Sunday, 2 November 2014


I'm pleased to be part of the MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR. 
I was nominated by my good friend, the superb writer, Charlie Cochrane.

Charlie and I first met at a RNA Christmas lunch many years ago, but in the last few years we meet up regularly as part of the Deadly Dames panel. I've loved Charlie's Cambridge Fellows series for years and, a couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to get hold of a review copy of her brilliant new contemporary crime/romance, The Best Corpse for the Job, which is out in e-book in November and paperback in December. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this is the start of another riveting series.

At the moment I'm writing the last few chapters of The Curse of the Concrete Griffin, a cosy/comedy crime novel set in a retirement village for older people. This is an unusual departure for me as usually I write police procedurals, but I started it at a point when I was recovering from a bad health blip and wanted something a bit lighter to play with. However, I have just finished editing and restructuring The Fragility of Poppies, a cross genre crime/romance novel, and normal service will be resumed in the near future, as I have the outline plots and first chapters ready for the next two police procedurals in the Serious Crimes series, Karma and the Singing Frogs (the next in the Mia Trent Scene of Crimes novels which started with The Terminal Velocity of Cats) and The Tyranny of the Weak, (which will be the next in the series featuring Kev Tyler and Gill Martin, who were introduced in About the Children.)
It is almost impossible to write a fictional police procedural that is totally true to life; describing any major crime would be both dull and confusing, with descriptions of large amounts of paperwork and an unwieldy number of personnel, but I do try to keep the police procedure plausible and reasonably realistic. Although I think it's great if I can keep the reader guessing the identity of the criminal until the end of the book, it's more important to me that, even if they've spotted the perpetrator, they feel involved enough with the investigators to want to follow through and see how it all ties up. I try to write character based books and I got very bored with out-of-control, alcoholic, maverick cops. I prefer my detectives to be fundamentally decent and professional. I like intelligence and integrity in my central characters and it's a bonus if they happen to be witty too.

I come into the category of writers who write what they want to read. I write about crime because it matters, so maybe it's an attempt to make sense of some of the terrible things that happen to ordinary people who don't see it coming. That sounds awfully heavy and pretentious and it's just as true that I like the puzzle aspect and I'm fascinated by why people do the crazy things they do. About the Children was my greatest challenge, because it's about the death of children but it was a book I felt that I had to write. I know a lot of people have been wary of reading it because they were afraid they'd find it too upsetting and I've been very pleased that several people who were worried but plucked up the courage to read it said that they had not found it harrowing. I think this is because it is written through the viewpoints of the detectives investigating the crime, and, although they care, they maintain a professional attitude.

My fiction writing jerks sporadically into life in the gaps between teaching, article writing and helping Home Educate my disabled grandson. When I manage to clear a day for writing I tend to write between 2,000 and 3,000 words, but that doesn't happen as often as I'd like. Regarding the actual writing process: I always know where I'm starting a book and usually I have some idea of the end as well. My detectives are pretty well established in my mind, so it's just a case of checking where they've got to in their lives since the last time I visited them, but of course new characters have to be encountered and explored. The trickiest thing for me is writing a scenario where it's not immediately obvious who has committed the crime; so that even the thickest constable exclaims 'Aha! He dunnit!' I quite often have a final scene in my mind, usually after the crime is solved and explained. In both About the Children and The Fragility of Poppies I knew the end scene, but I didn't know what was going to happen throughout the book until I got there. That's what makes it so much fun. I wouldn't want to write a book that I'd already plotted out; I'd get bored with it long before I reached the end.

I've only got one nominee to continue my next stage of the blog tour, but she's a fantastic writer who will take us to galaxies we've never explored before. My good friend and colleague Wendy Metcalfe writes Science Fiction and Future Crime, both with a strong ecological theme. Her first two books in her Future Crime series are already available: Panthera, Death Spiral and Panthera, Death Song, and the third book will be published early in 2015.

Monday, 1 September 2014

John Creasey (1908-1973)


