Sunday, November 27, 2011

What "Killed" Crispin? The Creative Life and Death of Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin, Part Four

After the publication of The Long Divorce (1951) Bruce Montgomery would not publish another detective novel for twenty-six years.  He did, however, author a spate of mystery short stories--mostly short shorts--in the 1950s, plus a very small number of them afterward.  These were gathered in two collections, Beware of the Trains (1953) and Fen Country (1979).

The former collection, in which Montgomery was able to revise the stories, is much the superior of the two, although two of the tales in Fen Country, the classical "Who Killed Baker?" (co-authored with Geoffrey Bush, a fellow composer and son of Golden Age detective novelist Christopher Bush) and the sardonic and brilliantly titled "We Know You're Busy Writing, But We Thought You Wouldn't Mind if We Just Dropped in for a Minute" (where a crime writer with writer's block--who seems suspiciously like "Edmund Crispin"--is provoked to desperate measures to damn the flow of "friends" thoughtlessly interrupting his work) are outstanding.  In his biography of Montgomery David Whittle is quite right to praise both these tales.

 Links for reviews of the two Crispin short story collections:

We also learn in some detail from Whittle how Montgomery became a devoted member of the Detection Club, that august organization of England's finest detective novelists.  It will be recalled that Montgomery was initiated into the Club in 1947, at the recommendation of his 1940s mystery idol, John Dickson Carr.  The charming Montgomery was well-liked by the members, including the formidable Dorothy L. Sayers, who I know from my own study of Sayers' correspondence referred to Montgomery as "Young Crispin."  In one letter to Sayers, however, Montgomery did apologize for "cadging so many cigarettes at the last meeting" (see my recent CADS Supplement 14, Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play)!

Dorothy L. Sayers

A number of Detection Club members shared Montgomery's thirst for liquor.  Montgomery got along quite well, evidently, with both the popular John Dickson Carr and the less popular Anthony Berkeley, both of whom were themselves bibulous gentlemen.  Whittle quotes a colorful letter by Montgomery that is filled with sentimental alcoholic reminiscence (this letter is in the possession of Carr scholar Douglas Greene):

Those were the days, weren't they?--when, e.g., I fell drunkenly asleep on Christianna Brand's ample bosom in a taxi, and she had the greatest difficulty in shifting me; when you and Tony Berkeley and I indulged in maudlin confessions of our sexual preferences one late afternoon in the Mandrake Club; when I tried, after four bottles of champagne and two of brandy apiece to fight a duel with you in your Hampstead flat with (unbuttoned) foils....
John Dickson Carr

These exploits are amusing, though perhaps less so when realize that Montgomery was developing a serious alcohol problem that was to drastically inhibit his creative work.

Montgomery also was experiencing dissatisfaction in his romantic life, evidently being unable to bring relationships with women to full emotional and physical consummation.  Montgomery "liked to think of himself as a womanizer...but he was simply not cut out for it," writes Whittle.  "This could well account for the idealistic portraits of eligible young women  he draws in his novels.  There was a juvenile streak in him...and his drinking did not help matters either.  'There are times I'd be happier without sex,' he wrote in 1956.  With his male friends he talked a lot about women because it was the thing to do, but he was incapable of bringing a relationship to a resolution, perhaps because he did not want to be seen as ordinary in any way."

Additionally, Montgomery's health was deteriorating from overindulgence in alcohol and cigarettes.  In Whittle's view these factors, plus Montgomery's own temperamental indolence and lack of confidence (despite his impressive early career) led him to almost entirely abandon not only his literary work, but the lucrative writing of film scores as well.

Since the mid-1950s, Montgomery had been promising his publisher, Gollancz, a new mystery, Judgement in Paris, but in 1965 he dropped it.  By 1969, Montgomery claimed he was two-thirds through with a new Gervase Fen crime novel, entitled The Glimpses of the Moon, but it did not finally make it into print until 1977, just two years before Montgomery's death.  Judging from his correspondence, Montgomery now found writing a murderous endeavor.  "[S]eems the same mixture as before....I don't seem to have matured in any way," he wrote dispiritedly of Glimpses in 1969.  And: "[O]n the final agonising stages of my bloody novel.  God almighty, how I detest writing!"

