Friday, August 12, 2022

Gervase Fen

From an appreciation of the mysteries by Bruce Montgomery writing as Edmund Crispin:
...Montgomery made Gervase Fen, the man who was to become his series detective, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford.

Gervase Fen quickly became one of the outstanding gentleman amateur detectives of English detective fiction, comfortably rubbing sophisticated shoulders with the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion. In contrast with these two Crime Queens (and Ngaio Marsh, whose detective Roderick Alleyn, though a policeman, is of the same breed), Montgomery did not make Fen’s love life a focal point, but confined the love stuff to secondary characters.... Fen himself is not really romantic leading man material. He can be vain, faddish and alarmingly blunt and his most prominent physical feature is his “dark hair, ineffectually plastered down with water,” that is “stuck out in spikes from the back of his head” (Holy Disorders). ....

Such is Crispin’s penchant for madcap humor that at times the humorous interludes rather overwhelm the mystery plot. This happens most obviously in the two novels which followed The Case of the Gilded Fly: Holy Disorders (1945) and The Moving Toyshop (1946). Of the latter novel, in modern times routinely pronounced (by Julian Symons and P.D. James for example) Crispin’s masterpiece, a reader for Crispin’s British publisher Gollancz presciently noted that it had “a thin plot....but nobody cares.” ....

In the late 1940s Bruce Montgomery, still in his twenties, was unquestionably in the prime of his creative life. In 1947, the year his fourth detective novel appeared, he was invited to join England’s Detection Club, a social organization of the country’s finest writers of detective fiction, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and John Dickson Carr. Fittingly, Montgomery was proposed for membership by his idol John Dickson Carr. ....

Buried for Pleasure achieves the comic heights of Holy Disorders and The Moving Toyshop, yet it also offers a more controlled mystery plot—a winning combination, in my view. The last two Edmund Crispin novels from the 1944-51 period, Frequent Hearses (published as Sudden Vengeance in the United States) and The Long Divorce, show signs of further artistic development in a serious direction. In particular, The Long Divorce offers the best of Crispin mystery plots along with an interesting, seriously presented female protagonist. ....

While I love the manic high spirits of some of the earlier Crispin tales, I find that Frequent Hearses and The Long Divorce have more than adequate compensations, namely strong plots ladled with rich dollops of humor (if not quite of the madcap sort). Frequent Hearses has amusing satire of the film world (with which Crispin had become familiar though his highly lucrative film score work), but my personal favorite of the two is The Long Divorce. ....

In so highly praising the fair play plotting of The Long Divorce, I do not mean to suggest that Crispin eschews humor in the novel. To the contrary, there are numerous amusing sections. Lavender’s anti-Martian mania is absolutely inspired, for example, and Colonel Babington’s efforts to quit smoking are quite funny. Crispin also gets in some droll satirical jabs at Continental intellectuals, in the form of the Swiss educationalist Peter Rubi:
“It is good for the children,” [Rubi] observed benevolently, “to destroy things sometimes. If they are allowed to do that, they grow up to be saner people.” He looked politely to Mr. Datchery [Gervase Fen] in confirmation of his doubtful thesis. “Is that not so, sir?”
“No,” said Mr. Datchery.
In my view, both Fen and his creator unequivocally triumph in The Long Divorce. Unfortunately it would prove something of a last hurrah for both Crispin and Fen. ..... (more)
The post includes biographical material about Montgomery (Crispin) that is ultimately very sad.

I read the books with much pleasure. The copies I had were paperbacks and I find that I have them no longer. I expect the paper had deteriorated beyond being even decent reading copies. The books are, though, still in print.

Curtis Evans, "The Creative Life and Death of Bruce Montgomery, aka Edmund Crispin," CrimeReads, August 12, 2022.

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