At my book launch yesterday, a conversation between Catherine King, who writes Victorian & Edwardian sagas, and comedy crime writer L.C. Tyler about the importance of being entertaining, reminded me of one of my Golden Age heroes, John Creasey. It's incredible that anybody could write well over 500 books and still have time for the rest of his life; it's even more amazing that many of his books were really good, especially the early police procedurals featuring Gideon of Scotland Yard. 
John Creasey was born in Surrey, the son of a poor coach-maker, he was the seventh child in a family of nine. He was educated at Fulham Elementary School and Sloane School, where one of his teachers identified his creative ability and encouraged him to be a writer. He left school in 1923, when he was sixteen, and was employed in various factory , clerical and sales jobs whilst trying to become an established author. Creasey's determination to become a successful writer was quite remarkable when one realises that his working-class family laughed at his writing ambitions, and for fourteen years his submissions were unanimously rejected. He is said to have accumulated 743 rejection slips. In 1930 he received his first acceptance by the publishers Andrew Melrose and in 1932 Seven Times Seven was published. Seven Times Seven is a stand alone, romantic thriller, in which an young man, Peter Maraday, comes to the rescue of a beautiful young film star, Patricia Tremaine, when she is threatened by a criminal gang. In 1970 Creasey wrote a brief Author's Note at the beginning of the reprint of Seven Times Seven and described his delight at reading his first review in The Morning Post, which said, 'Seven Times Seven is a racy and amusing as well as up-to-date story of a gang of crooks whose operations are world wide,' it also remarked that Creasey, 'spins his yarn with speed and ingenuity.' However, he records that he soon came back down to earth and, being unemployed, had to cycle to the local Labour Exchange and 'sign on.' At the end of this Author's Note, Creasey wrote, 'Today, with thirty press-cutting books in all, and over 20,000 reviews, that first book and first review still give me the greatest of thrills.'
In the first page of Seven Times Seven, Creasey's description of Peter Maraday makes the mocking, humorous note of the book very clear, 'Peter's jaw swept round from his ears like the business edge of a scimitar and gave the final touch of masterfulness which his face needed to make him the perfect picture of a strong, silent man... He was massive, muscular and masterful, to quote his pet description of himself. From which it may be gathered he was not modest.'
When Peter becomes involved in saving Patricia Tremaine, he does not work alone; he has a group of friends, kindred spirits who style themselves the Company. In this the book has a similarity to the early Saint books.
Seven Times Seven has much in common with Creasey's first series featuring Department Z, in which Gordon Craigie and his band of young, intrepid agents guard the nation from espionage. The first Department Z novel was The Death Miser (1932) and there were 28 books in the series, which Creasey continued producing until 1957. The first Department Z books, written before the Second World War, are remarkable for their political insight, predicting the dangers of the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini before many politicians were acknowledging the problem. The books set in the Second World War are filled with the tension, fear and danger of those dark days, while the Post-War books show another threat to the Department, political pressure that their usefulness is redundant.
In 1935, three years after the publication of Seven Times Seven, Creasey felt he was sufficiently established to give up the 'day job' as a grocer's clerk and become a full time writer. At this time he also married Margaret Elizabeth Cooke and they had one son. Under his wife's name, Creasey wrote and published fourteen romantic novels, starting with For Love's Sake (1934.) Creasey married four times and had three children, one son by his first wife and two by his second.
Creasey was a remarkably prolific writer and, over his forty-year career as a published writer, wrote  the incredible total of 562 full-length novels (that's over 14 a year.) He knew that it would be folly to flood the market with a new John Creasey every 27 days and so he wrote under a grand total of 28 different pseudonyms. Creasey wrote between 7,000 and 10,000 words a day and claimed that he could write a book in two weeks and still have half a day free to play cricket. He also once suggested he could be shut up in a glass box and left there to write a whole book.
In the 1930s and 1940s Creasey also wrote Westerns under the pseudonyms William K. Reilly, Tex Riley and Ken Ranger. Initially Creasey's knowledge of America came from books and films but later he visited the US and made a second home in Arizona. His third wife, Jeanne Williams, was American and wrote historical western novels.
In 1937 Creasey created a pseudonym 'by request' when Cassels asked for 'a different kind of story.' Creasey created Michael Halliday and very much enjoyed writing stand-alone novels under this name. He used the same name to launch an experimental series with his two sons as characters in the books. In America Creasey had to rename the Michael Halliday books because of a clash of names with a well known American author and the pseudonym Jeremy Yorke was born. Creasey continued to experiment and in 1966 created Dr Emmanuel Cellini, a quiet, gentle psychiatrist. The Cellini books achieved immediate success, especially in the United States.
