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!).


  1. "Buried for Pleasure" sounds great. Incidentally, I have a copy of this book via Interlibrary Loan-- does Whittle spoil Crispin's mysteries? I flipped through the pages and found that he spoils it without warning for "The Case of the Gilded Fly", and I decided to stop looking after seeing that.

  2. It was very interesting to read your opinion on Buried for Pleasure. It is a Penguin that I am yet to find, but John Bowen discussed it in the last Penguin Collector, and it was the Crispin novel he didn't enjoy.

    Thank you for your encouraging comments on my blog. I am enjoying these posts on J.Jefferson Farjeon and Crispin; I'm hoping you'll do one soon on Henry Wade.

    Best wishes,

  3. Patrick, thanks for mentioning that about the spoiler, I should mention that in case anyone is as quick as you and gets a hold of Whittle's bio. He should have marked that with a spoiler, especially given that it was a rather needless spoiler. Offhand, I don't recall others, but will check.

    Karyn, I am enjoying your blog very much. I think devoting one to a Penguin project is a brilliant idea and it's carried out so well, if I may so.

    It's odd I started off with two authors you wrote about this year, but then, as you would know of course, so many classical English mystery authors had Penguin editions! I didn't know about the No. 17 Penguin, however, and snapped up a copy immediately.

    I noticed on another blog that The Puzzle Doctor indicated he was bored with the political stuff in BFP. To quote him:

    "There’s also an interesting speech towards the end of Fen’s campaigning, which may be Crispin setting forth his political opinions, but to be honest, I found myself switching off as I read that."

    Now I thought it was a brilliant climax to the book's political plot, but sometimes people view these things as excrescences on the mystery plot structure. "Literary frills," purist S. S. Van Dine dismissively termed them! However, the Puzzle Doctor really liked The Moving Toyshop, which I think gets more out-of-control, from the plot perspective, than any other book Crispin wrote (except the very late The Glimpses of the Moon). So even purists have their weaknesses for "literary frills" it seems!

    I'll have to read Bowen's piece. I notice from what you say on The Puzzle Doctor's blog that John Bowen found Crispin's rustics "completely unbelievable." I find this an odd charge, I must admit. They are comically exaggerated, as in Cold Comfort Farm. They aren't meant to be social realism. I gather too that Bowen didn't like the political satire and preferred Crispin dealing with Oxford, public schools and composers. Interestingly, my two favorite Crispins probably are Buried for Pleasure and the Long Divorce, which have rural settings. The latter, however, is the more "realistic." Not as funny, however!

    Anyway, thanks for the comments. I didn't feel I had space to discuss all the books in the same detail, but I did want to move out a bit from the usual emphasis on The Moving Toyshop. For a long time, Crispin almost became a one-work writer in the mystery-reading public's mind, which I think is too grudging an appraisal of his him. His entire body of work, though small, is worthwhile, in my view.

  4. Crispin is just like Christianna Brand when it comes to being treated as a one-wrok writer. Everyone reads and knows of GREEN FOR DANGER but rarely does anyone mention anything else. They are missing a few better books, in my opinion.

    I've liked Crispin for years and would love to re-read soem of my faovirties. But instead I think this post will get me to crack open my copy of THE LONG DIVORCE finally and read it with relish. And maybe some mustard.

  5. Curt - Such an interesting close-up of Crispin and Buried for Pleasure. I'm so glad, too, that you took the time to discuss the social and political background of that novel. So often it's easy to forget about that context when one's reading; yet it matters. Thanks for this thoughtful and in-depth look at Montgomery.

  6. Curt - I agree with you completely about "Buried for Pleasure," particularly in what you say about Fen's long (and, to me, hilariously funny) political speech near the end of the book. It sounds as if I need to find a library with the Whittle bio.

  7. I guess it was just me that found the speech a bit dull - I found it an overlong diversion from the plot, and as I said in my review, as the plot was fairly predictable anyway, it just felt like padding. Sometimes I do need to remind myself that writers were not simply writing books just to be mysteries...

    Anyway, Love Lies Bleeding was, if I recall correctly, much better. And it's always a problem if you read the best books first...

  8. Yes, a lot of times people read mysteries for other things besides the mysteries. I enjoyed this book even without the mystery element, but I thought the mystery plot was sufficiently interesting. I had more problems in that regard with The Moving Toyshop, which I felt degenerated into pure thrillerdom. But that's most people's favorite Crispin, so who is to say?

  9. Les, I'm sure you would like the Whittle book. By the way, I'll be rereading Swan Song next month! At the time I read it I knew nothing about opera.

  10. Margot, thanks--I do love these books as social history as well as mysteries.