Edmund Crispin Essay - Critical Essays

Robert Bruce Montgomery


The novels and short stories of Edmund Crispin are part of a long tradition of mystery writing that has most often been associated with British detective fiction. It is a style of mystery referred to by Dilys Winn in Murder Ink: The Mystery Reader’s Companion (1977) as the “cozy”—a reference to the eccentric characters, quaint settings, and somehow genteel crimes that constitute its world. Far removed from the tough, streetwise tone of the hard-boiled genre or the detailed, often violent realism of the police procedural, these mysteries are entertaining intellectual puzzles meant to be read on rainy nights with a cup of tea at one’s side.

Crispin’s Gervase Fen series is a leading example of the style. His plots, which unfold in such locations as small English villages, film studios, and Oxford University, feature an impossibly self-assured amateur detective who is able to piece together the details of the crime, outsmart the police, and capture the culprit, usually after a chase dominated by elements of farce and slapstick. The mysteries themselves are in the classic mold, centering on a murder—or two or three—committed within the confines of a closed setting or group. Fen’s task is inevitably to single out the proper perpetrator from a gathering of suspects, all of whom have motives and not one of whom has a convincing alibi.

The appeal of this format is the opportunity it provides for the reader to solve the crime along with the detective; a convention of the genre in which Crispin—with Fen—delights. A recurring scene throughout the series depicts Fen arriving at a solution to the case well before his companions and announcing this fact with undisguised glee; a self-congratulatory stance intended to twit not only his fellow characters but the reader as well. Crispin prides himself on following the rules of fair play, presenting his readers with all the information necessary for them to arrive at Fen’s solution; that the reader is rarely able to do so is a testament to the skill with which Crispin has buried the nuggets of information on which the solution will turn.

Buried for Pleasure

For Crispin, the conventions of the mystery genre are primarily a springboard to his real aim: entertaining his readers with a combination of wit and imagination. Buried for Pleasure (1948) features a character who is himself a mystery writer, and he is first discovered by Fen in a field, acting out a scene he is planning for one of his books. His explanation—“One’s plots are necessarily improbable . . . but I believe in making sure that they are not impossible”—captures the essence of Crispin’s approach to storytelling. “Farfetched” and “contrived” are words that might easily be applied to several of his solutions, were they not so expertly constructed and charmingly told. One always senses in a Crispin novel that the author is gently spoofing the genre itself, abiding by its conventions yet refusing to take them seriously.

The Case of the Gilded Fly and Holy Disorders

This attitude is seen most clearly in the books’ frequent self-referential jokes, a device that begins early in the series with Fen proclaiming in The Case of the Gilded Fly, “ . . . I’m the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction.” It is a pronouncement that at first startles and then delights the reader when it becomes clear that Fen is indeed referring to himself as a fictional character; this remarkable degree of self-knowledge is called into play throughout the series. Holy Disorders (1945) finds Fen dubbing a particular type of knot the “Hook, Line and Sinker” because, as he explains, the reader has to swallow it, while a later book describes Fen lost in thought, inventing titles for Crispin. This playful schism between character and creator is occasionally reinforced by footnotes from Crispin himself, elaborating on or taking issue with a comment from Fen. Crispin’s willingness to shatter his readers’ suspension of disbelief denotes both confidence in his skills as a writer and an engaging notion that, for their author, these stories are an elaborate game, a lark—exactly as Fen’s murder cases are for him.

Gervase Fen

The source of much of the humor...

(The entire section is 1779 words.)