In 1938 Creasey was living in Ashe, Hampshire, and took the name of the village for his pseudonym, Gordon Ashe, under which he wrote the Patrick Dawlish series, which featured a 'Bulldog Drummond' style character and his group of hard-hitting friends. Drawn by chance into combating crime, Patrick Dawlish and his friends fought the good fight in 35 books between 1938 and 1960, when the offer of an official position at Scotland Yard led Dawlish to another 15 adventures under the series known as the Crime Haters, which ended in the year of Creasey's death.
It is interesting to note that in physical description Patrick Dawlish is not unlike Peter Maraday of Seven Times Seven: he is a massive man with a face that would have been handsome if it had not been for his broken nose. Creasey is a master of suspense as is obvious in the opening of Death In the Trees (1954). 'Dawlish was alone in the room with the dead man. He heard no sound but his own breathing. He saw only the big white flabby face, the lock of black hair falling over the forehead, touching one big, protuberant eye. The bullet which had entered the right temple, had made little mess. In the centre of the wound was a dark dot, about it a red swelling, beneath it and dripping to the back of the chair, a tiny rivulet of blood.' By contrast, Engagement With Death (1948) opens with a light, domestic request. '”Do try to find out whether it is really true that Pop Fairweather intends to marry Georgette Lee,” Felicity wrote. “I'm fond of the old boy and I'd hate to think of him making a fool of himself.”' Creasey was always incredibly versatile.
In his early adventures, Patrick Dawlish sometimes has to act outside the law in order to serve Justice, as did the Toff, the Honourable Richard Rollinson, whose adventures start with Introducing the Toff in 1938. There were 59 books about the Toff. He is a gentleman sleuth who moves with as much ease through the Underworld as he does through Mayfair. Like Leslie Charteris' Saint, the Toff has a calling card that mirrors his nickname, a line drawing of a 'toff' wearing top hat, monocle and smoking a cigarette in a holder. However, the character most like the Saint is the Baron, a gentleman criminal along the lines of Raffles. The Baron's name is John Mannering, an antiques dealer cum cracksman. There were 37 books in the series about the Baron, starting in 1937 with Meet the Baron. In Help From the Baron (1955) he is described as: 'John Mannering, tall distinctive in a way that reminded her of her father, but as English as anyone could be. His good looks seemed to belong to an earlier age, needed a wide-brimmed cavalier's hat or the clothes of a Regency buck to set them off... His easy manner and ridiculous good looks fascinated both men and girls.'
Creasey also used his novels to highlight his political ideas and warn about dangers he saw on the horizon. This was especially true of his Dr Palfrey series. In works such as The Flood (1956) and The Famine (1967) Creasey was using his characters to warn of global threats.
Creasey had two series featuring Scotland Yard detectives. His personal favourite was Detective Inspector Roger West, a man so good-looking he was given the nickname 'Handsome West.' West was married and had two sons, to whom Creasey gave the same names as his own sons by his second marriage, Martin and Richard.
Creasey also invented his pseudonym J.J. Marric by using the first three letters of his sons' names. Marric was the name under which he wrote his series of books about Gideon of Scotland Yard. There is a story that the Gideon books were written in answer to a neighbour of Creasey, who was a police detective, and challenged Creasey to write about the police as they really were. Commander George Gideon is a towering figure both in build and in personality. Even his name is indicative. George is a solidly English name and also takes in St George, the patron saint of England who fought the dragon of evil; and Gideon is the biblical figure of great strength, a leader of the people.
In the Roger West books Creasey concentrates on one, or at most two, crimes and criminals; but the Gideon books show a panoramic view of crimes that occur across London and further afield, as Gideon dispatches his detectives to different counties to assist in investigations. The policemen are very human characters, some likeable, some irritating; some good at their job, others less efficient, and occasionally one or two are corrupt. Many of them turn up regularly in the Gideon books, such as Lemaitre, the chain smoking, incorrigibly impulsive detective who has a taste for brightly coloured bow-ties and Alec Hobbes, quiet, controlled and upper-class; both of whom at some point act as Gideon's second-in-command.
Gideon has a large family, three boys and three girls, and the memory of the child who died in infancy. At the start of the series, this loss has put a barrier between Gideon and his wife, Kate, who resents his devotion to his work and feels neglected and, above all, cannot forget that Gideon was not there when she needed him. However, they work through their problems and have a happy marriage, matured by adversity. In Gideon's Fire (1961) Kate acknowledges that Gideon's work is not just important, it is part of his very being. '”George,” Kate said quietly, “don't ever let me try to stop you from doing what you have to do.”'
The Gideon books received many accolades. In 1962 Creasey won an Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America for Gideon's Fire. In 1969 he received the MWA's greatest honour, the Grand Master Award. In 1987, H.R.F. Keating selected Gideon's Week (1956) as one of the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published.
In 1953 Creasey founded the Crime Writers' Association in an attempt to raise the profile of crime and mystery writing and gain the genre more respect.
