Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Edmund Crispin's Moving Toyshop of Delights

Time for another old favourite  writer.

Edmund Crispin, who was born in 1921 and died in 1978 at the age of 56 was, in my opinion, one of the most intelligent and amusing writers of the twentieth century. I've been reading his detective stories since my early teens and finding more to enjoy in them each time.

I remember coming home from school at the age of twelve or so and finding my mother enjoying a cup of tea with her feet up, a break after her working day as a part-time nurse. She would pour me a cup of tea, offer a Penguin biscuit, ask me about my day, and then go back to reading her book. I would settle in the chair next to hers, nibbling my Penguin and reading with my own feet up. In my memory, quite often my book was an Edmund Crispin.

The trouble with Crispin is that every page has something so funny and witty that you can't help reading it aloud if there's someone else in the room with you. This unpopular trait (they want to get on with their own book) is something I've struggled to overcome all my life. My mother was relatively sympathetic about it, particularly since she enjoyed Crispin too.

Edmund Crispin was a writing prodigy. He had eight books published by the time he was thirty, the first, The Case of the Gilded Fly, written while he was an undergraduate and published when he was either twenty-two or three.(Depending on his birth date, 2 September, and the publication date, which I've never worked out.) Wow, I hear you say. Some going!

Unfortunately then as now books alone don't often bring in a decent living wage, except for the rare best of the best sellers. Crispin wrote reviews, edited collections, and wrote numerous short stories, most of them collected now in book form, over the next two decades.  But he didn't put his creative energy into another full length detective story until he was in his mid fifties. Shortly after it was published, Edmund Crispin died at the early age of fifty-six.

So what was he doing in those two decades? Well, Edmund Crispin's real name was Bruce Montgomery, and as well as a brilliant writer he was an excellent composer of both classical and more popular music under his real name. So the answer to the question is that he was writing very successful music. And music which brought him in a much more than adequate living. He composed many classical pieces which are still played; but also wrote soundtracks for most of the popular British films of that time – the first six Carry On films, the Doctor in the House series, and you name it. Creativity can't be spread too thin. He needed to concentrate mainly on his music, which he took very seriously. So no more books about the fantastic Gervase Fen until nearly the end of his life. Makes you weep, doesn't it? Well, it does if you're a reader rather than a musician.

And now about the books. Crispin's detective, Gervase Fen, is an eccentric Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature. A unique creation. I declare an interest here – I love Fen, so I haven't a critical word to say about him. He's witty, wise, and off the wall. He takes up enthusiasms and drops them again, like his interest in insects in Holy Disorders. He is kind under a surface irascibility. He does what he feels like doing and drags his friends in with him. And he is outstandingly intelligent. He also quotes a lot, which I really enjoy. (Another favourite of mine, Peter Wimsey, does that too.)

Probably the most popular of the books is The Moving Toyshop. It's certainly one of my own favourites. It starts with the poet Richard Cadogan (a take off of Philip Larkin, a close friend of Crispin's since his Oxford days). Cadogan is longing for adventure and trying to squeeze an advance from his publisher in order to go on holiday in Oxford. Once there he stumbles into a toyshop (he finds the door open and feels he should check) and discovers a body. He gets knocked out, comes to and escapes. When he goes back the next morning with the police he finds that the toyshop is no longer there. Instead there is a respectable grocer's shop. So Cadogan goes to his friend Fen for help.

I mustn't give away the plot. Like most detective stories of its period, the plot matters in all Crispin's books and all his plot are marvels of ingenuity. This style of writing isn't so popular now. I'm not sure why. This type of story is meant to be read partly for the pleasure of solving the mystery; a similar pleasure, though much more complex, to the solving of crossword puzzles;  but with all the extra delight of the characters.

However, without spoiling anything I can quote a couple of my own favourite moments. Firstly when a rollicking chase through the streets of Oxford leads to Parson's Pleasure (the part of the river where men are allowed to bathe naked) and two minor villains are thrown into the water.

 'Once immersed, their attitude became conciliatory, largely owing to the fact that they were unable to swim. A science don, who was standing slapping his belly on the bank, regarded them helpfully. "Now is the time to learn," he said. "Bring your body up to a horizontal position and relax the muscles. The surface tension will support you." But they only cried "Help!" more violently...'

Or the opening scene with Richard Cadogan practicing pistol shooting and making his publisher agree to an advance. The publisher suggests,

'Perhaps you'd like to stay with me for a few days at Caxton's Folly?' 
'Can you give me adventure, excitement, lovely women?' 
'These picaresque fancies,' said Mr Spode. 'Of course, there's my wife...'

