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Crispin, Edmund

Page history last edited by Jon 12 years, 6 months ago

Edmund CrispinSources: Nick Fuller, Wikipedia


Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery (October 2, 1921 - September 15, 1978) an English crime writer and composer. He was born in Buckinghamshire and educated at the Merchant Taylor's School in London. He graduated from St John's College, Oxford, in 1943, with a BA in modern languages, having for two years been its organist and choirmaster. From 1943 to 1945 he taught at Shrewsbury School. He first became established under his own name as a composer of vocal and choral music, including An Oxford Requiem (1951), but later turned to film work, writing the scores for many British comedies of the 1950s. He was responsible for both the screenplay and score of Raising the Wind (1961).


Crispin was one of the last writers of detective stories in the classic mould, before the detective story became the psychological trash thriller. However, there is no morbid psychology in Crispin's books. There is only a brilliant sense of humour—both farce and wit, a highly developed sensitivity to setting, and some highly ingenious problems. The net result of these attributes: some of the most delightful mysteries ever written


His novels feature the Oxford don Gervase Fen, who is professor of English language and literature at the university and 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 novels are written in a humorous, sometimes farcical style.


Montgomery's output of music and fiction all but ceased after the 1950s, but he continued to write reviews of crime novels for the Sunday Times. He also edited seven volumes entitled Best Science Fiction, which were published during the 1960s. Alcoholism was a factor in his early death. His papers are held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

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. – Ralph Partridge, New Statesman, 12th June 1948
One of the last new exponents of the classical English detective story…elegant, literate and funny. – The Times


I make Jacques Barzun's distinction between the novel and the tale, and think that you try to mix the two things at your peril. -- Edmund Crispin

An article on Crispin and his series sleuth Gervase Fen can be found here.

Wyatt James on Crispin


Edmund Crispin (1921-1978) wrote very few books - his main output, important as it is, was produced in just the few years between 1945 and 1951 - but was an important mystery critic in England, in some opinions maybe the best after Julian Symons. A professional musician, he wrote several scores for the cinema. And he compiled several mystery and science-fiction anthologies. He was a member of the Carr/Christie/Chesterton school of improbable and complicated plots rather than 'detection' in the police sense, and more like Carr than Christie in the intermingling of slapstick comedy with a puzzling mystery - a touch of Michael Innes, too, in his literary-ness and the interpolation of obscure quotations that everybody seems to take in stride (who, in real life, do you know that can spout off quotations from Shakespeare's Pericles by memory?). The detective is, of course, Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, modelled in some ways on Carr's Dr Fell, except the opposite physically. That's all very mixed up if you don't know who I'm referring to in all this. Never mind. His books are all very fun to read if you like this sort of detective story, also reasonably well plotted although not up to the level of the High C's, although there is usually a neat gimmicky solution.

Crispin had a nasty habit of throwing in allusions and quotations (often in Latin, French, or German) that even a well-educated person such as I consider myself to be has no clue about. No attributions or translations. Well, OK, some of them now make sense after 20 years' more reading after the first time through the Crispin book - they are definitely apt and quotable, so when you encounter one in fact (aus oboe, ha ha), you say 'I saw this before' even if you don't remember where you read the phrase. On the other hand, no real people, except in Crispin and Innes books, go around thinking in quotations, especially in obsolete academic spelling (pairfet knicht, is that a French dessert or a deli item?). Fine when it comes to drama or poetry, but when he expects one to know the names and personalities of the characters in 'Der Rosenkavalier' or whatever I get lost -- the only operas I've ever seen live and in full were 'Tosca' and 'Turandot'.

Mike Grost on Crispin


Edmund Crispin's short story work is a fusion of detective story traditions. Much of it involves ingenious alibis and other manipulations of time tables and schedules, in the Realist tradition. He occasionally uses science based plots as well, and there is a strong element of police procedure in the stories, both Realist approaches. But Crispin also has an amateur detective who does much pure thinking, and several of the tales involve ingenious impossible crimes, both associated with the Intuitionist tradition. Crispin's best short tales have full-fledged mystery plots, of the complex kind one associates with novels. Crispin also creates admirably complex chains of deduction, in several of his finales.

It seems unfortunate that the gimmicky anti-detective story, "Who Killed Baker?" (1950), is probably Crispin's best known work in the short form. Such real detective story gems as "Beware of the Trains" (1949) and "Black for a Funeral" should be much better known. On the average, the earlier stories in Beware of the Trains are better than the later ones in Fen Country. Too many of the latter do not really create a full puzzle plot mystery. They also tend to be shorter and less substantial than the earlier tales.

Quite a few people seemed charmed by Crispin's novels, but I am not one of them. The three I have read so far, The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944), The Moving Toyshop (1946) and Swan Song (1947) seem unpleasant. The plots are thin, detection is often de-emphasized in favor of comic digressions, and the characters lack appeal.


See also: http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2011/11/what-killed-crispin-life-and-death-of.html



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)

Beware of the Trains (1953)

The Glimpses of the Moon (1977)

Fen Country (1979)

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