Because of childhood polio, Creasey was not accepted for active service in the Armed Forces in World War Two, but he did receive an MBE for services in the UK's National Savings Movement in the Second World War.
Remarkably for such a prolific writer, Creasey had an active political life. He supported the Liberal Party and stood for parliament in the 1950 General Election. However he grew increasingly unhappy with Liberal Party policies, especially regarding the Suez Crisis. Later he attempted to found his own Independent Party. He had radical political ideas and advocated shared political control of nations and industrial democracy with managers, workers and investors (whether private or the State) sharing ownership and control of all industry and commerce.
Several of Creasey's books were made into films, most notably John Ford's version of Gideon's Day. Gideon also formed the basis of a television series starring John Gregson, and The Baron was also televised in a series starring Steve Forrest.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about many of Creasey's series was that his heroes had wives, bright, intelligent women who were not conveniently disposed of so that the hero could get involved with a different woman every book. Both Janet West and Kate Gideon may have issues with their husbands' devotion to crime solving but they are not planning to walk away.
Creasey has a great gift of simple, descriptive language that brings a scene to life and this is exercised to the full when describing his heroes' wives. This is clear in the description of Mannering's wife in Help From the Baron (1955): 'And Lorna, his wife, was remarkable; the kind of woman one might hope to be. It wasn't only her looks, although she was quite handsome. Her expression? She could look haughty and be aloof. It was poise, perhaps, a manner which somehow made it obvious that she was nice to know. She had the figure of a young woman, moved lithely, and had as much dress sense as Dior.'
Then there is Patrick Dawlish's adored wife, Felicity, described in Give Me Murder (1947): 'She sat by his side, with one leg resting on a footstool, for the Marine did really see to the comfort of its guests. The leg was shapely and silk-clad. She wore a soft green linen dress, trimmed with lemon-coloured silk. She was not particularly good-looking, but her face was friendly and pleasant, and her very large grey-green eyes were beautiful. Her hair was wavy and a little untidy; she looked fresh and delightful as the breeze stirred the curls at the nape of her neck.' And in A Puzzle In Pearls (1949): 'As Mrs Dawlish climbed out Roger saw her face for the first time. He had gained the impression of someone of unusual beauty. He saw now that though that was not factually true, the impression would be for him, and for most people, lasting.'
It becomes clear that Creasey is less interested in describing female beauty and is conjuring up a far more elusive quality, charm, as when Janet West is seen through her husband's eyes: 'Roger stood her away from him and studied her for a moment; his gaze moved from her dark hair, with some grey to add a touch of distinction, to her clear grey-green eyes, and to her face. Not every man would call her beautiful, but he did.' (Triumph for Inspector West, 1958.)
Last of all there is George Gideon, waiting to meet his wife: 'Then Gideon saw his Kate coming towards him, tall and upright, and for once wearing a flowered dress, red on black, not the spotless white blouse and dark skirt which had been almost a uniform for years. He'd heard much talk of this dress, but hadn't seen it before. It suited her, giving a touch of flamboyance. She was a fine-looking woman with a good figure, she walked well, and her face lit up when she saw him. That did a lot to take Gideon's mind off gloomier thoughts. They were not a demonstrative couple, but they touched hands and then fell into step.' (Gideon's Month, 1958.)
Occasionally, when reading descriptions of Kate Gideon, a slightly cynical thought intrudes that no hard-working, middle-aged housewife in the 1950s, who had borne seven children, raised six of them and known the grief of losing a child, could have worn quite so well, but that is the way Gideon sees his wife and his pride in her is a vital part of their relationship.
It is incredible that the Gideon books, with their vast cast of police personnel and local villains, were the only books in which Creasey used a timetable to remind himself of past characters and events. For all the other series, the characters were alive in his memory: 'They live in my mind... I can see them and hear them much more clearly than most people whom I know in life.'
The remarkable thing about John Creasey is not that he wrote so many books but that they are of such a high standard and they get better as they go on. Although some of the series bear a resemblance to each other, over-all they are remarkable for their different tones. It is as if Creasey became J.J. Marric or Gordon Ashe etc. and discovered each unique persona's writing voice. Although Creasey never flinched from describing evil deeds and showing the horrors of violent crime, he always made it clear that such acts were wrong and would be fought by upholders of good, such as George Gideon. He retained the integrity of his writing and never wrote overtly sexual or sadistic scenes, explaining that, 'I can't write what I don't like.'
It is admirable that most of the books originally published before 1953 were thoroughly revised before being reprinted. Creasey explained his reasons for doing this: 'The newer books should be better written than the older ones; to bring out new editions of old titles, knowing them not to be comparable with new titles, cheats not only the readers but me. Everything of mine should be as good as I can possibly make it at the time of publication.'

