Edmund Crispin 1921–1978
(Pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery) English mystery novelist, short story writer, critic, anthologist, composer, and musician.
Crispin is best known as the author of literate detective novels that show the influences of John Dickson Carr and Michael Innes. Believing "that crime stories in general and detective stories in particular should be essentially imaginative and artificial," Crispin sparks his novels with farcical humor, inventive plot twists, and fresh characterizations. He used his own Oxford education as background for one of his most original characters, Oxford literature professor and amateur sleuth Gervase Fen.
The scene [of The Case of the Gilded Fly] is war-time Oxford, and … concerns the activities of a repertory company…. The final sentence of the opening chapter tells the reader what will happen before October 18th: by that day, out of the eleven characters …, three "having fordone themselves, desperately are dead." A good beginning, with promising development; the characters are lively and credible. The murderer's motive seems plausible; his methods rather dubious. Professor Fen, one hopes, will be heard of again: unlike so many amateurs, he is never a bore.
John Hampson, "Books of the Day: 'The Case of the Gilded Fly'," in The Spectator (© 1944 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 172, No. 6039, March 24, 1944, p. 276.
Edmund Crispin, a new writer, follows the Innes trail, but does not disdain an authentic plot. The Case of the Gilded Fly occurs among the members of an Oxford Repertory Theatre under war conditions. The leading lady is shot in an undergraduate's rooms; and the case is solved by the Professor of English Literature. The author puts enthusiasm into his dialogue and some life into his characters, but betrays his inexperience by the demands he makes on his villain. The poor creature is neatly chosen for the work; but it is hardly fair to have to help out the solution as well as commit the crime. The motive, I'm afraid, is unworthy of such a thoughtful person.
Ralph Partridge, "Detection: 'The Case of the Gilded Fly'," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1944 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 702, August 5, 1944, p. 94.
Edmund Crispin's style already bears such a marked resemblance to that of Michael Innes that, when we find him borrowing a title from [Pope's] The Rape of the Lock, suspicion is almost confirmed. At any rate, even if the two do lead a separate existence, The Moving Toyshop is the equivalent of the latter-day Innes, in poking fun at Oxford dons, twitting the proletariat and humorously commenting on life in general, with the addition of a perfectly fantastic plot hurled with total disrespect at the reader. The scene of The Moving Toyshop is Oxford, where the toyshop moves overnight from one end of the city to the other; and just the thought of Oxford sends these highbrows off into peals of facetiousness. If you can laugh at Professor Fen you will like it; but heaven help you if you're expecting detection.
Ralph Partridge, "Detection and Thrills: 'The Moving Toyshop'," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1946 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XXXII, No. 807, August 10, 1946, p. 103.
With Love Lies Bleeding Edmund Crispin establishes himself as our leading exponent of "Third Programme" detection: he is not ashamed to address his readers on the assumption that they are his equals in education and intelligence…. The scene in Love Lies Bleeding is a boys' public school in the Midlands, where on the eve of Speech Day murder takes toll of the Masters' Common Room. The plot relies for mystification on purely logical counterpoint, with red herrings rigorously excluded. The characters carry a certain conviction; the style is light and amusing; and Professor Fen's interludes with a comic bloodhound add even a spice of farce. There is one flaw, however, in the motive: the murderer would never have been able to derive any benefit from his crimes without revealing his identity.
Ralph Partridge, "Detection: 'Love Lies Bleeding'," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1948 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XXXV, No. 901, June 12, 1948, p. 482.
[Edmund Crispin's Love Lies Bleeding] shows some pleasant wit, great talent for bringing interesting characters vividly to life, a good plot with an exciting climax, and a nicely observed picture of school-life. The headmaster is credible, the school population authentic, and the senile homicidal bloodhound, Mr. Merrythought, a masterpiece of canine creation. But the Oxford don turned detective eludes him, and his detestable so-called modern miss positively creaks. His danger is over-writing…. Why talk of "olfactory delights" instead of "agreeable smells"? Can a doctor speak "vampirically" and a hand be waved "acerbly"? Does it assist a story for a man to "embark on a prolegomenon of discreetly consolatory phrases," or for special formalities to be "hurriedly consummated"? If Mr. Crispin will court verbal astringency, he can join the small class of reputable authors of detective fiction, who, like the Ancient Mariner, can tell a story which we "cannot choose but hear."
