Edmund Crispin (1921 – 1978)


b809066dd9c696b636d4c4441674331414f6744Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery (usually credited as Bruce Montgomery) (2 October 1921 – 15 September 1978), an English crime writer and composer, known for his Gervase Fen novels. Montgomery was born in Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire. He was educated at Merchant Taylors’ School and graduated from St John’s College, Oxford, in 1943, with a BA in modern languages, having for two years been its organ scholar and choirmaster. After a brief spell of teaching, he became a full-time writer and composer (Particularly of film music. He wrote the music for six of the Carry On films. But he was also well known for his concert and church music). He also edited science fiction anthologies, and became a regular crime fiction reviewer for The Sunday Times. His friends included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Agatha Christie. He had always been a heavy drinker and, unfortunately, there was a long gap in his writing during a time when he was suffering from alcohol problems. Otherwise he enjoyed a quiet life (enlivened by music, reading, church-going and bridge) in Totnes, a quiet corner of Devon, where he resisted all attempts to develop or exploit the district, visiting London as little as possible. He moved to a new house he had built at Week, a hamlet near Dartington, in 1964, then, late in life, married his secretary Ann in 1976, just two years before he died from alcohol related problems. His music was composed using his real name, Bruce Montgomery.

Montgomery wrote nine detective novels and two collections of short stories under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin (taken from a character in Michael Innes’s Hamlet, Revenge!). The stories feature Oxford don Gervase Fen, who is a Professor of English at the university and a fellow of St Christopher’s College, a fictional institution that Crispin locates next to St John’s College. Fen is an eccentric, sometimes absent-minded, character reportedly based on the Oxford professor W. E. Moore. The whodunit novels have complex plots and fantastic, somewhat unbelievable solutions, including examples of the locked room mystery. They are written in a humorous, literary and sometimes farcical style and contain frequent references to English literature, poetry, and music. They are also among the few mystery novels to break the fourth wall occasionally and speak directly to the audience. Perhaps the best example is from The Moving Toyshop, during a chase sequence – “Let’s go left”, Cadogan suggested. “After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.”

Crispin is considered by many to be one of the last great exponents of the classic crime mystery. (Source: Wikipedia)

Martin Edwards at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’ writes: ‘Crispin was a lively and intelligent writer who enjoyed the game-playing aspect of detective fiction, even though he came along at the end of the Golden Age (which is why he is mentioned only in passing in The Golden Age of Murder; alas, had I tried to cover writers like Crispin, Christianna Brand and Dorothy Bowers in detail, the book would have been even weightier.)
Crispin was influenced by the likes of fellow Oxford man, Michael Innes, and John Dickson Carr. His work has always retained an appeal to readers; I recall listening to a very enthusiastic discussion of his work by Susan Moody a while back, which revived my interest in his work. So his books have never been too hard to find; all the same, it’s good to see these new editions. Here’s my take on
The Moving Toyshop.’

Bibliography: The Case of the Gilded Fly aka Obsequies at Oxford (1944);
Holy Disorders
(1945); The Moving Toyshop (1946); Swan Song aka Dead and Dumb (1947); Love Lies Bleeding (1948); Buried for Pleasure (1948); Frequent Hearses aka Sudden Vengeance (1950); The Long Divorce aka A Noose for Her (1952); The Glimpses of the Moon (1977), and two short stories collections: Beware of the Trains (1953) and Fen Country (1979).

Further reading:

Edmund Crispin Website

What “Killed” Crispin? The Creative Life and Death of Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin, Part One 

What “Killed” Crispin? The Creative Life and Death of Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin, Part Two 

What “Killed” Crispin? The Creative Life and Death of Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin, Part Three 

What “Killed” Crispin? The Creative Life and Death of Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin, Part Four 

What “Killed” Crispin? The Creative Life and Death of Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin, Part Five

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(Facsimile Dust Jacket, V. G. Gollancz (UK), 1944)

The Case of the Gilded Fly is a locked-room mystery by the English author Edmund Crispin (Bruce Montgomery), written while Crispin was an undergraduate at Oxford. The novel was first published by Victor Gollancz in the UK in 1944 and was released a year later by Lippincott in the United States under the title Obsequies at Oxford. It has since been reissued several times, including a reissue by Gollancz in 1969[8] and a new US printing under the original UK title by Walker & Co in 1979. Crispin’s debut novel, it contains the first appearance of eccentric amateur detective Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature in the University of Oxford, who went on to appear in all nine of Crispin’s novels as well as most of the short stories. The book abounds in literary allusions ranging from classical antiquity to the mid-20th century. The novel was first published by Victor Gollancz in the UK in 1944 and was released a year later by Lippincott in the United States under the title Obsequies at Oxford. It has since been reissued several times, including a reissue by Gollancz in 1969 and a new US printing under the original UK title by Walker & Co in 1979. [My copy a 2018 HarperCollinsPublishers edition. 256 pages. ISBN: 9780008275150. Collins Crime Club imprint]

The novel’s title references Shakespeare’s King Lear: “the small gilded fly does lecher in my sight”. The novel is set in Oxford in October 1940. Up-and-coming playwright Robert Warner has chosen a local repertory theatre for the première of his new play and has arrived with his leading lady, and mistress, Rachel West. Also in the cast are Yseut Haskell, in her mid-twenties, and her quiet half-sister Helen. Yseut’s promiscuous lifestyle has gained her many enemies, and she has difficulty acknowledging the fact that, about a year earlier, it had been Warner rather than she who had ended their brief affair. Also arriving at Oxford are Nigel Blake, a former student of Fen’s now working as a journalist; Nicholas Barclay, a university drop-out of independent means in search of the good life; Donald Fellowes, organist and choirmaster at St Christopher’s College who is hopelessly infatuated with Yseut; and Jean Whitelegge, secretary of the theatre club who is attracted to Fellowes. All are present at a party during the course of which a drunken Yseut threatens Warner with the host’s revolver. The following evening Yseut secretly searches Donald Fellowes’ rooms in college. Fellowes and Barclay are in a room opposite listening to an opera on the radio, while Fen and his colleagues are in his rooms one floor above talking with Robert Warner. When they hear a shot they rush downstairs and discover Yseut’s body. She has been killed with the very weapon she had been brandishing the night before. On her finger is an unusual Egyptian-style gilded ring bearing a winged insect (the “gilded fly” of the title).

Crispin’s Times obituary of 1978 detected within The Case of the Gilded Fly the influence of his favourite authors John Dickson Carr, Gladys Mitchell and Michael Innes together with – in his own words – “a dash of Evelyn Waugh”. The obituarist placed the novel within the “highly improbable but wholly delightful” academic detective genre in which stories were never meant to be realistic but were “simply an entertainment for educated readers, in which a backbone consisting of ingenious, perfectly serious, detective puzzles was most engagingly adorned with academic wit and precise good writing”. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Case of the Gilded Fly has been reviewed, among others, at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’.

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