Book group was in a need of a reliable read, so we turned to an old favourite. I was pleased to get the chance to re-read Crispin, as he is an author I would like to do a ranked list of, at some point. I remembered that Anthony Boucher had reviewed a few by Crispin and it transpires that Swan Song, was ‘the first time’ he was ‘wholly converted to Mr Crispin,’ having had some uneven reading experiences by him in the past.
‘When an opera company gathers in Oxford for the first post-war production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger its happiness is soon soured by the discovery that the unpleasant Edwin Shorthouse will be singing a leading role. Nearly everyone involved has reason to loathe Shorthouse but who amongst them has the fiendish ingenuity to kill him in his own locked dressing room?’
I enjoy re-reading books, in the main, as I find I notice things I hadn’t spotted the first time round and that I puzzle over themes that I had hitherto not really considered. In the case of Swan Song, the theme to be mulled over was openings to mystery novels. Why do authors start their stories the way they do? What are they trying to achieve? Are there tropes or stylistic features that an author returns to more often than others? It was this last question which got me pondering about Crispin’s Gervase Fen mysteries and whether they have anything in common with each other. However, before looking at these other books, it makes sense to look at Swan Song’s opening pages in more detail…
I was immediately struck by the Jane Austen tone in the first sentence, which echoes the declarative note of ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’ Crispin’s “universal truth” is that:
‘There are few creatures more stupid than the average singer. It would appear that the fractional adjustment of larynx, glottis, and sinuses required in the production of beautiful sounds must almost invariably be accompanied – so perverse are the habits of Providence – by the witlessness of a barnyard fowl.’
This is very much a stereotype, but it is one that prepares us for the comic crime characters featured in his plot and their larger-than-life behaviour. Interestingly though, I would say that there is not always much distinction to be made between the antics of the singers and the baffling actions of the non-singing characters. I think this makes the stereotype more of a fly away comment by the author and there is no harsh dichotomy made between the singing and non-singing characters, which might have made the read unpleasant.
I am aware that Edmund Crispin was a composer, a career he began in the mid-1940s, composing vocal and choral music. I don’t know how much experience this gave him of operas behind the scenes, but it is possible he was involved in them in some capacity. It would be interesting to know if any such experiences influenced this story. In the 1950s, of course, he moved on to composing music for films.
From humorous generalisations, Crispin then switches tact in his opening to focusing on the character of Elizabeth Harding. The intellectual state of singers continues to bleed into the narrative, but the Austen tone resumes when the topic of marriage arises. The first chapter gives the reader a whistlestop tour of Elizabeth deciding to marry an operatic singer named Adam Langley. A no-nonsense approach to matrimony can be felt in the following passage:
‘It was her intention to marry him, and plainly the quality of his mind was a factor which had to be taken into account. Elizabeth was not, of course, in any way a cold or calculating person. But most women – despite the romantic fiction which obscure the whole marriage problem – are realistic enough, before committing themselves, to examine with some care the merits and demerits of their prospective husbands.’
The more sentimental side of love is satirised with Elizabeth’s ridiculous endearments which she speaks into her pillow on a night and there is an emphasis on her theoretical and not experiential knowledge of love. Embodying a certain type of Austen lover, Adam is clueless of Elizabeth’s obvious feelings for him, and it takes a third party to bring his attention to them. From there Crispin weaves in note of P. G. Wodehouse when Adam makes heavy weather of progressing the relationship along. [Note – Wodehouse did actually write a book called Heavy Weather (1933)]. Adam, for instance, is said to ‘brac[e] himself – in a fashion more appropriate to some monstruous task like the taking of a beleaguered city than to the wooing of a girl whom he knew perfectly well to be fond of him’ when he decides to go talk to Elizabeth. Initially I thought he came across rather cool and aloof, with his declaration of love, according to Elizabeth, being like a duel. However, later in the book it seems that his feelings for her have some depth.
