The Short Stories of Edmund Crispin – Part 2: The Later Works

Back to Crispin’s ingenious and oft-neglected short stories. Last time I looked at Crispin’s early short works and this week I will look at the collecting in Fen Country, which spans the later period of his writing from 1952-1979.

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Love these 70’s covers with the painstaking composition or real objects. Including in this case a stuffed cats claw.

A tiny acknowledgements page at the back tells us that Fen Country is compiled of three different collections. Firstly, many of the 26 stories on offer are from the period between 1950 and 1955 where Crispin was writing stories for the London Evening Standard (oh, to have this back again!). Two stories are taken from editions of Ellery Queens Mystery magazine, and two are taken from a collection called Winter’s Crimes, a series that I have heard a little about but would appreciate more info from those in the know. The first volume is on sale on ebay currently at £103, so it’s a rarity now?

As with Beware Of The Trains each story takes one simple problem, or one very clever and specific idea and uses that as a fulcrum for the tale. I was told by my good friend JJ of The Invisible Event  said he felt that the stories here in Fen Country didn’t contain as good plotting, but the ideas were amazing. And that is a really good way to describe it. The shockingly rigorous plotting of Beware of the Trains is not at play here, but it seems like Crispin was having a huge amount of fun, and being much bolder in experimenting, with the central concept used for each tale. There is a focus on the modernist, meta experimentations that Crispin was so good at with his novels, but pushing them to the limit. One story plays with the idea that Crispin himself is the main characters, and plays with your expectations in the reader/author relationship.

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Here are my tops tales from the collection:

Who Killed Baker – (1950)
Simply a genius piece of work. This is the first in the collection and kicks things off so well as it shows where Crispin had got to in terms of manipulating the form and subverting the form. Crispin was clearly having a lot of fun here, and I’m sure this story might ruffle a few feathers. I can’t say too much more but the whole piece revolves around the simple statement ‘Who Killed Baker?’ (Geoffrey Bush?)

The Hunchback Back Cat – (1954)
‘Were ALL superstitious… whether we realise it or not. Let me give you a test’. This is Gervase Fen’s opening gambit in a story that again could have made a full novel with all that is crammed into it. It tells the story of the Copping family, a family who, due to parricidal tendencies and tragedies, there are only two left of. The murder of one of them in a locked tower (very reminiscent in description of the room in Jonathan Creek’s The Grinning Man), leads to a wonderful set of double and triple bluffs that I never saw coming. How the superstitious angle closes the case is extremely clever.

A Case in Camera – (1955)
Detective Inspector Humbleby, Crispin’s series detective inspector in the Gervase Fen stories, is keeping a case open against his superior’s wishes. His intuition has convinced him, for the moment, that the suspects statements are a little too consistent. Their alibi rests on a single photograph which places them elsewhere at the time of a brutal murder. How Fen catches them out is such a lovely idea, and again feels like one of those simple happenings that Crispin saw or experienced in day to day life, and sculpted it to be a tale of crime. This type of writing feels very Carrian, and as I have mentioned elsewhere Crispin was inspired to take up the mystery field after reading Carr.

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The Pencil – (1953)
When discussing this collection with fellow blogger JJ, this was the story that came to mind for him, and it’s no surprise. Spy thriller in style, The Pencil opens with a contract killer, known only as Elliot, being kidnapped by two assailants, all of which he know would happen and so has planned accordingly.  It has an absolute kicker of an ending and in four pages does more than some novels manage to do!

Death Behind Bars – (1960)
A longer, non series piece, Murder Behind Bars considers how a man being held on suspicion of murder is killed in his locked cell. There is no way of approaching the cell in the time specified, and the murder weapon is no where to be found. Although in ,many ways you can see the solution coming, I really loved it, and it has been used a lot since (and maybe was before). I even saw it in a recent episode of The Dr Blake mysteries even though it wasn’t a locked room scenario. And the motives are especially well spun in this one. But what makes this story even more brilliant is the form that the piece takes, and how that brings everything home to you as the reader, but I’ll let you experience that for yourself.

We Know You’re Busy Writing, But We Thought You Wouldn’t Mind If We Just Dropped in for a Minute – (1969) 
A deliciously dark story, clearly based on the frustrations that Crispin experienced being a writer. The setting is a small, isolated cottage in Devon which is exactly where Crispin lived and worked. The story tells us of one Mr Bradley a writer of adventure stories who has a deadline to meet, but keeps receiving endless interruptions of all kinds at his lonely cottage. The characters here are superb, and the way that Bradley desperately tries to remember the line he was writing as he is interrupted is hilarious. The closing line however, is one of the most chilling you’ll read in a short mystery.

Those are my top stories. I highly recommend this collection. Although they are a mixed bag, I think much of this was down to restrictions in time and word count, especially for the Evening Standard pieces. This struggle for deadlines is something that Crispin showed in full in ‘We Know You’re Busy Writing…’, maybe it was a confessional piece of sorts? If you see this on your travels pick it up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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.