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983)

Gladys Mitchell was born in Cowley, Oxford.  Her father was a market gardener of Scottish descent.  In 1909 her family moved to Middlesex, North London and she attended the Rothschild School, Brentford, and the Green School.  She continued her education at Goldsmiths' College, from which she gained a teaching qualification and, a few years later, University College, London, where she earned an extra-mural diploma in European history.
From her graduation in 1921 until 1950, Mitchell continued to work as a teacher of English, history and games in a variety of schools.  In 1950 she retired.  However, three years later, the officials of the Matthew Arnold School invited Mitchell to judge a school gymnastics competition and give a speech.  Immediately after this, the headmistress asked Mitchell to leave retirement and join her staff.  Mitchell agreed and returned to teaching until her second retirement in 1961. 
When asked in an interview why she had agreed to return to teaching, Mitchell admitted that she had missed the stimulus and discipline of 'the day job' but also indicated that she found the money acceptable, as her writing was not very lucrative.
While working as a teacher, Mitchell lived in Brentford and Ealing but, in 1961, she retired to Corfe Mullen in Dorset.  Here she pursued her interest in studying medieval architecture and pre-historic sites and continued to explore her fascination with Freudian psychology and with witchcraft.  Mitchell said that her interest in witchcraft was encouraged by her friend Helen Simpson, an Australian born detective writer who died of cancer during the Second World War. Along with her literary commendations, Mitchell also received membership in the British Olympic Association, a tribute to her lifelong interest in athletics.
Throughout her adult life, even while teaching full-time, Mitchell was a prolific writer.  She published 77 adult novels; 66 featuring Mrs Bradley; 5 under the pseudonym Stephen Hockaby and 6 under the pseudonym Malcolm Torrie and 9 children's novels published under her own name.  Mitchell's interests appear in many of her novels: the detective she created under the pseudonym Malcolm Torrie is Timothy Herring, an architect concerned with the restoration of historic buildings; the supernatural, witchcraft and Freudian psychology are all central to the Mrs Bradley books.  Mitchell continued writing until her death in 1983, aged eighty-two.  Her first published novel was Speedy Death (1929), which introduced Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, who featured in another 65 of Mitchell's novels.
Mrs Bradley is a remarkable creation.  She is a remarkably ugly woman: 'a black-eyed, beaky-mouthed, yellow-skinned, reptilian old lady,' (Tom Brown's Body, 1949.)  She has a remarkably beautiful speaking voice but is prone to uttering blood-chilling cackles and screeches.  'She cackled harshly when William was introduced and chucked him under the chin, and then squealed like a macaw that's having its tail pulled.'  And her dress sense is appalling: '… her evening dress was of bright blue velvet and she was wearing over it a little coatee... of sulphur and orange.'  (The Saltmarsh Murders 1932.)  In ironical contrast to Christie's Miss Marple and Wentworth's Miss Silver, when she knits it is not delicate fluffy baby clothes but luridly coloured garments for herself.  Mrs Bradley is a well-known author and psychoanalyst, who bases her work on Freud.  She is a woman of unconventional lifestyle and original views and when asked how she 'rates' murder amongst the more heinous crimes, replies that she places it below rape and above grand larceny.  She is interested in witchcraft but she is cynical and analytical in every fibre of her being.  '”Mrs Harries is, of course, a survival,” he said.  “On the contrary, she is a charlatan,” said Mrs Bradley firmly.'  (Tom Brown's Body, 1949.)
For a character who featured in 66 books, Mrs Bradley is remarkably elusive.  It is impossible to know what she really thinks; she is ruthless but at other times kind, and her description of her personal history alters radically.  It is never totally clear how many children Mrs Bradley has or how many times she has been married.  Unlike other writers of long series, one doesn't get the impression Mitchell has made a mistake, rather that she is sharing Mrs Bradley's outrageous sense of mischief and the pleasure of never being totally known: 
'”Oh, you have sons in the plural?  I understood you had only one. The famous K.C.,” said Miss Loveday.
“Ferdinand?  He is my son by my first husband, who was of French and Spanish descent.  I have other sons, but I much prefer my nephews.  Ferdinand and I are unlike, and get on well.  He reminds me, in many ways, of his father, and that is welcome, since otherwise I might have forgotten what his father was like.  It is some time since we were married,” said Mrs Bradley alarmingly.'
  (Tom Brown's Body, 1949.)
Earlier in The Saltmarsh Murders, Mrs Bradley gives us more information about her son and her first husband:
'”By the way I have briefed Ferdinand Lestrange for the defence.”
“What, Sir Ferdinand?” I gasped, thinking, of course, of the fees.
“Yes, my son by my first husband,” said this remarkable woman.  “A clever boy.  Nearly as clever as his mother, and quite as unscrupulous as his father, who cornered wheat on Wall Street and then slipped up and all the wheat fell on him!”
She screamed with Satanic mirth and poked me in the ribs.'

