Gervase Fen / Edmund Crispin


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Edmund Crispin


crispinThe novels of Edmund Crispin continue the development of the sophisticated literary style of mystery that largely began with Dorothy Sayers, but often takes this to a point that will leave many modern readers reaching for the reference shelf. At another level, Crispin also attempts to continue the device of a professorial detective investigating impossible locked room mysteries, with Gervase Fen as a rather odd Oxford edition of Gideon Fell, the main contribution of John Dickson Carr. Crispin’s three locked room titles are all on Edward D. Hoch’s  list of all time best locked room mysteries. Though Crispin never enjoyed the broad public audience of some classic mystery authors, he was still a very popular author of the later years of the Golden Age of mystery fiction, know for his complex intellectual plots and vivid descriptive prose.

Edmund Crispin was actually the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery (1921 – 1978), who is remembered for both his Gervase Fen mystery novels and his musical compositions. Born in Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire, Montgomery graduated from St John’s College, Oxford, in 1943, with a BA in modern languages. He also spent two years as this school’s organ scholar and choirmaster – a position which plays a central role in ‘The Gilded Fly’. He first became known for his mysteries and was only later recognized as a composer of vocal and choral music, including ‘An Oxford Requiem’ (1951). He eventually turned to film work, writing the scores for many British comedies, including the famous ‘Carry On’ series. Montgomery also authored the screenplay and score of ‘Raising the Wind’ (1961).

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Gervase Fen Novels


Gilded FlyThe Case of The Gilded Fly (1944)
AKA: Obsequies at Oxford (US)
Oxford Don, Gervase Fen

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****

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Note: An ingenious solution! 

One of three classic locked room titles in these very literary, often witty, golden age classics. A theater company, currently opening a new play in Oxford, is consumed by rivalries and intrigue. The beautiful, malicious Yseut is a mediocre actress, but has a real talent for destroying men, including a few members of this cast. There are few tears when she is found dead in a sealed room, but Professor Gervase Fen – scholar, wit, and fop extraordinaire – soon finds the ingenious solution to this impossible crime. 

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Holy DisordersHoly Disorders (1945)
Oxford Don, Gervase Fen

 

Best Review
***

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Note: Butterflies and murders are such fun!

The darkest of the Gervase Fen novels, yet part farce, with a disquieting atmosphere. Fen is in the town of Tolbridge chasing butterflies like an overgrown child, when a local cathedral organist (again!) is murdered. The main question is whether he fell afoul of a sinister gang of Nazi’s or an ancient coven of witches. Crispin is clearly experimenting with a ghost story in the style of M.R. James, but it has far too many characters wandering in and out of the action. Nowhere near as elegant as the Case of The Gilded Fly, but with a much better sense of humour. Many reviewers have noted a similarity to Carr’s ‘Hag’s Nook’, or Nicholas Blake’s ‘The Smiler with the Knife’, though this is not a true locked room plot. 

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Moving ToyshopThe Moving Toyshop (1946)
Oxford Don Gervase Fen

 

Locked Room Review
*****

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Note: Probably the best Crispin novel!

One night, Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon-vivant, finds the body of an elderly woman in an Oxford toyshop, and is then hit on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. Gervase Fen is called upon to find a solution to this quirky mystery.

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Swan SongSwan Song (1947)
AKA:’Dead and Dumb’
Oxford Don Gervase Fen

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****

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Note: Wagner in post WWII England?

The odious Edwin Shorthouse is about to perform the lead in the first Oxford post-war production of  Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger’, when someone kills him inside his own locked dressing room. Gervase Fen, the eccentric professor of English Literature with a passion for amateur detecting, must once again solve a well written locked room case.

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Love BleedingLove Lies Bleeding (1948)
Oxford Don Gervase Fen

 

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*****

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Note: Fen’s very excellent day!

Crispin clearly found his style in Swan Song, and this is another masterpiece with a complex plot and quite amazing descriptive prose. Fen is happy to oblige, when he asked to be a guest speaker at an exclusive school, and even happier when he is called on to investigate an unsavoury incident involving a young female student. When the murder of two teachers, Somers and Love, and the discovery of a lost Shakespearean manuscript, ‘Love’s Labours Won’, is added – Gervase Fen is clearly in seventh heaven! 

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Buried for PleasureBuried for Pleasure (1948)
Oxford Don Gervase Fen

 

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****

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Note: Vote for Gervase Fen?

Fen is running for Parliament, but his campaign is soon sidetracked by blackmail, a dead policeman, a lunatic named ‘Woodrow Wilson’, a poltergeist, and a love-struck pig. Definitely one of the most entertaining Fen stories with lots of humour, but not the best mystery by a long shot! This is also the novel introduction of Detective Inspector Humbleby, who appears in Frequent Hearses and a majority of the Gervase Fen short stories.

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Frequent HearsesFrequent Hearses (1950)
AKA: Sudden Vengeance (US)
Oxford Don Gervase Fen

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***

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Note: Murder in Movieland – again!