A 1966 journal Whittle discovered makes sad reading for the Edmund Crispin admirer.  Here are some brief extracts:

2 January
"Hangover.  Day in bed."

3 January
"[N]othing accomplished.  Must have read, but can't remember what.  Must have drunk a bit, too.  Again futile."

4 January
" Much too much drink."

5 January
"Gave up smoking, god help me.  No drink all day either.  (No work, either).  Reading Ngaio Marsh's 'Swing, Brother, Swing'--poor, and if she's going to write about jazz bands, why the hell can't she find out something about them?  'Tympanist' indeed."

Whittle quotes two more bleak weeks from this grim journal of futility.  Unquestionably Montgomery had descended a great way from that handsome and dazzlingly brilliant young man at Oxford who produced both detective novels and musical compositions seemingly with the greatest of ease (for the first photo, my thanks to John Norris of

Still there are some positive things to say about the last dozen years or so of Bruce Montgomery's life, as David Whittle shows.  In 1967, Montgomery became, at his friend Julian Symons' behest, Symons' successor as the crime fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times.  He remained active in the Detection Club.  And, in 1977, he finally gave fans of Edmund Crispin their long-awaited glimpse of a new detective novel.  More on all this in Part Five (the last).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Another Pass by Jefferson Farjeon (1883-1955)

J. Jefferson Farjeon (the "J" stands for Joseph--Farjeon was named for his maternal grandfather, the famous American stage actor Joseph Jefferson, and was known as "Joe" to friends and family, even though readers knew him as Jefferson Farjeon) is one of those prolific Golden Age mystery writers who has fallen into almost total obscurity today--quite unjustly, I think.

(pictured below: Farjeon's grandfather, Joseph Jefferson, in his signature stage role, "Rip Van Winkle," and  Jefferson's country home in southern Louisiana, today a stunning house museum, where Farjeon's mother grew up)

 And a link to an informative page on Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905):

Between 1924 (The Master Criminal) and 1954 (Castle of Fear), Farjeon published by my count fifty-five adult mystery novels (including a few under the name Anthony Swift; he also published several children's mysteries).  He achieved considerable popularity in both the United States and Great Britain, in the latter country becoming one of the staple authors of the Collins Crime Club from 1929 until his death; and he had the distinction, along with such authors as Josephine Tey, Ethel Lina White, Selwyn Jepson and Francis Beeding, of having one of his works, in his case the play (later novel) No. 17, made into an Alfred Hitchcock film.

(pictured below: still from the Alfred Hitchcock film Number 17.  See

Farjeon is barely remembered today, except for the Hitchcock connection and for his being the brother of beloved children's writer Eleanor Farjeon (he was also the son of the accomplished Victorian novelist Benjamin Farjeon, but the father himself is pretty neglected these days as well).

Eleanor Farjeon
Why Farjeon should be so forgotten escapes me.  He was a popular writer in his day and received many good notices on both sides of the Atlantic.  Granted, a number of his novels fall into a pattern, as one would expect from a prolific genre writer.  And to be sure, Farjeon primarily wrote thrillers, but he was no slavish imitator of such bigger name thriller writers as Edgar Wallace, Sax Rohmer, Sapper and Sydney Horler (for one thing, Farjeon, whose father was a Jew, eschewed the antisemitism commonly found in English "shockers" at this time).  Joe Farjeon on the whole was a gentle and whimsical writer, giving his works their own distinct tone and style, closer, arguably, to the thrillers of Agatha Christie than those of the men.

At heart, Farjeon's thrillers are tales of the empowerment of the weak and the meek, who confront fantastic adventures and dark menaces, but triumph in the end.  Not counting his series character, the downtrodden but resilient "passing tramp" Ben, Farjeon's protagonists often are male clerks or female secretaries, "little people" leading drab, harassed lives, and longing for adventure--something they definitely find in the course of the narratives!  Farjeon is one Golden Age author disinclined to admire people simply because they have titles.