Despite this apparent indifference to family ties, Mrs Bradley is depicted as an attentive grandmother, whose grandson Derek is eager to spend time with her, as is shown in When Last I Died (1941.)  Although it does seem odd to hear the redoubtable Mrs Bradley called 'Gran.'   
Cynical humour is the essence of Mrs Bradley's character and the reason she lights up the books as soon as she appears.  But there is something alarming about Mrs Bradley too.  There is an omniscient, untouchable air about her, as if she were some mythical creature from Greek legend.  This impression is increased by the fact that she is untouched by Time.  She is an old woman at the start of the series and suffers no diminution of her considerable powers over fifty years later in the final book to be published, The Crozier Pharaohs, published a year after Mitchell's death in 1984.)
Mrs Bradley does have regular companions, most notably her unshakeable chauffeur, George, and her secretary, Laura Menzies.  Laura became so prominent in the books that Philip Larkin, a great fan of Mitchell, expressed the fear that Laura was going to take over from Mrs Bradley.  However, when interviewed about this, Mitchell insisted that Laura was merely there in the role of Mrs Bradley's 'Watson'.
 Mitchell was an early member of the Detection Club and, in company with Christie and Sayers, was regarded as one of the 'Big Three' women detective writers.  The poet Philip Larkin was one of her fans and referred to her as ‘The Great Gladys'.
It is hard to know why someone whose star had burned so brightly should now be relatively little known.  It may be that her originality and unconventionality was the reason.  She frequently mocked the conventions of the mystery genre.  The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) is a very funny book but it is undeniably a spoof on such Christie novels as The Murder in the Vicarage and The Body in the Library.  Mitchell's Mrs Bradley was not an easy character to fit into the stereotypical detective mode and her books are too unique to fit easily into a pattern. 
When considering Mitchell in company with Christie or Sayers, it would be great fun to turn Mrs Bradley loose in the drawing rooms of St Mary Mead or sharing an investigation with Poirot.  The carnage she would wreak would only be equalled by the notion of her debating moral issues with the earnest dons in the SCR at Shrewsbury College.   
In the 1990s the Mrs Bradley Mysteries were televised with Diana Rigg in the title role.  However as Diana Rigg's depiction of Mrs Bradley lacked the crocodile looks, the cackling laugh and the hideous fashion sense, and both characters and plots were significantly altered, little of Mitchell's Mrs Bradbury remained.
By the 1990s only The Rising of the Moon (1945) remained in print in a regular edition (although some were available in Large Print editions.)  In the last few years many have been brought back in print and e-book form.  Perhaps the only way to end an article about this, the most currently neglected of the great Golden Age mystery writers is to quote Philip Larkin, writing in the Observer: 'Miss Mitchell has always stood splendidly apart from her crime-club confrères in total originality.’

