The Case of Gervase Fen

17 May

The detective Gervase Fen and his creator ‘Edmund Crispin’ were born (or, to be more accurate, conceived) sometime in April 1942, when a twenty-one-year-old Oxford undergraduate named Robert Bruce Montgomery was arguing about books over a congenial pint at a pub. His friend, the actor John Maxwell, was astonished that Montgomery had not read the detective stories of John Dickson Carr, famous as the creator of Dr Gideon Fell and master of locked-room mysteries and seemingly impossible crimes. Montgomery later recalled that in those days he was ‘a prig and an intellectual snob,’ but he agreed to read Carr’s shuddery novel of witch cults and rational detection, The Crooked Hinge. ‘I went to bed with it not expecting very much,’ Montgomery said. ‘But at two o’clock in the morning I was still sitting up with my eyes popping out of their sockets at the end of one of the sections—I think the third [actually it was the second]—with the doctor looking after the nerve-racked maid, saying, “You devil up there, what have you done?” And of course I finished the book that night. It was to be the seminal moment in my career, and to alter it entirely, for although subsequently I read and enjoyed other detective-story writers, in particular Michael Innes and Gladys Mitchell, it was Carr primarily who induced me to try my hand at one myself, thus creating Edmund Crispin.’

Under the pseudonym ‘Edmund Crispin’ Montgomery published his first detective novel, featuring Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford. The book was written at the urging of his friend, the novelist Charles Williams, during the Easter vacation of 1943, and it was published in Britain in 1944 as The Case of the Gilded Fly. The significance of the title was too obscure for his American publishers, who issued it the next year as Obsequies at Oxford, apparently under the impression that the word obsequies was less obscure and that the book has much to do with obsequies anyway. Crispin’s father was from Ulster, his mother from Scotland, and, perhaps as a compromise, Crispin himself was born in England. He described his childhood as ‘conventionally middle-class,’ with the bourgeois values of courtesy, fidelity, conscientiousness, and thrift. Although he admitted that he did not always live up to those standards, he found them valuable. ‘For all its limitations, decent bourgeoisisme seems to me not at all a bad or unreasonable code to live by—or to write by, either.’ His main interest was in music. As a boy, he learned to play the piano and the organ, and by the age of fourteen he had begun to compose his own pieces—‘dreadful rubbish, as you might expect,’ he said. He attended Merchant Taylors’ School; then in 1941 he earned a scholarship in Modern Languages as a student at St John’s College, Oxford. At St John’s, he became the college’s organist and choirmaster, president of Oxford University Music Club, and pianist to the University Ballet; and he continued to compose music. He also became a member of a coterie of students who hoped to make their mark in literature, including Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. Crispin may have thought that he was rather priggish, but Larkin recalled him as an awe-inspiring figure—probably just the sort of impression that the young Oxonian hoped to make. Crispin’s rooms contained a grand piano and a painting that he had done himself, and he let Larkin know that he was a composer. ‘Beneath this formidable exterior,’ Larkin discovered, ‘Bruce had unsuspected depths of frivolity.’

It is this depth of frivolity that sets Edmund Crispin’s detective novels apart from the works of his contemporaries. Some of the influences can be traced quite easily, and in fact Crispin did so himself in several interviews. The emphasis on formal, fair-play clueing, connected with a love of the bizarre and incongruous, comes from John Dickson Carr. The Case of the Gilded Fly features Carr’s specialty, murder in a locked or guarded room, and the solution is exactly the reverse of one that Carr had used half a dozen years earlier. Crispin even mentions Carr’s detective, Dr Gideon Fell, as though he were a real person; and like Carr Crispin enjoyed playing with the idea of having his characters realize that they are fictional. In Carr’s The Three Coffins, Dr Fell announces that ‘we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not.’ Similarly, one of the characters in The Case of the Gilded Fly objects to Gervase Fen’s cryptic remarks, and accuses him of engaging in mystification so that the solution ‘can’t come out till the last chapter.’ In Fen’s third case, The Moving Toyshop, the detective is imprisoned in a cupboard and passes time ‘making up titles for Crispin.’ Among the suggestions he comes up with are Fen Steps In, The Return of Fen, A Don Dares Death (A Gervase Fen Story), Murder Stalks the University, The Blood on the Mortar-Board, and Fen Strikes Back. In Holy Disorders, Fen faces a very Carrian case involving modern witchcraft but combined with Crispin’s own interest in characters, several of whom in this novel are organists. There is, moreover, a Carrian vigor in Crispin’s books, as when in The Moving Toyshop Fen attempts to escape from sinister pursuers by hiding among the choir of the Handel Society. Fen ‘took it into his head to improve the shining hour by joining in the singing; and Fen’s voice, though penetrating, was neither tuneful nor accurate.’ This comedy is combined with a sense of the bizarre that also comes from John Dickson Carr; The Moving Toyshop opens with a poet blundering into an Oxford toyshop where he happens upon a corpse. He is knocked unconscious, and when he awakes, not only the corpse but also the shop itself has disappeared.