One can dip into any of the Farjeon books from the 1930s and 1940s almost at random and get a sense of his style.  The Windmill Mystery (1934), for instance, is a typical enough example (Farjeon sweetly dedicated this book "To My Dear Mother, who can no longer enjoy my books, but who still seems close to me when I write").  Let's let the Collins Crime Club tell us about the plot of this tale:
The windmill stood out dark and sinister against a background of angry cloud-castles that foretold the coming storm.  Lionel Savage, pack on back, and all set for a week-end hike, glimpsed it from the little wayside railway station and decided it might prove a suitable objective.  Crossing the heath, he met a charming girl, and when the storm broke they raced to the mill for shelter.  It was the start of an amazing adventure which rapidly developed in a crescendo of excitement, until as one hair-rising incident succeeded another the two hikers found themselves involved in a sort of non-stop Grand Guignol of thrills.

Now who can resist little wayside train stations and dark and sinister windmills?  Admittedly, this is a pretty typical sort of plot for Farjeon (with a windmill rather than a house, inn or even castle).  But Farjeon also wrote some unique books that emerged rather ahead of the rest of the pack.

Farjeon novels that in my view particularly stand out include (besides such "Ben the Tramp" books as Ben on the Job, 1952)

 the following titles:

1. Holiday Express (1935)

In this train mystery thriller the protagonist is a wonderfully-characterized child, an ingenuous young boy, and the book is written as if he himself had written it.

2. 13 Guests (1936)

Farjeon's take on a full dress, traditional country house detective novel, impeccably done.  The dust jacket of the American edition, pictured below, below carries Dorothy L. Sayers assertion that "Jefferson Farjeon is quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures."

 3. Mystery in White (1937)

A classic situation: Christmas travelers exiting a snowbound train come upon an empty country house where something quite unpleasant may have happened....

4. End of an Author (1938)

A remarkable and original work: the perilous adventures of a burned-out, extremely prolific thriller writer (Farjeon himself had published thirty thrillers in fifteen years at this time) and his lady secretary in a remote part of East Anglia; wonderfully self-referential about the genre and the setting is superb.  Reprinted as Death in the Inkwell (1942) in the United States, with a last page that can be read only with the use of a mirror!  This tantalizing feature does not appear in the earlier British edition, evidently.  Willliam Lyon Phelps, former Lampson Professor of English Literature at Yale and a prominent public intellectual in the United States who was a great admirer of Farjeon, called this tale "a brilliant, original and very exciting murder story."

5. Aunt Sunday Sees It Through/Aunt Sunday Takes Command (1940)

In this one the protagonist is an elderly woman who, thrown into a nest of crooks, proves to have amazing resources of character to draw on and a positive genius for extemporizing.

6. The Judge Sums Up (1942)

Farjeon's most successful attempt at a true detective novel and a forgotten courtroom classic.

7. The Double Crime (1953)

A final country house detective novel in the traditional style, except here one of the key narrative focal points is a down-at-his-heels, ex-lag, Cockney traveling salesman, sympathetically presented.  An interesting look is provided at mansion life on both sides of the baize door.

Also worth noting is Farjeon's apocalyptic sci-fi novel, Death of a World (1948).  Appalled by the carnage of World War Two and the Cold War atomic arms race that followed, a dismayed Farjeon produced what was by far his bleakest book.  Some of Farjeon's post-war crime novels are darker as well, but none of them are remotely as grim as Death of a World, a genuine social protest novel by a Golden Age crime writer.

 In the May 1939 Penguin paperback edition of No. 17 (which was reprinted four times by August 1941), Jefferson Farjeon's author's bio (pictured above) gives some idea of his unique personality as a crime thriller writer:
He walks up and down when talking and thinking, always types his work himself, is ultra-tidy, vegetarian, but doesn't like vegetables (hence difficulties), takes a cold tub every morning, is pacifist, likes photography, tomato soup and drawing funny animals (Animals are funny because I can't draw them, he says).
Crime thriller writers tend to cultivate tough guy (and these days tough gal) images.  Not Mr. J. Jefferson Farjeon, who dared to be different.  Read him yourself for something different (if you can find him!).