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Review of Appleby and Honeybath by Michael Innes

Portrait painter, Charles Honeybath, is commissioned by members of the local hunt to paint a portrait of Terence Grinton, Master of Foxhounds. Honeybath goes to stay as a guest at Grinton Hall and spends some time trying to select a suitable setting for the portrait. There is one room at Grinton Hall that is never entered: the library, and 'the ghost of the library (if the expression isn't too strange a one) was somehow at large at Grinton. This was perhaps because Mr Grinton wasn't merely of a philistine temperament and indifferent to books. He hated them, particularly if their authors had names like Pliny or Julius Caesar.' Despite this, Honeybath thinks that the contrast of erudition and Grinton's ruddy complexion and hunting clothes may prove an interesting artistic challenge and seeks out the library..
When Honeybath enters the library he finds a man sitting there and apologises for disturbing him. 'the eminent painter (whose unflawed courtesy was an unobtrusive part of his make-up) was about to withdraw as quietly as might be when he realized that something was wrong. He walked up to the seated figure, touched a hand, with his own hand made a small gesture before open and unblinking eyes, and saw that he was almost certainly in the presence of a dead man. This was a shock. There was a greater shock when he took in the expression frozen, as it were, upon the dead man's face. It could be described only as exhibiting malign glee.'
Honeybath immediately leaves the library, locking the door behind him and goes to seek his host. On the way, he is fortunate to encounter his friend and fellow guest John Appleby, retired Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. They return to the library together and, to Honeybath's confusion and dismay, the body has vanished. Honeybath is afraid that people will doubt his sanity but after searching the library and guided by the smell of toasted cheese, Appleby and Honeybath find a concealed door which leads to some rough rooms, once quarters for outdoors servants, one of which is roughly furnished and bearing the remains of a simple meal. This time both Appleby and Honeybath go to tell Terence Grinton of their discoveries but when they return, accompanied by Grinton and Inspector Denver of the local police, the body is still missing and all sign that the servant's room has been occupied has disappeared as well.
What follows is a lively romp through many of the conventions of mystery writing: a locked room mystery, an 18th Century, literary secret from the time when Terence Grinton's ancestor, Jonathan Grinton, had 'entertained at Grinton Hall somebody referred to by Terence Grinton as 'a little chappie called Pope.' Indeed, at times, the story resembles a game of Cluedo, especially as one of the guests at Grinton Hall is an irritating woman who claims to be clairvoyant and rejoices in the name of Mrs Mustard.
The story culminates in a classic gathering together of all the suspects so that Appleby can run through the case as it stands and reveal the truth behind the death and the other strange events. Even this summation is treated to Innes' witty humour, as when Appleby pauses in his somewhat lengthy explanation and says, '”We are finished, however, with the events of the afternoon. The events of the night are to follow.”
“But quite a lot more happened yesterday afternoon.” Dolly Grinton broke in with this rather as if accused of having provided insufficient entertainment for her guests. “We all heard about Mr Honeybath finding a body, and Terence told me to send for Mr Denver, and statements were taken, and goodness knows what.”'
Appleby and Honeybath is an intriguing mystery, with literary clues, and lively characters. Because Appleby and Honeybath are both likeable characters the tone of the book is warmer than some of Innes' other mysteries and the wit and humour make it a very enjoyable read.

Publisher: House of Stratus; New edition edition (23 Sep 2008)
ISBN-10: 1842327186
ISBN-13: 978-1842327180

Monday, 11 August 2014

Michael Innes (1906-1994)

Michael Innes was one of the liveliest and most prolific of the writers of the Golden Age of Mystery. He is a favourite author of my good friend and colleague Charlie Cochrane. As her own books are set in a Cambridge College, it is not surprising that she is especially fond of Death at the President's Lodging.I share her admiration for Innes but tend to prefer A Night of Errors or Appleby and Honeybath (my next post will be a review of Appleby and Honeybath.) Charlie and I are in good company, Edmund Crispin admired Innes so much that he chose his writing name from one of Innes' characters.

