Serious readers will often have a short list of authors who are, for them, the peak of perfection. They are the authors that you want to share, that you buy extra copies of to give to deserving friends or strangers on trains.
One of those authors, for me, is Edmund Crispin. In real life, Crispin was the pen name of the minor British composer Bruce Montgomery, who was probably best known for composing the music for some of the early Carry On films. As Crispin, the same man, between 1944 and 1979, authored nine novels featuring Gervase Fen, the brilliant and exasperating Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature. There were also two volumes of short stories, and together this is the sum total that we have of Fen.
It seems a pity to commence at the end of career, but that’s what I’m going to do with The Glimpses of the Moon (1977). The final Fen novel begins promisingly:
“That’s another of them, don’t you know,” said the Major. As some people can sense the presence of a cat in the room, so the Major could sense a journalist, or at any rate claimed he could.
This last of the Gervase Fen novels deals in many ways with those things that interested Crispin in his own life:music, church festivals, the littering of the Devonshire countryside with electricity pylons, and, naturally, decapitated heads.
Fen is living in a cottage in Devon near the town of Glazebridge, close to which, in the village of Burraford, a local lout called Routh was murdered by another local called Hagberd. Following the murder, Routh’s head made several appearances in the village before floating gently out to sea on a raft made from the lid of a packing case. So the tale begins…but Fen wants no part in it, as he is busy trying to get on with his book about 20th century English novelists. Mixed in the company of an advert-singing Major, a journalist called Padmore, the composer of horror-film music called (quite amusingly) Thouless, the Rector who loathes all things ‘Popish’, Ortrud Youings, the nymphomaniac Amazonian German, her cuckold husband the pig farmer, and a man from SWEB (the South-Western Electricity Board), Fen must muddle through a briar tangle of misunderstanding and rural deception to learn the truth of Routh’s murder. Of course, why have only one decapitated and mutilated body when you could have two? Fen is soon faced with exactly that reality…
Crispin loved to play with language and references to literature (and even other detective stories: the Fen character himself is modeled on John Dickson Carr‘s Dr. Gideon Fell, and shares the same initials). There are many such plays here. For instance, the composer called Broderick Thouless is the source of at least one quietly understated joke: I am reading this name with a lisped ‘th’, and am therefore led to wonder: was he deprived of spiritual animus because he sold out to compose film music, or is he without an eternal spirit because he composes music for horror films?
A further, playful literary engagement occurs with an incident of attempted hunt sabotage (remember, this is the 1970s, long before the fox hunting ban went into effect). Among the participants are a rider with a horse called Xantippe (after the wife of Socrates, the word has come down to mean a nagging, ill-tempered woman), a chorus of hunt saboteurs and one rider described as having a ‘great buggerly beard.’ This latter is in reference to the Urqhart translation of Rabelais, although one that I have not tracked down to a specific episode in my Boy’s Book of Rabelais. François Rabelais’ monster 16th century work of fiction, Gargantua and Pantragruel, was often published in private, limited editions translated from Renaissance French right up until the 20th century. It is a veritable cauldron of naughtiness, heresy, and satire, of which sort did not amuse the already frequently unamused Victorians (although most of the things in Rabelais they were not above getting up to in private). Indeed, the word ‘bugger’ itself is quite rude on its own, in a way which often wholly fails to impress itself upon non-English audiences. The bearded man’s oath of choice is scybalum, an arcane obscenity which only Fen understands. The scene with the hunt is reminiscent of the chase which occurs at the climax of 1946’s The Moving Toyshop, a much earlier Fen novel, in its daftness and hilarity.
Crispin even indulges in a broken fourth wall moment, when, as Fen states that he doesn’t know who the murderer is, he receives this reply:
“But you must know by now, my dear fellow,” said the Major plaintively. “We’re practically at the end of the book.”
Overall, this is a fantastically literate and entertaining novel. If you’ve never read Edmund Crispin before, you are in for a treat. And even if you’ve read other Fen novels, but haven’t yet enjoyed this one, give The Glimpses of the Moon a go.
It is quite depressing that this was to be the last Fen book, for it is rather one of the best, and indicative of what Crispin was still capable of writing, even toward the end of his life. Still, given the choice between a low or high note, certainly the musically-concious Crispin would have selected the latter.
Reviewed 21 October 2015.
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