Cadogan got the money. And Crispin ends the scene,

'So the poet got the better of that affair, as anyone not wholly blinded by prejudice would have expected.'

Then there's the wonderful moment when Fen interrupts a practice of the Handel Society, in pursuit of a witness, and takes it into his head to join in.

'"Professor Fen," said Dr Rains with painful restraint. A hush fell. "You are not, I believe, a member of this choir. That being the case, would you kindly oblige me by going away?" Fen however was not easily abashed...
"I think that's a most illiberal sentiment, Rains," he countered across the gaping tiers of choristers... Just because I happened to make one small error in singing an extremely difficult passage –"' and as they leave presently, '"Now that the English Faculty has left us," Cadogan heard [Dr. Rains] say...'

To me, these are unforgettable moments which can be reread (after a suitable interval) into eternity and beyond.

I also especially like Holy Disorders, possibly because it's one I clearly remember reading during the above mentioned afternoons with my mother; and in fact may well have been the first Crispin I read. The clever title (unlike some clever titles which promise well and produce little) is a fair introduction to the book's contents.

Crispin is not just funny. There are moments in all the books of horror, of high seriousness and of deep exploration of character and life; and these are unusually good and well written  too.

Another favourite of mine is Love Lies Bleeding, set in a boys' boarding school and drawing on Crispin's own few years experience teaching. The setting here is particularly attractive as well as the characters. I choose it as a school prize when I was fifteen, so I suppose the schoolgirl characters, whom I could relate to, were especially interesting to me then – and still are, in fact.

Frequent Hearses is in some ways the most serious of the books. (Although still with some very funny parts.) In it, Inspector Humbleby says to Fen,

'You seem to be a great deal more serious than I remembered.' Fen puts this down to the fact that he's older. 'As I get older,' he explained, 'I get less resilient and more predictable. it depresses me sometimes.'

But if that was really the reason, then what are we to make of his last book, The Glimpses of the Moon? True, there are some very serious bits. But mostly this book is, unlike the eight early novels, a farce from beginning to end, with some amazing characters, some marvellous action scenes, and the wit as always a constant factor. This book was a shock to me when I first read it, because in many ways it's so different from the others. I now think it's one of his best and I enjoy it more each time I read it. The Rector is a brilliant character. He's unashamedly bigoted about his own beliefs as opposed  to the beliefs of the Catholic Church; but in a way which is funny rather than awful. On the last page of the book he goes to Rome and meets the Pope.

' "Not a bad chap at all," was the Rector's verdict on his return, "If only you could hammer some sense about Christian doctrine into his silly noddle".' 

(This book also contains a character called Broderick Thouless who, like Crispin himself, wrote music for the soundtracks of films; so this is a portrait in caricature, if not of Crispin himself , then certainly of his job; which means it's not only very funny but also very interesting to Crispin's admirers.)

The Rector expresses some worries about his own views on the Catholic Church. He would hate to be compared to

'that dreadful fellow in Northern Ireland'.

And this takes us to the final thing I want to say about Crispin.

Edmund Crispin's father, Robert Montgomery, was born and brought up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. In fact, his grandfather William Montgomery came from Bangor, just down the road from where I live. Crispin never forgot his Irish roots, although his father had moved to England and married and settled there by the time Crispin was born in 1921. Crispin made determined efforts to introduce Northern Irish dialect words into the language, using them regularly in his books, such as 'oxter' which means the part of the body under the arm – a much more concise way of saying this when necessary. He and his sisters paid frequent visits to his Northern Irish grandmother; and he always referred to himself as 'Ulster Scots.' (His mother was from Scotland.)

No wonder, with this background, he's such a great writer! (Says she, tongue in cheek!)

And now to another Northern Irish writer. Well, me.

Belfast Girls, since I last blogged, has jumped up into the top hundred overall in Amazon UK, and has been there for over three weeks. I'm very excited, of course.

Danger Danger isn't doing too badly either – top 100 for Romance Suspense and Suspense Thrillers.


It would be nice to see my short story collection The Seanachie: Tales of Old Seamus catching up with them a bit. It's in the top 20 for books about Ireland, but this is a much smaller category.

Meanwhile, I'm nearly finished my next Irish romance suspense book, Angel in Flight. Hope to have it out by the end of May or early June. More about that next time.

Goodbye and God Bless!