Friday, November 25, 2011

What "Killed" Crispin? The Creative Life and Death of Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin, Part Three

In his biography of Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin, David Whittle argues, correctly I think, that the last two Edmund Crispin books from the 1944 to 1951 series--Frequent Hearses/Sudden Vengeance (1950) and The Long Divorce (1951)--clearly evince the author's "growing regard for plot."  One reviewer of Frequent Hearses, Whittle notes, lamented his own previous castigation of the flippancies in the earlier Crispin detective novels:

I railed against his undergraduate cleverness, but now that [Crispin] writes a straightforward crime story without the sparkling digressions and slapstick repartee of his earlier books, I am sorry, as it were, that I spoke.

While I love the manic high spirits of some of the earlier Crispin tales, I find that Frequent Hearses/Sudden Vengeance 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/Sudden Vengeance has amusing satire of the film world (with which Montgomery had become familiar though his highly lucrative film score work), but my personal favorite of the two is The Long Divorce.  In my 1988 Mysterious Press edition of the book I wrote in the back, upon completing the book on October 8th, 1995 (that was long enough ago that I was younger than Crispin when he wrote it), "absolutely brilliant!"--which I think perhaps gives a hint that I liked it.  On rereading it in 2011 I still do, very much.

The epigraph to the novel ("the long divorce of steel") comes from Shakespeare's Henry VIII (there's a play you don't see pillaged for quotations every day).  I won't say more about that, but it is quite cleverly worked into the story.  For some reason the epigraph is omitted in the current Felony & Mayhem edition, which otherwise is as attractive and cleverly designed as all their other Crispin editions.

The Long Divorce takes place in 1950, between the dates of Friday, June 2 and Monday, June 5 (at these respective points Gervase Fen is on his way from and on his way to, appropriately enough in a Crispin novel, a train station).  In the guise of "Mr. Datchery" (bonus points if you know this literary reference), Fen is descending on the village of Cotten Abbas to investigate (at local police request) a rash of poison pen letters plaguing the citizenry.  Just this basic set-up should be more than enough to hook the fan of classic English mystery (it certainly hooked me).

One is right to take the bait Crispin offers with The Long Divorce, because the novel is one of the very best of that ever so enticing literary species, the English village poison pen mystery (probably the best known example is Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger, 1942).

More serious-minded in this novel, Crispin at times casts a sharp, discerning eye over Cotten Abbas and he provides some interesting social commentary on post-war English village life:

Cotten Abbas is sixty or seventy miles from London and obscurely conveys the impression of having strayed there out of a film set.  As with most show-villages, you are apt to feel, when confronted with it, that some impalpable process of embalming is at work, some prophylactic against change and decay which while creditable in itself has yet resulted in a certain degree of stagnation....It all had a prosperous look--but its prosperity, Mr. Datchery thought, was less that of a working class village than that of a village which has been settled by the well-to-do: in a population which could scarcely number more than a couple hundred, it was obviously the invading middle classes that ruled, badly weakened by post-war conditions, but still hanging on.
This sort of keen observation can be found in other 1950s English village detective novels as well, like Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced and Miles Burton's Bones in the Brickfield (as well as a number of tales by Elizabeth Ferrars, a key figure in the replacement of the classic "country house" mystery with the more modern "country cottage" mystery); but The Long Divorce offers a particularly fine instance of such.

As in Buried for Pleasure, Fen again ensconces himself at an inn and encounters a number of interesting characters.  There's Mr. Rolt, the local saw mill owner looked down on by the village elite for his rough ways and determination to locate his mill at a local beauty spot; Rolt's teenage daughter, Penelope, who talks of the romance of throwing oneself in front of a train and who has a painful crush on an unresponsive local schoolteacher, Peter Rubi, a highly intellectual young man of Swiss derivation; Mr. Mogridge, the gossipy and unctuous local innkeeeper; Helen Downing, an Oxford educated local doctor, relatively newly arrived in the village; George Sims, the established doctor; Inspector Edward Casby, the man tasked with investigating the rash of poison pen letters; Colonel Babington, the Chief Constable, desperately trying to break his smoking habit (like the author at the time); Babington's demented cat, Lavender, constantly on the alert for a Martian invasion (yes, you read that correctly); Amos Weaver, evangelical preacher and local butcher; and assorted female house servants, increasingly scarce and precious beings in post-war England.

