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?"
"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!).