John Garrett, "'Expense of Spirit …'," in The Spectator (© 1948 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 181, No. 6264, July 16, 1948, p. 88.∗
Too many writers of humorous mystery novels seem to feel that there's no reason why the plot should hang together if the writing's funny enough. Edmund Crispin, like Carter Dickson, knows better. After a few chaotic early attempts, he's learned by now how to juggle Wodehousian farce, social satire and a strictly constructed detective plot, keeping all three balls glinting through the air so adoitly that they form one delightful pattern. In "Buried for Pleasure" the satire is devoted to a parliamentary by-election with Oxford Professor Gervase Fen as an independent candidate for Parliament; the detective plot concerns nothing less than the murder of a Scotland Yard Inspector—and for good measure a pleasantly...
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Edmund Crispin has been basking in public praise lately; and his fame must have reached the film industry, judging from the internal evidence in Frequent Hearses, where the scene of events is a film studio on the outskirts of London…. [Crispin] handles the plot with his customary adroitness, but there is something missing from the stock pantomime properties. For one thing, where are the usual comic accessories? No homing pig? No mock heroic bloodhound? Even Fen's car seems to go when it's asked, and no longer backfires uproariously; while Fen himself has dwindled in boisterous exuberance. The only frills that persist (and with those we could easily dispense) are the literary quotations. Fen may be Eng. Lit....
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[It] is very nice to know that there is a new Crispin, called The Long Divorce. Murder following anonymous letters in a village community is, admittedly, a usual pattern, but treated at Mr. Crispin's level it is a real pleasure. (What odd value-judgements one makes when reviewing detective-fiction.) The plot lacks, perhaps, those twists of fantastic imagination in which Mr. Crispin, at his best, excels, and instead a note hitherto foreign to him, a note of tenderness, creeps in. Taking, as, thank goodness, with Mr. Crispin we may, the quality of the detection for granted, readers will find that this time they've got a nice sentimental romance thrown in too—no, not Mr. Fen's.
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The solution to Edmund Crispin's "The Long Divorce" … is far from water-tight and clings too closely to the anything-for-a-surprise, rabbit-out-of-the-hat school; but at least it does no violence to the excellent novel which has been established up to that point. Gervase Fen, rusticating under the attractive pseudonym of "Mr. Datchery," encounters a pretty problem in poison pen letters, an unusually well-characterized group of suspects, local police who are, amazingly, not cut out of cardboard, and a splendid half-witted cat who can see Martian invaders. The civilized wit and charm are all one has come to expect of Crispin; the people are a little stronger, the deduction a little weaker than in previous books....
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The Long Divorce is naturally of steel (Henry VIII, Act II, Scene I), and the title is typical of the flippant approach of highly cultivated authors to detection. Pick out an impressive quotation from English Literature and build a plot round it as best you can. If the material runs short, fill in the gaps with ludicrous persiflage. Edmund Crispin is one of the most talented practitioners of the system; but on this occasion he finds himself so skimped of relevant facts that to complete his structure to specification, he is forced to introduce large slabs of sentimental love. His ingenuity, however, is never at fault; and as a feat of detective jerry-building The Long Divorce must be warmly commended....
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A. E. Murch
A younger author belonging to [the] … donnish school of detective story-writers is "Edmund Crispin" (Robert Bruce Montgomery), also an Oxford man and an educationalist, as devoted as Michael Innes to the polysyllabic adjective, the abstruse noun, and whimsical proper names. His amateur investigator, Dr. Gervase Fen, is himself an Oxford don who writes detective stories, when not distracted from his literary labours by mysterious crimes affecting his personal friends, the headmaster of a public school, for instance, in Love Lies Bleeding (1948), where the plot turns on the discovery of the original manuscript of a 'lost' Shakespeare play. To offset his somewhat 'precious' literary style, "Edmund Crispin" has a...
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Edmund Crispin produced a detective novel a year for eight years, steadily improving in grace, academic wit and technical virtuosity until he sounded rather like the improbable but attractive heir at once of Michael Innes and John Dickson Carr, with an occasional bequest from M. R. James and Groucho Marx. Then he stopped abruptly a dozen years ago. Since that time, we have had only his short stories to console us….
[The short stories in "Beware of the Trains" are very consoling indeed.] They are brief and lean—but far from slight—models of that rare form, the absolute fair-play puzzle. The devices are diabolically ingenious; the fairness is unexceptionable, and the stories are skillful,...