Soon after Fen's arrival, seemingly a poison pen letter induces Helen Downing's wealthy friend, Beatrice Keats-Madderly, to commit suicide.  Following this dire event, a fatal stabbing occurs, of one of the above characters, who seems to have been close to discovering the identity of the author of the poison pen letters.  Much to her distress, Helen Downing becomes a "person of interest" in the investigation, many pieces of evidence seeming to point to her as the source of the village's troubles.

Crispin lavishes attention on the two primary female characters, Helen Downing and Penelope Rolt; and they are treated not flippantly but seriously, with considerable insight and understanding.  Rolt is an attractive and appealing girl, but she is painfully in love and acutely awkward in her feelings.  For her part, Helen Downing is an intelligent and sensitive woman doctor trying to establish herself in a highly traditionalist village (she bears a certain resemblance to Alida Mountwell, a doctor character in Miles Burton's excellent 1943 village mystery, Murder M.D.--though Mountwell is a more confident individual).

Indeed, with the middle section of the book, Crispin completely shifts the narrative focal point of Divorce from Fen to Downing, sweeping the reader up in Downing's plight, as suspicion starts to focus on her.  This section of the book rather reminds one of psychological suspense novels from the 1950s by such authors as Ursula Curtiss and Margaret Millar.  It is quite effectively done.

Narrative focus shifts back to Fen for the last part of the novel, where he provides a brilliant exposition of the crime.  Fen's deductions are all based on clues fairly presented to the reader, yet in this reader's case, anyway, a lot of these clues were culpably missed!  When Fen departs Cotten Abbas, the Great Detective has restored order to the English village, in the classic fashion so admired by W. H. Auden in his widely-cited (perhaps over-cited) essay on detective fiction, "The Guilty Vicarage."

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 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.  It would be something of a last hurrah for both Crispin and Fen.  In the final part of this series, I will look at David Whittle's trenchant analysis of what killed--or at least gravely wounded--Crispin's creative impulse.

"I wonder what Gervase Fen would do...."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What "Killed" Crispin? The Creative Life and Death of Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin, Part Two

To speak of early, middle and late period Crispin when referring to the eight Edmund Crispin detective novels Bruce Montgomery published in the brief eight years that spanned 1944 to 1951 may seem odd; yet, as David Whittle shows in his biography of Montgomery, the Crispin novels sobered up somewhat over the course of those years (even as the author began drinking more).  To be sure, strong humorous elements remain up through the last of this small group of novels, The Long Divorce, yet increasingly the author's tone becomes perceptibly less madcap.

Evidence suggests that by the appearance of The Long Divorce Montgomery was on his way to becoming, say, a more humorous Ngaio Marsh; yet at this point Montgomery's own temperamental indolence led to the commencement of his long narrative silence.  The money he was realizing in the 1950s from his film scores made writing economically unnecessary and, in any event, by the sixties Montgomery, beset with poor health (he smoked heavily all his adult life) and descending into alcoholism, had almost entirely ceased composing as well.  For twenty-five years he promised his publisher, Gollancz, a new detective novel, but this novel, which came to be titled The Glimpses of the Moon, never materialized until 1977, a year before Montgomery's death.

Detection Club Dinner

However, in the late 1940s, Montgomery, still in his twenties, was unquestionably in the prime of his creative life.  In 1947, the year his fourth detective novel appeared, Crispin was invited to join England's august 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 mystery idol, John Dickson Carr. 

The next three Edmund Crispin novels--1947's Swan Song, which deals with the world of opera, and 1948's Love Lies Bleeding and Buried for Pleasure, which concern, respectively, deaths at a school and a country village--are all fine books, reflecting in some respects, as Whittle notes, a greater seriousness on the part of the author, yet still retaining the peerless Crispin humor.  Of the three tales my favorite is Buried for Pleasure, one of the most notable British detective novels satirizing life in a post-war, austerity-era England governed by a Labour party determined to make what it saw as long overdue social and political change in the country (others that come to mind are Miles Burton's Death Takes the Living, 1949, Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced, 1950, and Henry Wade's Diplomat's Folly, 1951).  Montgomery, a lifelong Tory of "strongly conservative disposition" in Whittle's words, obviously was not overly enamored with the Labour party; yet his humor is so winning that readers who may not share that disposition should enjoy Pleasure too.