Professor Fen is the expert on a biographical film based on the life of Alexander Pope. Another film studio murder ensues, and it is no better than most of the other film studio murders you may have read. Poor plot. Poor characterization. No fair clues. not one of Crispin’s better works.

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Long DivorcesThe Long Divorce (1952)
AKA: A Noose for Her (US)
Oxford Don Gervase Fen

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****

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Note: Not just another poison pen mystery!

This is Crispin’s version of that stock British plot about a village plagued by poison pen letters. Most British authors seem to have tried this plot on for size, but only Crispin has ‘Lavender’, a cat who sees Martians, and Fen in disguise as ‘Mr. Datchery’ from Charles Dicken’s ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’. This was Crispin’s last work for 26 years – until the disaster that was ‘The Glimpses of The Moon’. ‘The Long Divorce’ actually has a first class plot, with a brilliant device designed to fool even addicted mystery fanatics – and all with Fen at his childish professorial best!  Crispin turns this old standby into something much better than the old poison pen plot you thought you were buying.

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Glimpses MoonThe Glimpses of The Moon (1977)
AKA:  (US)
Oxford Don Gervase Fen

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**

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Note: A sad ending!

Sometimes being a respected retired mystery author is not such a bad idea! Two nymphomaniacs, a character named John Thomas, and a structure called ‘The Pisser’ can’t save this bad plot that was stolen from Agatha Christie!

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Edmund Crispin: Short Story Collections


beware of trainsBeware of The Trains (1953)
Oxford Don Gervase Fen

 

Best Review
****

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Contents:

Foreword

1. “Beware of the Trains”

Grease Fen must connect the disappearance of a motorman from a train with the death of a burglar, to solve this problem for Detective-Inspector Humbleby.

2.  “Humbleby Agonistes”

Gervase Fen plays the armchair detective, leaving only to recharge his drink, while Humbleby recounts an odd occurrence involving an old friend from first world war. Of course, Fen solves it before the drinks are finished.

3. “The Drowning of Edgar Foley”

Fen must prevent a miscarriage of justice. He employs a passage from a famous book on criminal investigations, and solves the puzzle with the unwitting help of Superintendent Best.

4. “‘Lacrimae Rerum'”

Fen reminisces on his first case, the one he got wrong. Knowing Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony provides an important clue!

5. “Within the Gates”

Fen witnesses a crime and routs out a traitor. The death of a cipher expert leaves Fen to solve a cryptogam.

6. “Abhorred Shears”

Humbleby is certain one of three people murdered a new-found relative. All had opportunity and motive, but did they have the means? Fen makes some good deductions

7. “The Little Room”

Fen goes house hunting and discovers crime.  The placement of a door bolt proves to be the important clue.

8. “Express Delivery”

Fen and Humbleby solve a problem concerning murder-for-gain. The solution involves things that travel faster than sound. 

9. “A Pot of Paint”

A case of robbery and assault solved by Fen, assisted by Inspector Bledloe.

10. “The Quick Brown Fox”

The nursery rhyme tells us who jumps over the lazy dog, but the murderer fails to allow for a typewriter ribbon. 

11. “Black for a Funeral”

Fen solves a case using the process of elimination. A quite good impossible crime story. 

12. “The Name on the Window”

Humbleby presents Fen with a locked-room problem on Boxing Day.  The murder involves the death of an architect and the solution involves a palindrome. Gideon Fell and his famous locked-room lecture get a mention.

13. “The Golden Mean”

Fen is morally certain that profit is the motive; but hard evidence is lacking, and Inspector Waycott thinks it was  an accident.

14. “Otherwhere”

Murder or self-defense? Only two people know for certain, and they’re getting married to each other. Fen thinks justice has already been done.

15. “The Evidence for the Crown”

Not a Gervase Fen story. A murder occurs and half the village has a good motive. 

16. “Deadlock”

Not a Gervase Fen story. A first-person narrative tells the strange story of a teenaged boy, related some years after the event. 


Fen CountryFen Country
Oxford Don Gervase Fen

 

Best Review
****

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Contents:

1. “Who Killed Baker?” (with Geoffrey Bush)

Gervase Fen recounts a case solved by Detective Inspector Casby of the County CID.  The important part of Fen’s version lies in the telling of the story, and he leaves the annoying Wakefield howling with rage.

2. “Death and Aunt Fancy”

George Gotobed visits his dear Aunt Fancy for the first time. The old lady is anxious about her companion, Miss Preedy, and by morning one of the women is dead. A large sum of money hangs in the balance so George calls in Gervase Fen. 

3. “The Hunchback Cat”

Clifford Copping, a highly neurotic individual, is discovered murdered in a locked room inside a medieval tower. And if you don’t count cats or servants, only three suspects remain.

4. “The Lion’s Tooth”

Little Mary Merrill, daughter of a wealthy businessman, is kidnapped from a convent where she’s staying while her father is in Italy. Fen is called in by the reverend mother and within a few hours he finds  the culprit. 