Gervase Fen may have Gideon Fell’s initials, but otherwise he is not based on Carr’s characters but on the Oxford eccentrics that appear in the Inspector John Appleby novels of Michael Innes, the pseudonym of Oxford don J. I. M. Stewart. The use of a relatively obscure Shakespearean quotation for the title of the book is very much in the Innes tradition, even though on the last page of the novel Crispin gets the reference wrong. (The source is correct, but the quote comes two scenes later.) Fen speaks in literary quotations, and Crispin’s narrative occasionally indulges in obscure, polysyllabic words. In short, Crispin, like Innes, delights in being an educated person writing for an educated audience. Moreover, most of his books are based on a closed, self-regulated community—an Oxford college, an opera company, a boys’ public school, a film company, and so on—and the exaggerations of the characters produce social satire that is much like Innes, but quite foreign to Carr’s interests. And we might add that just as Carr’s Dr Fell is mentioned as a living person in The Case of the Gilded Fly, so too is Innes’s Inspector Appleby in Holy Disorders. Sometimes Crispin descends to mere facetiousness, but usually he combines boisterousness with comedy of manners in a way that is unique to his books. It was, as Larkin realized, a depth of frivolity that produced such works as Buried for Pleasure, the sixth and probably best Gervase Fen novel. In that book, Fen runs for Parliament as an independent, and he stays at a pub featuring the presence of a ‘non-doing pig’ and the constant (and destructive) renovations by the pub’s owner.

‘I have no great liking,’ he said ‘… for the more so-called “realistic” crime story … I believe that crime stories in general and detective stories in particular should be essentially imaginative and artificial in order to make their best effect.’ Crispin revelled in the puzzle element of the form. In December 1944, shortly after the publication of The Case of the Gilded Fly, he and three friends—a composer (Geoffrey Bush), an economist (Peter Self), and a navy officer who would become a criminal lawyer (Michael Self)—formed The Carr Society in homage to John Dickson Carr. Members of the society would invent and narrate detective short stories, with proper clues, and they would challenge the other members to solve the mystery. Who Killed Baker?, which leads off Crispin’s posthumous short-story collection Fen Country, was originally told by Geoffrey Bush at The Carr Society, and written up by Crispin. The Fen novel, Love Lies Bleeding, began as a puzzle for The Carr Society, and Crispin dedicated the book to what he called ‘The Carr Club.’ Crispin invited Carr himself to attend an all-day meeting of the society named in his honour. Seven puzzle-stories were narrated that day, and Carr participated fully in trying to solve the mysteries. In 1947, Crispin received a letter from Carr inviting him to become a member of London’s prestigious Detection Club, which had recently reassembled after being inactive during the war. Almost all of the masters of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction were members: Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, E. C. Bentley, Anthony Berkeley, Christianna Brand, Gladys Mitchell, Nicholas Blake, Freeman Wills Crofts, and others. During the elaborate initiation ceremony, Carr proposed and Christie seconded Crispin’s membership.

Crispin’s eighth detective novel, The Long Divorce, was published in 1951, followed by a short-story collection, Beware of the Trains, in 1953, but those books were his last volumes of detective fiction for many years. It has been suggested that Crispin stopped writing because he had exhausted the fair-play form, but there is no sign of that either in his books or in his own comments. Crispin called the next stage of his life ‘my film-music period’ during which ‘I lay fallow for the most part, drinking rather too heavily and writing little beyond reviews of crime fiction for the London Sunday Times.’ The fact is that he found he could make a living with his first love, composing. His serious compositions, produced under his own name, are primarily choral pieces, including An Ode to the Resurrection of Christ, An Oxford Requiem, Venus’s Praise, The Century’s Crown (to a poem by Philip Larkin in honour of the Coronation), and Amberley Hall (with a libretto by Kingsley Amis). As a composer Crispin was conservative in musical form, and lively in presentation, but his most prolific work was for motion pictures. He wrote background music for more than forty films, and often conducted the orchestras himself. By the middle 1970s, however, Crispin had decided to return to detective fiction. Like his departure from it more than twenty years earlier, this decision had nothing to do with exhausting any form. ‘I realized,’ he said, ‘that I was beginning to run out of money, and went back to writing Crispin novels.’ The result was The Glimpses of the Moon, published in 1977. Gervase Fen returned in all his charmingly eccentric glory in this book, but sadly it was to be Crispin’s last work. He hoped not only to write more Fen novels, but also planned a series of crime stories under his own name, the first of which was to be a comic novel about doctors, What Seems to Be the Trouble? What was to happen in this novel, and what other cases Gervase Fen might have solved we cannot know. Robert Bruce Montgomery, a.k.a. Edmund Crispin, died suddenly on September 15, 1978; he was 57 years old.

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