As the cover of the recent Felony & Mayhem edition of the novel suggests, Buried for Pleasure concerns English politics.  It seems that Fen has rather quixotically gotten it in his head to stand for a seat in Parliament from a country constituency.  When Fen steps out at the train station serving Sanford Angelorum, he finds his quest is met skeptically by his driver, an attractive young woman named Diana:

"Look here," she said, "you're a professor at Oxford, aren't you?"
"Of English."
"Well, what on earth...I mean, why are you standing for Parliament?  What put that idea into your head?
Even to himself Fen's actions were sometimes unaccountable, and he could think of no very convincing reply.
"It is my wish," he said sanctimoniously, "to serve the community."
The girl eyed him dubiously.
"Or at least," he amended, "that is one of my motives.  Besides, I felt I was getting far too restricted in my interests.  Have you ever produced a definitive edition of Langland?"
"Of course not," she said crossly.
"I have.  I just finished producing one.  It has queer psychological effects.  You begin to wonder if you're mad.  And the only remedy for that is a complete change of occupation."
"What it amounts to is you haven't any serious interest in politics at all," the girl said with unexpected severity.

When Fen makes his way into the village and his lodging at The Fish Inn, he meets an amazingly rich gallery of characters; a traditionalist detective novelist likely modeled on his fellow Detection Club members John Rhode (Cecil John Charles Street) and Freeman Wills Crofts ("Characterization seems to me a very over-rated element in fiction," he pronounces); the comely and amiable manageress of The Fish Inn; the owner of The Fish Inn, determined to evade exacting labor regulations by expanding his inn himself, with the help of friends and family--with dubious results; a Socialist lord; the lord's skeptical, phlegmatic butler (who understands Thorstein Veblen much better than his master); Fen's unflappably cynical "old boy" campaign manager; a cleric living in a house haunted by a not altogether frightening poltergeist; an escaped lunatic (at times he thinks he's Woodrow Wilson and is apt to lecture on his Fourteen Points); a chorus of rustics; and, last but certainly not least as things turn out, a "non-doing" pig (always watch out for animals in Crispin, as Whittle points out).

Buried for Pleasure is simply brimming over with a froth of delicious comic richness.  I would venture to characterize it one of the finest English rural comedy novels, even with its murders (not for nothing, as Whittle notes, is mention made of Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm).  Yet the fair play murder plot line is capably and cogently managed by the author and engaging in its own right.  And the political satire is masterful.  Fen's anti-Labour parable concerning the practice of the politics of envy during the Cold War (it seems there were three foxes--Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego--who, jealous of each others unique possessions, ended up squabbling until, distracted, they fell "easy prey to a number of cannibal foxes which descended on them from the East and tore them limb from limb") is quite a clever piece of rhetoric, whatever one's views of the politics of the era (Whittle's own discussion of the Crispin detective novels is quite good on the whole, but I was disappointed that this parable--the high point of the political plot--received scant attention from him).

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 1944-1951 period, Frequent Hearses (renamed Sudden Vengeance in Felony & Mayhem's new edition) and The Long Divorce, show signs of further artistic development in a serious direction.  In particular, The Long Divorce offers the best Crispin mystery plot along with a very interesting and seriously presented female protagonist.  More on this novel and Crispin's long years of decline, so instructively chronicled by David Whittle, in Part Three (coming soon, I hope!).

What "Killed" Crispin? The Creative Life and Death of Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin, Part One

Music composer Bruce Montgomery (1921-1978), who as Edmund Crispin wrote eight glitteringly witty and amusing detective novels between 1944 and 1951 (as well as, with Geoffrey Bush, a fellow composer and the son of detective novelist Christopher Bush, the classic short story "Who Killed Baker?") is the subject of a fine 2007 biography by David Whittle, Director of Music at Leicester Grammar School, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books.  Every admirer of Crispin's mystery fiction (and of Montgomery's music) should want to read this biography, but unfortunately affordable copies are hard to find--the publisher, Ashgate, lists it at $124.95.  It took me four years to find a copy I was willing to buy (at $35)!