5. “Gladstone’s Candlestick”

Gina Mitchell announces defiantly to her tutor, Gervase Fen: “I am NOT a thief.” and Fen sets about proving her innocent of stealing a historic candlestick worth £400 from her bedridden grandfather’s manor house. 

6. “The Man Who Lost His Head”

Sir Gerald McComas enlists the reluctant aid of Gervase Fen to prove that his daughter Jane’s fiance, “a fledgling barrister”,  has stolen “a small but valuable Leonardo drawing”, but Fen’s solution instead proves that chivalry is not dead.

7. “The Two Sisters”

Percy Wyndham is recovering from a nervous breakdown, and eagerly accepts his aunt’s offer to stay in her cottage, until his tranquility is disrupted by Mrs. Blench’s money-hungry “disreputable sister” and what Fen soon proves to be a murder.

8. “Outrage in Stepney”

Gervase Fen gets  involved in the world of spies and the problems of a would-be defector who is under constant surveillance.

9. “A Country to Sell”

More spy stuff. An American agent, and Oxford graduate, consults Gervase Fen with a problem.

10. “A Case in Camera”

Detective Inspector Humbleby, sans Fen. Humbleby becomes involved in the affairs of his brother-in-law,  a CID superintendent. He is about to be forcibly retired because he went against orders in the investigation of a murder case, but he still thinks the suspect’s alibi was just too neat and tidy to be real. 

11. “Blood Sport”

D.I. Humbleby, again sans Fen, looks into a case of a murder by rifle, that doesn’t make any sense.

12. “The Pencil”

A professional killer hired to infiltrate a gang of mobsters by another gang, discovers that being in the middle of the road can get you run over.

13. “Windhover Cottage”

Detective Sergeant Robartes of Scotland Yard does the deductions. Wendy Cowen, has been married for only two weeks to Phil and just returned from the US, when Robartes brings news of a murder at Windhover Cottage, their out-of-town residence.

14. “The House by the River”

No Fen or Humbleby. One October evening the strangled body of Elsie, the servant girl, is found in an outbuilding of the unpopular Gregson’s estate. The superintendent has it all figured out before the chief constable returns from London, but the solution does not make him happy.

15. “After Evensong”
The lifeless body of Mr. Soane is found in a churchyard. An unnamed inspector sorts out a problem that depends on the proper time of the alibi. 

16. “Death Behind Bars”

A ten-page letter from the Assistant Commissioner of the CID to the Home Secretary concerning the death of Dr. Harold Wynter, convicted on a shaky manslaughter charge. The cause of death was by nicotine poisoning, but the question is whether or not it was self-administered and how it could even be done? 

17. “We Know You’re Busy Writing, but We Thought You Wouldn’t Mind If We Just Dropped in For a Minute”

Ted Bradley is a mystery author dealing with one annoying interruption after another, until real-life crime enters his life and refuses to go away.

18. “Cash on Delivery” (1979)

Mr. Elliston wishes to be rid of his wife. Max Linster, a professional killer, is willing to oblige. It  is supposed to look like a burglary but doesn’t quite turn out as planned. 

19. “Shot in the Dark”

The village of Cassibury Bardwell is suffering from an explosion of passion. It looks like an open and shut case to Detective Inspector Humbleby, then it gets real complicated, until Gervase Fen notes that the only one with a good alibi is the corpse. 

20. “The Mischief Done”

‘The Reine Des Odalisques’ is a diamond worth well over £100,000 and the cast of suspects is equally impressive! ! Humbleby admits it was stolen “literally from under my nose, when I was supposed to be helping to protect it.”

21. “Merry-Go-Round”

Humbleby recounts a recent case of literary forgery to Fen, at the expense of one of Scotland Yard’s experts! 

22. “Occupational Risk”

Humbleby has three knights as suspects, one of whom has murdered an elderly gentleman, identity unknown. Gervase Fen suggests a little test of knowledge that might be an important first step to solving Humbleby’s dilemma.

23. “Dog in the Night-Time”

 One of Fen’s pupils, Ann Cargill, approaches him with her suspicions about a valuable diamond owned by her recently deceased father. She not only suspects her father’s estate executor of fencing the stone, but also her legal guardian, good old Uncle Harry, of being involved even though he called in D.I. Humbleby. 

24. “Man Overboard”

Humbleby tells Fen about the Colonna case. Two brothers from America, Saul and Harry, take up residence in England, then buy a small sloop. While out in mid-Channel during a gale, one of the brothers goes over the side and presumably drowns, but the truth may not be so simple!

25. “The Undraped Torso”

Ericson is a photographer for a  magazine, well accustomed to people objecting to having their picture taken, but he wasn’t expecting such a strong reaction in sleepy little seaside village. Gervase Fen hears the story during a stop at the local pub and decides to get involved –  solving a twenty-year-old criminal case.

26. “Wolf!”

Humbleby has reached his wits end and seeks out Fen for a little advice, concerning “a rich old gentleman who got shot through the heart yesterday evening in his own sitting room”. Fen is able to solve the problem with his knowledge of modern communications. “Can you hear me now?”


Edmund Crispin Bibliography


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