Sorry about the plain cover and all, but great Crispin book covers are in very short supply these days. Had forgotten how much I adore Edmund Crispin so now that I've suddenly remembered and freshly found his Gervase Fen books for my Kindle, there will be no stopping me.
I guess you'd call this an academic mystery since it takes place in Oxford and the 'detective' is the eccentric Oxford don and Professor of English Literature, Gervase Fen. Though the actual setting is mostly at a local opera house (and nearby housing) currently putting on its first post WWII Wagnerian opus, Die Meistersinger - remember that Wagner was verboten in England during the war.
The cast of characters - mostly singers, and other opera personnel - is SO wonderful and SO entertaining and there are, at the end, two happy romantic outcomes on top of the crime solving - I mean, what more could anyone want? Oh and did I mention that this will be one of those impossible locked room murders? Well, not technically locked room, but the sort of thing where no one is seen going in or out through the only door and yet a man is struck dead under seemingly impossible circumstances - you know the routine. Just the kind of thing that captures our fancy.
But a mystery has to be more than just a puzzle - right? The story needs to have something else going on, something like a terrific cast and sparkling dialogue and even, more than one murder if at all possible. All these things are provided by Edmund Crispin in this, the fourth Gervase Fen book.
The main thing to love about SWAN SONG is the exuberant richness of language and the occasional composition of dense sentences on the scale of Michael Innes but with considerably more humor to soften the academic arcana (of which there is really not that much). Edmund Crispin outdoes himself here. The sniffy, sneery, smirking tone is delightful from the opening paragraphs to the introduction of the murder victim's sanity-challenged composer brother and his intimidating little domineering dragon of a paramour. EVERYTHING about this book is presented with attention to the eccentric detail - these are musicians, after all ( implies Crispin) and you know how THEY are.
"There are few creatures more stupid than the average singer. It would appear that the fractional adjustment of larynx, glottis, and sinuses required in the production of beautiful sounds must almost invariably be accompanied - so perverse are the habits of Providence - by the witlessness of a barnyard fowl."
And on from there.
Edwin Shorthouse is a short, stout, unattractive lout with one saving grace: a beautiful bass-baritone voice. The setting for murder, as mentioned, is Oxford in the gray bleakness of January. The reason we are there is to put on a production of Wagner's opera: Die Meistersinger. The main characters in Crispin's story have an inter-connected history which is revealed at a leisurely pace as little by little other pertinent characters enter the picture though in truth, there aren't that many - just enough to confuse the issue of who the killer might be.
The loathsome Shorthouse is the obvious victim just waiting for the right moment to debut as a corpse. We don't have too long to wait.
"It argues a certain poverty of imagination,' said Gervase Fen with profound disgust, 'that in a world where atom physicists walk the streets unharmed, emitting their habitual wails about the misuse of science by politicians, a murderer can find no more deserving victim than some unfortunate opera singer..."
But everyone disliked Shorthouse intensely, in fact, even his only brother despised him. Sad. So there's no one to mourn when he's found dangling from a hook in his dressing room.
In the hothouse atmosphere of the opera house there are several suspects which immediately leap to mind: First off Adam Langley, the tenor and main protagonist. Shorthouse has never gotten over the fact that Adam is married to Elizabeth Harding, the woman Shorthouse lusted over though she could barely tolerate his presence. He has consistently been making a pest of himself even after the marriage must have made it obvious Elizabeth wasn't his for the taking. She, instead, had her eye on Adam even if marrying a singer carried some risk (see opening paragraph). She is an ambitious writer currently working on an assignment which involves interviewing famous detectives. Adam is acquainted with Gervase Fen so what would be more natural than, once in Oxford, he should introduce them.
'Professor Fen' - Elizabeth adopted her most politic charm - 'would you be prepared to let me interview you for a newspaper?'
Fen made a feeble attempt to show disinclination. 'Oh, I don't know...' he mumbled.
'Please, Professor Fen. It's in a series. I'm hoping to do H.M. [Sir Henry Merrivale], and Mrs. Bradley, and Albert Campion, and all sorts of famous people.'