Whittle's book was $35 well-spent, in my view, for he writes with insight not only about Montgomery's career in music, but also, more pertinently to this blog, the detective fiction that Montgomery wrote under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin.  Whittle chronicles both the impressive rise of this author--he had published eight novels and twenty-one musical compositions by the time he was thirty-two years old--and his sad decline.  Montgomery's productive life both as an author and a composer mostly ended by the time he was forty, as he descended into alcoholism and the stunted life of "an increasingly remote semi-recluse."

To be sure, Montgomery left us the delightful Edmund Crispin detective novels (all still in print today, courtesy of Felony & Mayhem), but once one has read them one cannot help but wish for more and wonder why Montgomery's creative well dried up so comparatively quickly.  P. D. James, born a year before Crispin, has just published, at the age of 91, a new detective novel and she has been publishing them for a half-century now.  After his first eight detective novels, Montgomery managed only one additional mystery tale, The Glimpses of the Moon (1977), before his untimely death at the age of 56.

The son of a civil servant who rose to become Principal Clerk in the India Office, Bruce Montgomery with one notable exception had a normal, happy childhood and never lost the conservative, bourgeois mindset produced by his upbringing, despite his Oxford education and penchant for gloriously affected Noel Coward-ish picture poses (see below).

The only unhappiness in his childhood came as the result of a "congenital deformity of the feet" from which he suffered--he was born with his feet turned inward--so that he underwent frequent operations up to the age of fourteen and had during that time to wear calipers up to his shins.  Whittle clearly believes that painful consciousness of his physical imperfection inhibited Crispin from having normal physical relationships with women ("he could not be bothered to do what they required," as Whittle tactfully puts it), though he was attracted by them and frequently enjoyed their company,  Montgomery finally married only a couple of years before his in 1978, when he already was in extremely poor health.

Reading locked room mystery maestro John Dickson Carr's brilliant, shuddery Gideon Fell detective novel The Crooked Hinge, Whittle explains, inspired Montgomery while still a student at Oxford to pen his own mystery tale, The Case of the Gilded Fly, at the tender age (for a published author) of 23.  Also influenced by the donnish detective novelist Michael Innes (and his own surroundings), Montgomery made Gervase Fen, the man who was to become his series detective, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford.

Fen quickly became one of the outstanding gentleman amateur detectives of English detective fiction, comfortably rubbing 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, who, Whittle notes, tend, rather ingenuously on the part of the author, to fall in love and decide to get married almost on sight.  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).

Love interest is not what distinguishes Edmund Crispin mystery tales, but rather intelligence, humor, narrative zest and--more often, I think, than Whittle recognizes--clever fair play plotting.  Edmund Crispin (let us use this name to discuss Montgomery in his authorial guise) has something of the formidable literary intellect of Michael Innes, yet his humor is earthier, less precious, less an acquired taste.  In my view, Crispin is one of the great comedic writers in English detective fiction.

 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 that followed FlyHoly Disorders, 1945, and The Moving Toyshop,1946).  Of the latter, in modern times routinely declared (by Julian Symons and P. D. James for example) Crispin's masterpiece, a reader for Crispin's publisher, Gollancz, presciently noted that it had "a thin plot....but nobody cares."  In the reader's view, Toyshop rose to glory on the wings of its comic "verve."  Most modern readers would agree, though over the years some detection purists, like Jacques Barzun, have dissented.  "Heaven help you if you're expecting detection," noted a querulous contemporary reviewer.

Holy Disorders also amply illustrates this quality of Edmund Crispin's detective fiction (as does publisher Felony & Mayhem's rather brilliant cover design).  Fen does not appear at all in the first third of the tale, the early action mostly being a succession of brilliant comic set pieces as Geoffrey Vintner, Fen's Watson of the moment, attempts to make his way to the cathedral town of Tolnbridge, where misdeeds are afoot.  It seems dark forces are trying to stop him, and he almost immediately is thrown into a hilarious melee in the sports section of a department store (Fen, who has called for Vintner's aid, has mysteriously requested his friend to get him a butterfly net).