Being a comic crime writer, the humorous approach at the beginning of the book makes sense and it segues nicely into the stages of Elizabeth and Adam’s romance/marriage/honeymoon etc. This is not padding in the slightest as Crispin soon reveals how their love might provide them with a motive for murder and I think this is a motive Crispin handles very carefully, avoiding being heavy-handed with it. In some ways I think he is quite sneaky with it at the end.
So is there a template for the openings of Crispin’s Fen novels? (Yes, I did promise I would get back to that earlier question!) My research was slightly hampered by the fact that all my books are currently boxed up, and painfully they had to be boxed by size rather than alphabetical order. (And yes I did forget to photograph what books went in which box). However, after some rooting about, I did find the following books: Love Lies Bleeding, Buried for Pleasure, The Moving Toyshop, The Glimpses of the Moon, The Long Divorce and Frequent Hearses. (My copies of The Case of the Gilded Fly and Holy Disorders are still MIA in a box somewhere.)
Looking at the books I could track down, journeys either on foot or by train, feature more than once. Crispin also has some distinct settings such as a film studio or a school. Gervase Fen appears in the opening chapter of four of the 6 books I looked at, so the absence of Fen in Swan Song in the initial pages is more of an oddity. Swan Song, whilst laughing at the foibles of human nature, is also an oddity in another respect, as it does not undercut a scene or a character. Undercutting is a dominant presence in the other openings I examined. In Love Lies Bleeding (1948), the severity of the situation involving a missing schoolgirl, is undermined by the minimal interest of the headmaster, his mind overtaken by the excessive hot weather. The solemness and seriousness of elections and voting take a hit in Buried for Pleasure (1948), whilst The Moving Toyshop (1946) lines up several elements to be undercut. For example, the opening paragraph gives you the impression that you are reading a gritty inverted mystery or hard-boiled novel, as Richard Cadogen fires a gun; an incident whose drama is popped by the fact that he is firing at tin cans in the garden of his publisher, whom he is trying to sponge some money for a holiday in Oxford. Meanwhile in The Glimpses of the Moon (1977), Gervase Fen is the focus of the undercutting, as his sleuthing acumen is not shown at its brightest. Nor is his intellectual prowess much on display at the start of The Long Divorce (1951), when he thinks he knows better than others, and consequently gets horribly and embarrassingly lost on a walk.
The romance theme of Swan Song, in its opening chapter, is another reason why it stands out from the rest, but the reader is advised to be on their mettle in the first few chapters of this book, as Crispin plants more than one clue in this section, which is important later in the story. In contrast to my previous read, I really valued how much Crispin’s concise writing style can convey. Reasons for murder are swiftly revealed and established and although there is a promptness to Crispin’s prose, this is balanced with how beautifully it is written. This is something I miss in modern mystery writing. The revealing of the body is elegantly done and although the amount of text is quite minimal, I found it held a greater impact for the reader.
Gervase Fen is one of my favourite sleuths, so I enjoyed returning to his detective forays for book group. In this mystery we learn that he is 43 and that he has his own laboratory in his attic, much to the dismay of his family, due to the tendency of experiments cumulating in explosions. Fen is a complex character, whose childlikeness at times, pleasing jars with the darker aspects of his nature. When Fen first meets Elizabeth, we are told, for example, that he ‘beamed at Elizabeth like an ogre about to gobble up a small boy.’ Moreover, at the crime scene Crispin writes that:
‘Fen had been standing in front of the mirror, painting a large black moustache on his face. He now turned and exhibited the result. Elizabeth uttered a little squeal of delight. Fen frowned at her.’
