Gervase Fen is an eccentric Oxford don – Professor of English Language and Literature, no less – and amateur sleuth, whose adventures in detection are invariably comic and light-hearted. Crispin (a pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery) evidently prefers larkiness to horror, though there are serious moments; characterisation and ingenuity of plot are his strong points. You can imagine his books illustrated by Ronald Searle in Molesworth vein, for example.
‘Swan Song’ is set in Oxford, and Fen doesn’t appear until about half-way through, when the first murder is committed. The first part of the book deals with a group of singers in Oxford to rehearse the first post-War production of Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’. Bass Edwin Shorthouse makes himself thoroughly objectionable by molesting female singers, arguing and interfering with the conductor, and derailing the production – and is finally murdered. No-one pretends that they had any fond feelings for him, and almost everyone seemed to have a motive (even Shorthouse’s selfish composer brother) but the circumstances of the killing seem to suggest that no-one can have done it.
Fen solves this mystery eventually, after encountering a lot of obstruction and bypaths, and the death by poisoning of another member of the operatic company. The solution is fiendishly ingenious (so much so that I completely failed to visualise how the murderer had carried out his plot), but Fen explains it with much panache. It’s certainly an entertaining read, with some entertaining characters, and interesting discussions of Wagner and his music.
In ‘Buried for Pleasure’, Fen appears from the beginning, having come to the village of Sanford Angelorum to canvass the locals as their Independent candidate for Parliament. Fen is not taking his campaign too seriously: when he arrives it’s only one week to polling day; secondly, he admits that his decision to stand is due largely to the malaise brought upon by writing a book about Langland. However, he stumbles upon an unofficial Scotland Yard investigation into the death of a blackmailed woman, and becomes far more interested in that than in his political life.
It’s a fairly short book, but contains some entertaining (and now, of course, very dated) information about political campaigning, as well as gentle digs at upper class socialists and home improvement by amateurs. Indeed, ‘Buried for Pleasure’ is almost farcical in tone, so that the reader almost forgets that it’s murder Fen is investigating.
While the light and humorous style is appealing (particularly in contrast to more meaty crime novels) others may find it more annoying.
Also recommended by Crispin:
- Love Lies Bleeding – less farcical in tone, with genuine anxiety; a resourceful and attractive heroine; and lost Shakespeare play skullduggery.