Afterwards, Vintner embarks on a train journey (train journeys in Crispin invariable are delightfully presented), where he meets an assortment of colorful characters, including a psychiatrist who is having a crisis of faith in psychiatry (Crispin's ironic play on the conventional situation of the clergyman losing faith in God), and a vociferous member of the newly energized laboring classes, who demands the right to travel in a first-class carriage ("When we get socialism, see, which is what we're fighting for, see, you and your like will have to show some respect for me, see, instead of treating me like a lot of dirt, see?"--one wonders what the noted leftist Victor Gollancz made of this fellow).

Eventually the mystery plot proper does start to unfold, and an interesting enough plot it is, but probably the highlight of the book is when Fen and Vintner visit one eminent suspect in his home, and find to their bemusement that Poe's poem "The Raven" seems to be materializing before their eyes.  One reviewer deemed Holy Disorders "social comedy with a focus in murder"--which seems a fair enough description!

The mysteries from Crispin's middle period--Swan Song (1947), Love Lies Bleeding (1948) and Buried for Pleasure (1948)--are somewhat less humorously harum-scarum than Disorders and Toyshop, as David Whittle notes, and on the whole are more satisfying as detective novels as a result.  In part two of this review article I will discuss middle period Crispin as well as later period Crispin (represented by Frequent Hearses/Sudden Vengeance, 1950, and The Long Divorce, 1951), and also the long silence that reigned over Edmund Crispin's writing life until, near his death, he finally finished one last Gervase Fen tale, The Glimpses of the Moon, in 1977.  David Whittle is particularly illuminating on Crispin's later life, solving the mystery of what extinguished the man's once glorious creative spark.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Passing Tramp

Ah, the passing tramp!  That convenient figure in Golden Age English country house mystery on whom the posh people try to pin the murder of their despised weekend host (the one they themselves all had quite excellent motives for killing).  Who could have slipped in through the French windows and clobbered Sir Ovid Overr-Baring with that bust of Wellington?  Why, it must have been a passing tramp, of course!

One enterprising Golden Age English mystery writer, Jefferson Farjeon (1883-1955), had the originality to make just such a "passing tramp"--a cheeky Cockney fellow named Ben--into one of the era's unlikeliest series detectives.  Ben appeared as the lead character in a series of eight Jefferson Farjeon crime novels, published between 1926 and 1952.  Ben also featured in an early Alfred Hitchcock talkie film, Number 17 (1932), which was based on the hugely popular play by Farjeon of the same title (it was also novelized by Farjeon).

Pictured at the top of this post (and, indeed, at the top of the page) is Leon M. Lion, a popular English actor who played Ben on screen (and on stage).  I much prefer the Ben of Farjeon's books, because over the course of the series Ben develops greater depth than Leon M. Lion's film version, who rather reminds me of Moe of the Three Stooges.  Be that as it may, the dust jacket of Detective Ben (1936), seen below, clearly owes a debt to Mr. Lion.

After World War Two, Farjeon revived Ben in two novels he published in 1952, just a few years before his death from cancer. The very last Ben novel, Number 19, likely was conceived by the author as the resilient tramp's last hurrah, its title obviously deliberately recalling the title of the first Ben outing.  The dust jacket of this tale better captures the Ben of the novels, I think (note his worn, split shoe).

One of the Ben novels was reprinted in 1986 by the Collins Crime Club as part of H. R. F Keating's "Disappearing Detectives" series.  Ben is worth reviving, both for his own intrinsic merit as a character and as evidence that the Golden Age mystery did not always revile the lower classes.  Author Seton Dearden approvingly wrote of Ben that he "is a mixture of Trimalchio and the Old Kent Road, a notable coward, a notable hero, above all a supreme humorist"; while the Saturday Review lauded his "adorable Cockney insouciance and nerve."

Interestingly, Jefferson Farjeon was a brother of Eleanor Farjeon, the famous children's writer, and a son of Benjamin Farjeon, a Victorian-era novelist who during  a highly prolific writing career produced several worthwhile mystery sensation novels.  The son carried with him something of the father's interest in and empathy for England's poor and downtrodden.

Jefferson Farjeon's "Ben" Mystery Thrillers
No. 17 (1926) (filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Number 17 in 1932)
The House Opposite (1931)
The Murderer's Trail (1931)
Ben Sees It Through (1932)
Little God Ben (1935)
Detective Ben (1936)
Ben on the Job (1952) (reprinted 1986)
Number 19 (1952)