Monday, 23 November 2009

"Swan Song" by Edmund Crispin

Random House are to be congratulated for bringing Edmund Crispin back into print under their Vintage imprint. Publishers please note that technical merit and obscurity do not have to go hand in hand. I secured this book only a few minutes ahead of someone else the first day it arrived in my local library, and there are already reservations pending on it for when I take it back.

Crispin's real name was Montgomery and he was an amazingly talented individual. A capable enough musician to be both organist and choirmaster at an Oxbridge college, and to write various film scores, he also wrote short stories, film screenplays, and book reviews for The Sunday Times. It is though for his detective stories that he is best known.

His first, The Case of the Gilded Fly, was published in 1944, so he cannot strictly speaking be considered part of the Golden Age, though he is so stylistically if not chronologically (he was born after Ngaio Marsh and died before her). His style is quite unique. Light, witty, devastatingly intellectual, and occasionally very bitchy. His range of vocabulary is impressive (even I had to look up "cinereous"), and his characters, though lightly sketched, are full and largely sympathetic.

His detective, Gervaise Fen, is an Oxford don with a liking for Wagner and beer, who drives (very erratically) a battered red sports car called Lily Christine. Because his books are much shorter, Crispin is never able to flesh him out in the same way as Sayers does with Lord Peter Wimsey, but there is much of the same easy intellectual superiority, though with a much more eccentric touch - perhaps Wimsey crossed with Campion?

Detective stories are largely a matter of taste. I must confess to being unable to read Agatha Christie for some reason, though I can appreciate that her books are well crafted. The only one that I ever really enjoyed was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, since it is so original, as anyone who has read it will know. I also found The Mousetrap positively puerile when I finally saw it on stage. I much prefer Ngaio Marsh, though I think the romantic sub-plot, so important and well done by Sayers once Harriet Vane arrives on the scene, is a real weakness for her. The scene where Alleyn and Troy finally come together seems wooden and stilted, even allowing for the period dialogue. Romance also blossoms in Crispin's books, but not for Fen, who has a wife and children hidden discreetly offstage.

I think it is quite possible that Crispin is the best writer of all these authors. With all due deference to Sayers, there is something about Crispin's prose that reaches out and grabs you. His description of a blustery, snowy day in Oxford is wonderfully evocative in Swan Song. Given that this is a murder mystery, it is difficult to say much more about the book without risking divulging some essential clue, but I can reveal that, like some of Marsh's stories, it is set in a theatre against a backdrop of rehearsals for Wagner's Meistersinger.

It has always been a source of surprise and disappointment to me that Crispin has never been filmed or televised unlike his rivals. The image of an Oxford don driving a red sports car around Oxford lanes is surely a cinematic one. Perhaps this re-issue of perhaps his best book (though I might vote for The Moving Toyshop) will prompt the re-evaluation which is surely overdue.

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