"Oh, it's so awful. All those dreadful newspaper headlines! They seem to be positively baying after him, like bloodhounds."- Freda Ducrow (Leo Bruce's Cold Blood, 1952)
Bruce Montgomery was a composer and conductor who scored a number of British comedies and films, such as the Carry On-series and The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), but today he is mostly remembered as "Edmund Crispin" – author of nine mystery novels and numerous short stories.
Crispin was among the last wave of traditional, puzzle-oriented mystery writers to emerge from the Golden Era of the genre, which included such luminaries as Christianna Brand and Kelley Roos. Some have even referred to Crispin's series-characters as the Last Golden Age Detective.
The name of this character is Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature, who made his primary appearance in The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944), which was inspired by the works of his favorite mystery writer – none other than the great John Dickson Carr.
Crispin solidified Fen as genuine prodigy of the Golden Age in such classic and wonderful mystery novels as the farcical The Moving Toyshop (1946) and Swan Song (1947), which is a very Carrian locked room conundrum. The only thing I can bring against them is that I have read practically the entire series before this blog came into existence.
I would've loved to have been able to jotted down and dumped my initial, perhaps overly enthusiastic impressions of this series on here, but the only book that was left unread on my shelves was a posthumous collection of short stories. Most of them short-shorts of no more than 4 or 5 pages.
Fen Country: Twenty-Six Stories (1979) was published a year after Crispin passed away and the stories were harvested from the pages of the London Evening Standard, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Winter's Crime – where they originally appeared between the years 1953 and 1969. They're a jumble of series-and standalone stories with a couple of solo-cases for Inspector Humbleby.
So, let's take 'em down from the top!
"Who Killed Baker?" was written in collaboration with fellow composer Geoffrey Bush, who came up with the plot-idea, and stands as one of Crispin's most well-known and successful short stories – partially due to it having been used as padding for several anthologies. It's basically a riddle in story form and its punch line is designed to fool avid mystery readers, which is probably why I have seen it referred to as "an anti-detective story." But I enjoyed it.
"Death and Aunt Fancy" is one of the better shorts from this collection, in which Fen quite easily solves the smothering-death of an aunt of one of his pupils based on a cryptic remark, "I don’t know why she's doing this," and a hearing aid-device. The main problem with these short-shorts is clueing, but this is not one of them!
In "The Hunchback Cat," Fen tells a story about the Coping family and their long-standing tradition of parricide. There are only two Copings left when Fen meets them and one of them is soon found inside locked room of a medieval castle tower, but it's not an impossible crime and the final explanation is a let down. The clue of the cat was quite interesting, though.
"The Lion's Tooth" is what an elderly nun mutters after getting whacked over the head and the daughter of wealthy businessman, Mary, is snatched from the convent. The title functions as a sort of "dying message," but Fen manages to work out its meaning and rescues the girl.
I would qualify "Gladstone's Candlestick" as a locked room mystery and has Fen proving one of his students innocent of theft of a valuable candlestick without having to "postulate any nonsense about duplicate keys," but in order to do so there’s a bit of cheating on the author's side – which is a pity.
"The Man Who Lost His Head" finds Fen involved in the theft of a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci from the study of Sir Gerald McComas and his worst fear is that the drawing is still within the family. I found this to be a rather forgettable story.
"The Two Sisters" retraces some plot-points from "Death and Aunt Fancy," but it's not a rewrite and perfectly stands by itself. A man by the name of Wyndham is an insomniac and recovering from a nervous breakdown, which is why he accepted an offer from aunt to stay at her cottage – miles away from the busy, civilized world. During one of his sleepless nights, Wyndham witnesses something disturbing outside and Fen knows exactly what kind of game is being played. A good and fun story that was reminiscent of the suspense stories by Anthony Gilbert.
"Outrage in Stepney" is a Cold War-type story and only of interest for its linguistic clue involving the German language, President Eisenhower's name ("Eisssenhoer") and some hinting references to the situation in post-World War II England ("just don't start heiling Mosley..."). Why do Cold War stories-and novels so seldom measure up to World War II mysteries in the plotting department?
However, "A Country to Sell" is a story of international intrigue from the mid-1950s, which does live up to its World War II counterparts and even chugs in a locked room mystery for good measure. Christopher Bradbury is a Washington-agent and Oxford graduate who consult Gervase Fen on a delicate, baffling problem which has had far-reaching and deadly consequences. A couple of "months of work collapsed in ruins" after "communicated instructions by phone" leaked out, which were given over a secured line that was "safe from tapping" and received in a room with the door and window "closed and fastened." You can argue that the technical aspect of the solution makes the story dated, but it was a nice surprise following in the footsteps of the previous story.
"A Case in Camera" is the first solo-appearance for Detective-Inspector Humbleby and helps his "wife's sister's husband," Superintendent Pollitt of Munsingham City CID, closing a case of murder during a breaking-and entering of a home. The photographic alibi is interesting in how it relates to the location and time-of-death of the victim, but I couldn't help thinking it was wasted on a written story – because it would've been a nifty trick for TV.
