The Short Stories of Edmund Crispin – Part 1: The Early Works

I have said this many times but I do believe that Edmund Crispin in a totally underrated writer of the golden age of detection. Crispin had some striking ideas in his work, marking many of his stories out as original. And there is no better way to see the most complex and nuanced of these ideas that in his short stories.

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This is going to be the first in a two parter where I look at Crispin’s collections of short stories, both at the start of his writing life and at the end. Originally published in 1953, almost 10 years into Crispin’s mystery writing career, Beware of the Trains catalogues a selection of 16 of the best of Crispin’s short works mostly containing his series detective, Oxford Don, Gervaise Fen. I love this 70’s yellow covered Gollancz copy I have, which I found tucked away on a old book stall that used to run from Spitalfields Market in central London.

For most of these stories, the mystery, plot and solution hangs on a single, intricate idea. It feels here as if Crispin here had so many of these deceptively simple, little ingenious gems that hadn’t found their way into a novel, so he gave them a short story in which to explore their possibilities. It’s this cleverness, and the pushing of one idea to the limit which makes his short works stand apart. They are not just detective works made short, but act as small essays or experiments on the structures and framing devices of detective fiction.

Every story in here I regard highly, so I have chosen my top 5 to wet your appetite. (But you know me by now and my renegade ways, I may even go past 5). Without further ado:

1 – Beware Of The Trains 
The opening story, and one of Crispin’s more famous shorts which concerns how the driver of the titular train impossibly disappears from the driver’s seat between stations. I have read this on a number of occasions, and this time round it really struck me how brilliant it is. There are some lovely tricks here, encased in lush, economic scene description and effortlessly comedic writing, showing off all of Crispin’s skills with flair.

2 – Express Delivery  
A case of who shot who, and why. Eve Crandall sits in the garden of her well to do big game shooting, aunt and uncle’s property. The aunt arrives home to find a gun missing from the cabinet and rushing round to the garden sees James, Eve’s nephew, poised hidden in the garden ready to shoot his cousin. He fires, catching Eve on the side of the head, but not killing her. The Aunt whipping a gun from her pocket, shoots the cousin. It all happens in a moment, but what was a set up, and what wasn’t, and what was the motive for any of it? A super original story idea, a beautiful resolution and the amount of false solutions in such a short time makes this story stand out a mile.

3 – A Pot Of Paint
I am tentative in saying this, but this short story is possibly my favourite short crime story ever written. For me it’s a perfect example of everything that the detective genre can be. In just over six pages Crispin weaves the tale of a jeweller who is knocked out and robbed by an unknown assailant outside the front of his country house while painting the fence. There are four characters, one location, and from the single clue of the titular pot of paint, Fen works out who the assailant was and what happened. I have read this so many times and every time I am blown away.

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The full contents 

4 – Black For A Funeral 
If I was placing a top three of this top five this story be in there, and amounts to a ingenious semi-impossible crime that I wasn’t aware that Crispin had written until finding this collection. The body of adventure story writer Mr Derringer is found beaten to death at the gates of his country home. A ladies man (and often married ladies), there is no shortage of suspects, but there is one problem. He took a train into London for a ‘posh dinner’ that day, and on the way back stopped at a station to talk to a porter friend. But according to the timings, it was impossible for him to have made it back from the station to his home in time to be bludgeoned to death, unless someone had driven him. But there is no sign of the car, and the one road that leads to his property has on it a level crossing, the gate-keeper of which claims that no vehicle or person of any kind had travelled that way all night.

5 – The Name On The Window 
Simply one of the best impossible crime shorts going, another flawless piece of mystery writing. An architect is found dead in an forgotten 18th century pavilion, and there are only the victims footprints in the thick dust. Again the workings are based around a single, ingenious idea, the name written in the dust on the window. This also has a modernist style reference to the ‘locked room lecture’ by John Dickson Carr, who was the writer that got Crispin into writing detective fiction.