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Allen J. Hubin
One of the sorrows of my fiction-reading life is that Edmund Crispin ceased recounting the immensely witty and literate adventures of Oxford don Gervase Fen … after but eight novels and a collection of short stories. And so if I indicate that I had been searching with some degree of diligence but no success for a copy of the only Crispin book still lacking from my library, "The Case of the Gilded Fly," you will appreciate my pleasure on finding it reissued…. This is the first case for Professor Fen, who describes himself modestly as "the only literary critic turned detective in the whole of fiction." (For balance we also have a policeman who fancies himself unexcelled in literary criticism.) A famed London...
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[In The Glimpses of the Moon,] Crispin seems to have lost belief in the format. Here, he seems less interested in the murders—three of them, more gory than necessary (compensating for lack of interest?), and since we don't meet the victims alive we aren't much involved—than in setting up a village populated entirely with eccentrics and using it to lambast petty bureaucrats and modern morals.
The best part is a 50-page set-piece that is pure Carry On Crispin: a charge of police cars down a country lane jammed with a motor-cycle rally, a hunt, hunt saboteurs, a herd of cows, the electricity board digging up (and exploding) a pylon—but, incredibly, we don't know why it is so vital...
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The Times Literary Supplement
[The Glimpses of the Moon] is Edmund Crispin's first full-length work since The Long Divorce, which appeared in 1951. Those who have been waiting for this moment … may find, after a first hurried reading, their joy slightly clouded by disappointment. For though The Glimpses of the Moon offers several dead corses making night hideous, a criminal or two and some policemen, it is not a detective story in the mould of the author's earlier work, but a comic novel constructed round a crime (or crimes), set in darkest Devon.
As before, Gervase Fen is a central character, but he acts throughout more as observer then detective. And although he is allowed a long monologue after the...
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"Holy Disorders" [is one of Crispin's earliest books], and it is very much in the British tradition. It has elements of horror (what was the Thing in the cathedral that drove the organist insane?). It has a locked-room element. It has a diagram, a timetable and an "impossible" crime. It is strongly indebted to Dorothy Sayers and John Dickson Carr.
Traditionalists adore it as well as the other Gervase Fen books, which are rather literate, full of quotations from the classics, and even with a tongue-in-cheek feeling that suggests that Crispin … did not take the conventions with all seriousness. But the big trouble with the Gervase Fen books is Gervase Fen. Crispin was trying to evoke a...
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The plot [of Holy Disorders] moves quickly and smoothly through various complications and convolutions toward a tense and dramatic confrontation between the criminals and the dauntless Fen. There is a most satisfactory, if unlooked for, explanation of the real motives and methods behind the murders and those responsible are brought to a final and somewhat poetic justice.
The great joy in reading this work lies in the care and attention which Crispin gives to locale, atmosphere and mood as the events progress in and around the parsonage at Tolnbridge. It is a rich, multi-colored portraiture of people and place with all of the shaded subtleties of life one would expect in so unsettling a...
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As made clear by this generous collection ["Fen Country"] …, the late great Mr. Crispin, an agreeably discursive novelist, was the most succinct (though still, somehow, leisurely) of short-story writers. Most of these gems, in fact, originally written as newspaper tidbit treats, are more riddles than stories—as Prof. Gervase Fen and Inspector Humbleby (sometimes individually, often together) are confronted with minicases for instant solution; the deductions—involving locked rooms, switched identities, tricky little details of all kinds—are always carried off with a brisk charm that's amusing without being fluttery. But just as impressive are the stories that don't rely on this seductive chat-at-the-pub format....
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Douglas G. Greene
Fen Country is an excellent collection which makes us regret that Crispin will write no more stories. There are many gems in the book. Even some of the short-shorts, like the delightful "Merry-Go-Round," are filled with the wit and tight plotting of Crispin's novels. The relatively long "The Mischief Done" has interesting lore about diamonds, good detection, some suspense, and a nice twist at the end. I don't often like straight crime stories, but Fen Country includes two marvelous tales of murder which even I enjoyed. "The Pencil" is an ingenious "Biter Bit" story. The extraordinarily titled "We Know You're Busy Writing, But We Thought You Wouldn't Mind If We Just Dropped In For a Minute" describes the...
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