There's also some name-dropping by Fen himself as when he looks out the pub window and spies fellow Oxford professor C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia books among other classics) going about his business. There are all sorts of lovely bits like these intertwined with the mystery of the dead baritone whom everyone disliked.
More suspects: Boris Stapleton and Judith Haynes, madly in love and minor singers in the production. He is a wannabe composer hoping for his big chance to show his opera to the world famous Edwin Shorthouse for his opinion. She is a lovely girl who has been physically accosted by the same Shorthouse to the point that a friend coming along at the appropriate time has to resort to knocking the drunken singer to the ground.
Then there's Joan Davis, another singer and in his conducting debut a young man named Peacock for whom Joan has a lingering eye. Peacock and Shorthouse practically come to blows during one interminable rehearsal.
Then of course there's the aforementioned brother, famous composer Charles Shorthouse who in his own eccentric (and rather absent-minded) way is thrilled that someone has done the job of murdering his brother Edwin for him. The chapter where Charles is introduced practically steals the show.
By the way, I thought I had a handle on who the killer might be from the getgo, but turns out I was wrong.
Gervase Fen is of the Henry Merrivale/Dr. Gideon Fell school of fictional detectives though he is younger, taller and lanky and wears a strange hat which is never described - at least in this book. He also has an invisible family which apparently lives in the same lodgings as he does but are never seen. I was especially surprised to find he had a wife whose bicycle he borrows in a scene near the end.
And of course, like Merrivale and Fell, Gervase Fen is of the same run amok school of driving:
"To realize that anyone is not a very good driver takes a little time; the mind is not eager, in the face of a long journey to accept this particular verity; and it was not until Fen emerged into the High Street, with the velocity of a benighted traveller pursued by spectres, that Adam became really alarmed...
The car rushed on towards Headington. It was a small, red, battered and extremely noisy sports car, a chilled looking female nude in chromium projected from its radiator cap; across its' bonnet were scrawled in large white letters the words LILY CHRISTINE III.
'I bought her,' said Fen, removing both hands from the wheel in order to search for a cigarette, 'from an undergraduate who was sent down. But of course she was laid up during the war, and I don't think it improved her.' He shook his head, sombrely. 'Things keep falling out of the engine,' he explained."
But really none of that is as important as finding out who killed Shorthouse and how and making sure that the characters we grow to like have a happy ending. These books have one purpose and that is to entertain and oh, by the way, tell a good mystery while doing so.
Once Shorthouse is dead, there comes an attempted murder of another character and then the death of another and then a further attempt at yet another and FINALLY, we get to the end which is rather convoluted but to be expected. My kind of book.
Though I find this sort of thing completely engaging I realize that others may not be drawn into the proceedings in quite the same way and that's really too bad. For me, what is so attractive about a book like this is the comfortableness of it all. I love Oxford, so that helps as well.
"Fen, Adam and Elizabeth lunched in Fen's room at St. Christopher's. It was a large room in the second quadrangle, reached by a short flight of carpeted stairs which led up from an alley-way giving access to the gardens. It was, as the saying goes, 'lined with books'; Chinese miniatures were on the walls; and various dilapidated plaques and busts of the greater masters of English Literature decorated the mantelpiece. They ate off a noble Sheraton table, and were served by Fen's scout.
They talked about opera, and in particular about Wagner; speculations about the death of Shorthouse had inevitably reached a stasis for want of further information. Over coffee they considered plans for the afternoon."
Oh, and last but not least, did I forget to mention character names? Another Crispin delight:
There is a character named Furbelow. Yes.
A character named Mudge.
A character named Rashmole.
Not to mention the victim's not very elegant name: Edwin Shorthouse.
And the conductor is named Peacock.
(Not that Gervase Fen is a run of the mill name either.)
This is the kind of nonsense I appreciate.
In my mind, SWAN SONG is second only to Crispin's oh-so-brilliant, THE MOVING TOYSHOP. So that gives you some idea how much I loved it.
Since it's Friday once again, Todd Mason will be doing meme hosting duties later on today at his blog, Sweet Freedom. So don't forget to check in at some point to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.