6 – Dead Lock
This story is the longest of the collection and is written from the perspective of a child, not something that always works (you can read my last post about when that device isn’t used well), but in this case it’s authentic without being overwhelming, and plays a key role in how the story fits together, subtly acting as a coming of age story. It concerns the murder of another ladies man, found beaten and drowned in the local lock of a small canal. This being a stand alone, non Gervaise Fen mystery, there is a lovely cockney accented and unassuming detective, whose affability pulls the rug out from under the suspects feet. There is some very clever use of bloodstains and body positioning to wrap the tendrils of the mystery together.

I implore you to find this collection if you can, it is well worth the money. Next post: the later works.

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Edmund Crispin: Swan Song (1947)

In my humble few years reading detective fiction, I have come to think that Edmund Crispin is a fairly underrated writer. His word play and illustrious flourishes of language – that are able to move the plot and not stall it – are second to very few.  His books are a delight to consume, and his ability to use an unexpected but satisfyingly accurate word or phrase shows a command of the english language fitting for his status as an Oxford grad.

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This also makes his writing style extremely musical. The prose are crafted as to carry you along as if on some kind of linguistic/melodic wave. This is fitting as Crispin, real name Bruce Montgomery, was also an established composer, so his works are steeped in the appreciation of music and composition. It is also potent for this review of Swan Song, his 4th book penned in 1947, an impossible crime novel set in and around the Oxford opera house and its multi-various cast.

The hilarious opening chapter sets the novel off at a solid pace, telling the tale of the awkward love between Elizabeth Harding and Adam Langley. We then see much of the novel through their eyes, Elizabeth as a journalist, writing a piece on the great detectives (Sir Henry Merrivale, Campion and Mrs Bradley all getting a mention) and Adam as a tenor in Die Meistersinger, a three act operatic drama composed by Wagner being staged in Oxford.

The book then flies through the meeting of our cast of voices, composers and stage hands, tension horribly rising until singer and tyrant Edwin Shorthouse, after causing trouble for almost everyone involved, is found hung in his dressing room. The evidence points in many strange directions, and when Crispin’s series detective, Oxford don Gervase Fen, arrives on the scene he unwillingly pronounces murder. However, after Shorthouse entered, the room was watched the entire time, leaving no opportunity for anyone to enter, hang the victim, stage a suicide and leave, without being seen.

Suffice to say I thought this book was wonderful, the pace plotting and clueing are just right, and the cast of characters are of the classic Crispin ilk, richly observed, memorable, touching, laugh out loud, with some of the bit part players having the most hilarious parts to play. I mean how can you not love a disreputable homeless criminal, helping Fen break into a house, on being disappointed that there is nothing to steal saying ‘What we want is socialism, so as everyone ‘ll ‘ave somethink wirth pinching…’

If you think the idea of a mystery set around the opera sounds achingly boring, fear not, as the book is really a sly satire on the culture of the opera house and the academic world of the Oxford don. Much of which feels like a forerunner to the satirical writing of the likes of Woody Allen on these same themes. Note for example the similarity of the laugh out loud conversation between a group of ‘young intellectuals’ in the queue for the opera in chapter 22, to the conversation in the queue for the movie theatre in Annie Hall. It’s Crispin’s inside knowledge and respect of these themes that allow him to manage the satire in such an offhand and satisfying manor. Swan Song acts as much as a love letter to the opera, as well as a detective novel. This is evident in the dedication page which includes a small notation from Die Meistersinger itself.

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‘such murderous tales as this’

Other highlights include chapter 11 which waxes lyrical on the atmosphere of Oxford in the low season, with gorgeous descriptions of lonely objects and places, without being over bearing. This same chapter then takes a snap turn with an unexpectedly dark event, rapidly moving the plot forward. And chapters 21 and 22 manage to recapitulate everything we have read, adding pause for consideration of all we have seen, without it feeling at all forced, this is a very difficult thing to pull off. Chapter 21 feels ahead of its time, almost like it could have been written for screen.

To speak of the impossible crime, the problem is neat, simple (pretty dark) and believable, but definitely guessable to the seasoned reader. The identity of the killer however is a real hidden gem, and a great twist, turning the events of the book on their head.

So if you are new to Crispin or want to try something more, I highly recommend Swan Song, or The Case of The Gilded Fly, another of his impossibles which is set around the theatre. The humour, and solid detection will be no end of pleasure.