This inappropriate behaviour reminded me of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and like that portrayal, Fen’s unconventional behaviour is not done clownishly or for comic effect. This is evidenced by his reaction to Elizabeth. His behaviour is outlandish, but I don’t think the reader finds him unbearably ridiculous. I also appreciate how his character is not just played for cheap laughs and that there is a harder core to him. One of Fen’s most amusing scenes is when he gets a chemist to make up a lifesaving prescription for a character, at gun point, (the chemist being reluctant to make up a prescription without a doctor’s note). It’s strange but to summarise the scene like that, you would think this might be an unpleasant scene or one which shows Fen in an unfavourable light. But the way Crispin writes the scene is what makes all the difference. I guess that is the tricky component of writing comedy.
As well as setting up the crime well, Crispin also widens the mystery by including the trope of the character who admits they know more about the crime but are not going to be telling the police what they think just yet. So otherwise known as the twits. Elizabeth is elected to this role, a position with perhaps greater ignominy as it soon transpires that she doesn’t know anything at all:
‘At this point a discouraging admission has to be made – namely, that Elizabeth had, as a matter of fact, only the vaguest and most irrational notions as to the identity of Edwin Shorthouse’s murderer; nor was she able by any means as certain as she had made out that the answer was not, after all, suicide. She had succumbed for a moment, while talking to Joan and Karl, to a craving for effect…’
However, despite her foolishness, her action and its consequence open the idea that more than one person is involved in what is going on.
Anthony Berkeley, wrote in one of his mysteries I think, that inquests are used in detective stories to pad out the plot, but I have to say I really enjoyed the inquest in Swan Song. It was made more interesting by the foreman of the jury whose spirited and rebellious stance leads to a surprising conclusion to the inquest. This scene is a good example of how a writer can take a well-used trope of mystery fiction and still make something entertaining.
Chapter 20, provides a narrative book end of sorts, as it returns the plot back to the relationship of Adam and Elizabeth and I found it darkly amusing when the narrator suggests that the dramatic wrapping up of a murder case is the panacea needed to resolve severe marital discord:
‘She walked out of the lounge. Adam returns miserably to his chair. This was far worse than their first quarrel; this was cold and vehement. Half unwillingly, they had come to a crisis. It needed the events of that evening to dispose of it.’
That said I don’t think Relate are going to start proposing near death experiences to couples having difficulties. In addition, the final sentence quoted above, put Jane Austen’s narrative voice back into my head, as Austen’s narrators are often able to look ahead into a couple’s future and voice their predictions with some certainty of tone.
Elizabeth and Adam are not the only couple of the book as one character, rather out of the blue in my opinion, proposes to Elizabeth and Adam’s friend, Joan. She initially turns them down, due to their age difference: ‘But the unfortunate thing about maturity is that it isn’t youth, and a man who marries a mature woman is like a man doomed to make all his purposes in the second-hand shops.’ She changes her mind soon afterwards though and I did think her fiancé made a sweet comment: ‘One gets the best things nowadays […] in the second-hand shops.’ I have to say this is definitely the case when it comes to books!
This is a mystery which juggles laughs with darkness and when it comes to the solution to the murder, Crispin does not deliver something which is light or frothy. Despite having read the book before, I had completely forgotten the solution, so it was a great surprise. The solution is very much in the rough justice mould, something you might expect more in a Gladys Mitchell novel, (although I can reassure readers that Crispin’s solution is far more satisfying and better clued). I am guessing that the rough justice component is not unique to the annals of crime fiction, but I would be interested to know of any earlier examples, (a question I obviously address to those who have already read the book).
In summary this is neither a dense nor a sparse mystery. Crispin’s narrative provides big brush strokes with carefully selected smaller details that linger in your mind afterwards. The narrative also lends itself to being adapted for TV, and it is a crying shame that Gervase Fen has not been properly adapted. In 1964 an adaptation of The Moving Toyshop opened the TV series Detective, but Gervase Fen is long overdue a proper series of his own.
P. S. My sleuthing zealousness may have been a bit high at times when reading this story as at one point I did begin to hope there was going to be an incriminating use for used chewing gum. Alas this came to nothing and was just a depiction of the gross habit of not putting it in the bin.