"Blood Sport" is another solo case for Detective-Inspector Humbleby and it's a forensic story touching upon a ballistic-type of problem when the police is confronted with a suspiciously barrel in a shooting death. Yeah, I barely remember this story. So, I probably wasn't too impressed by it.
"The Pencil" is a standout story in the literal sense of the word. It's a hardboiled story treading on the heels of professional killer assigned to infiltrate and neutralize the leader of rival gang, which has to be done by posing as "poisoned bait" – and not everything works out in the end as it was planned. I did not expect this type of hardboiled story from Crispin, but when they're as good as this one I can almost understand why some readers prefer the rough and tumble to the puzzle-oriented stories. Almost!
"Windhover Cottage" is a short-short story featuring Detective-Sergeant Robartes of Scotland Yard, who demolishes an alibi by stumbling to a stock-in-trade mistake amateur murderers often make when employing the use of an automobile – which made for a decent, but not outstanding, story.
I can barely remember anything about "The House by the River," except that neither Fen nor Humbleby were present. The same goes for "After Evensong" except that the murderer was caught on an inconsistency in a statement to the police, which is never a good sign for a detective story. Luckily, quality picks up again with the next couple of stories!
"Death Behind Bars" is proper short story-length and consists of a letter written by an Assistant Commissioner about "what thriller-writers describe as an impossible murder or a locked room mystery," which took place inside a prison cell and the only suspect with a motive lacked the opportunity to administer the poison. The poisoning method in combination with the background of the character, motive and identity of the murderer makes for a cleverly plotted story. I really enjoyed this one for obvious reasons!
As you'll probably deduce from the long-title, "We Know You're Busy Writing, But We Thought You Wouldn't Mind If We Just Dropped In For A Minute" is a humorous story about a crime writer whose patience is slowly eroded by constant interruptions. Crispin was as much as a satirist of detective stories as Leo Bruce, but this is the first story in this collection that really showcased that aspect of his full-length mysteries. A fun and enjoyable story!
"Cash and Delivery" was a previously unpublished story and another one that proved to be too short and unremarkable to have anchored itself in my short-term memory, which prevents me from saying anything sensible about.
"A Shot in the Dark" reunites Fen and Humbleby as the later tells of a shooting-case in a place called Cassibury Bardwell, which "too big to be village and too small to be a town," and has Crispin's take on Agatha Christie's eternal triangle – and whether this one has a happy ending is debatable.
"The Mischief Done" is one of a handful stories in this collection that's longer than 4 or 5 pages and revolves around 100,000 pounds diamond, called Reine des Odalisques, which snatched from under Humbleby's nose. You can probably put it down to the length of most of the stories here, but the plot didn't appear to justify the "length" of this rather average story.
"Merry-Go-Round" is a fun, anecdotal story told by Humbleby to Fen about Detective-Inspector Snodgrass, the Yards "expert on literary forgeries," but "far from being an amiable character" – who offended a newspaper baron and book-collector with enough money and his own printing press to take the piss out of the forgery expert. A good combination of the author's cleverness and sense of humor!
"Occupational Risk" has Gervase Fen suggesting a psychological test to fret out the person who left a body underneath a coffin in a freshly dug grave.
"Dog in the Night-Time" has another one of Fen's pupils asking the professor for help and Anne Cargill's problem pertains to yet another stolen diamond, which her late-father purchased and was probably pinched by the estate-executor or her uncle. Fen uses a Sherlockian principle to sniff out a clue and the use of dust in this story makes up for its unfair use in the candlestick story earlier in this collection.
|Words of caution from the Crime-Composer|
Detective-Inspector Humbleby observes in "Man Overboard" how "writers of fiction get very heated and indignant about blackmail," but the "death of a known blackmailer is a great event" for the police, because a number of unsolved cases can be tidied up "by a quick run through the deceased's papers" – sometimes even murder cases. Humbleby tells a pretty good and strong story of a nearly undiscovered, unsolved murder to illustrate his claim, but it also drove home the point of fiction writers that the only good blackmailer is a dead one. Either way, it's a good story.
"The Undraped Torse" has Gervase Fen solving the problem of a man who has problem with his face being photographed, but broke an expensive camera when a picture was being taken of his lower body. A pretty meh-story.
"Wolf!" is about the shooting of a rich, practical joker while he was on the phone with his son and there are only two suspects, both of his sons, but they are both in possession of a cast-iron alibi – which revolves around old-fashioned kind of telephone. But so does the solution. By the way, I'm sure I have read an extremely similar short story from another writer, but I can't remember where or by whom. Any help?
Well, that's all of them and I'll finish this overlong review here by saying Fen Country is the usual mixed bag of tricks, which is nearly always the case with short stories. But the good ones made it worth the journey and I'll guess this is as good an excuse as any to re-read some of the full-length Gervase Fen mysteries.