including those little touches of psychological verisimilitude.
The area within which I think Crispin becomes a little unstuck is in the final third. The story is overlong, which can be felt the most in this section of the book. The ending for the case is dragged out, though it does have an entertaining car chase, which of course is complete chaos. The role of Brenda and her disappearance in the story may also throw up a few niggles for the reader. She commences the novel, but the murders soon eclipse her and her plight, and I am left wondering whether two proven deaths would or should supersede a case where the victim’s status as alive or dead is left unconfirmed. I can see why Crispin had to hold her part of the plot back until nearer the end, but I sort of feel it unbalanced the book. Her return to the book is also somewhat of a protracted affair and whilst that part of the book has its merits and moments of poignancy, I am not sure it was the most effective plot device which could have been used.
I realise I have ended on a little bit of a negative note, but as my rating shows this book still has a lot to offer, even if it isn’t Crispin at his absolute best.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): At a school
Calendar of Crime: June (3) Primary Action Takes Place in this Month
P. S. For JFW – I think I got onto your favourite character early on, whose name is also interestingly the name of a famous teddy bear manufacturer. Hopefully I am not barking up the wrong tree.
P. P. S. Only read on, if you’ve read the book already…
Was this the first mystery to have a lost, but then found Shakespeare manuscript as a motive for murder? I am aware of later novels which use this device, but I wondered if there were any earlier examples?