Michael Innes was the pseudonym of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart. Born in Scotland in 1906, Innes was educated at Edinburgh Academy and later at Oriel College, Oxford, where he studied English Literature. In 1929 he went to Vienna to study psychoanalysis. From 1930 to 1935 he lectured at the University of Leeds. In 1932, he married Margaret Hardwick and they were together for forty-seven years, until her death in 1979; they had three sons and two daughters. Margaret Hardwick was his landlady's daughter and the prompt arrival of their children left the family in urgent need of a better income, which was one of the reasons they decided to emigrate to Australia.
From 1936 to 1946, Stewart was Professor of English in the University of Adelaide, South Australia. It was in 1936, on board ship, on the journey out, that he wrote his first 'Michael Innes' novel, Death at the President's Lodging featuring his best known creation, John Appleby, at this time a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard. In his memoir, Myself and Michael Innes, Stewart gives three reasons for turning to detective fiction. One is that he felt he did not have the talent or experience to be a novelist and he did not write non-genre fiction until 1954 when he published Mark Lambert's Supper under his own name. The second reason he claimed for writing mystery stories was that it was 'respectable,' indeed many academics of the time had turned to writing mysteries. The third reason was that he needed the money to support his growing family.
In 1946, having written another nine Appleby novels, he returned to the United Kingdom. In Appleby's End (1945) John Appleby marries sculptress, Judith Raven, and retires, for the first time, to live in the country. However by 1947 in A Night of Errors, Appleby has returned to detection if not to the police force. From 1946 to 1948, Stewart lectured in English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The Journeying Boy (1949) has a richly drawn and comic Irish background which echoes this time in Ireland . In 1948 Stewart returned to Oxford University.
In 1973, when Stewart retired, he was a professor of Oxford university. As J.I.M. Stewart he was a notable academic and wrote full-length critical studies of Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce and Thomas Love Peacock and aspects of Shakespeare's work. His last published work was his memoir, Myself and Michael Innes. (1987)
Myself and Michael Innes is a collection of elegantly written and often amusing anecdotes about his life as an academic and observations about writing a crime novel, in which he speaks of the problems of keeping the plot on track while fully developing characters and settings. Myself and Michael Innes is remarkable for the skilful and charming way Stewart entertains while avoiding to give any of his inner life away.
The crime writer Julian Symons described Innes as a 'farceur' and, in Myself and Michael Innes, Innes acknowledges that he has attempted 'to bring a little fantasy and fun into the detective story,' his reason being that, 'Detective stories are purely recreational reading, after all, and needn't scorn the ambition to amuse as well as puzzle.'
This sums up the heart of the Innes' books. They are entertainment, humorous, witty and frequently highly improbable. His books have a literary or artistic theme running through them and this, quite often, provides the motivation behind the crime. Usually set in the academic world or in the homes of the aristocracy, it is interesting to note that Innes' depiction of the nobly born is sometimes of endearingly eccentric characters but often of arrogant, stupid and selfish noblemen who thoroughly deserve whatever unpleasant fate befalls them. Many of the mysteries centre around their possession of some literary or artistic treasure that they either do not appreciate and wish to reject, conceal, destroy or profit by. In The Ampersand Papers (1978) Lord Ampersand is irritated by requests from academics to study his family papers and Lord Ampersand's son and heir, Lord Skillet, comes up with a malicious and eccentric way of discouraging these visitors:
'What Lord Skillet had thought of seemed itself attended with an element of risk. Why not constitute that large upper chamber something that could be called a muniment room; fix over the entrance to it, in a temporary way, one of those rope-and-pulley affairs used to hoist things up into warehouses; and then deposit in it by this method all the Ampersand papers that ever were? The sort of people who devoted themselves to antiquarian pursuits and crackpot researchings would not be of a temper to remain undaunted by so arduous – indeed perilous – a path to knowledge. They'd take one look and give Treskinnick a wide berth.
Lord Ampersand was at first rather shocked by the levity of his son's proposal. But as well as being funny, there was something faintly malign about it that appealed to the arrogant side of his nature.'
One thing these noblemen have in common is a sense of entitlement, not because of their achievements but because of their birth. Even Appleby's wife, Judith, has a sense of entitlement that Appleby, who comes of middle-class stock, finds disconcerting:
'Appleby, who was fond of admitting that he was a very conventional man, stared at his wife aghast. “Ask for him? We can't barge in on a total stranger.”
He can't be a total stranger to Uncle Julius. Uncle Julius knows all the other nobs in the county, I suppose. We could explain I was his niece.”
Appleby's alarm grew. This social outrage was already vivid in his imagination.
It just isn't done,” he said.' (A Connoisseur's Case, 1962.)
John Appleby is Innes' chief detective creation and, at the start of his stories, he is a detective inspector at Scotland Yard. Appleby is a quiet, eminently civilised man. Despite his middle-class background he moves with ease amongst the aristocracy and academics that he has to investigate. He is well-educated and erudite and his insight into literature and art often provides the vital clue to the case. Appleby is one of the longest lived protagonists in detective fiction. His career started with Death At the President's Lodging in 1936 and continued for fifty years until his last case, Appleby and the Ospreys in 1986. One of the greatest mysteries surrounding Appleby is his extraordinary career. Appleby retired at an early age just after the Second World War, soon after meeting his wife, Judith. (Appleby's End, 1945.) He was involved in two investigations as a civilian and then reappeared a in A Private View (1952) as Sir John Appleby, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. His meteoric rise is neither chronicled nor excused by his creator. Even after his second retirement, Appleby becomes involved in a large number of cases and leads the official investigators in the right direction. Although occasionally the police in charge of the investigation are less than impressed by his intervention, in most cases they welcome assistance from a man of Appleby's reputation, especially a man who by his own knighthood and by his wife's aristocratic connections, has entry into places and secrets where an ordinary police detective has no hope of being admitted. During both his retirements, Appleby expresses his unwillingness to be involved in the case and, inevitably, he is drawn in. Soon after his first retirement, when a police friend asks him to accompany him to the home of a murdered baronet, Appleby replies: '“I've had my fill of murdered baronets – and especially at midnight, as you say. The annals of the Yard are glutted with them. It was hard at times to believe that any could be left alive in England. For you must add, you know, all those we were obliged to hang... Who is it?”' (A Night of Errors, 1947.) And there in the last three words is the sound of a man taking the bait.
Appleby is Innes' main detective but there are other cases solved by Charles Honeybath, a well-known portrait painter and a friend of Appleby, who first appears in The Mysterious Commission (1974.). In Appleby and Honeybath (1983), the two men combine to investigate. Although Honeybath first discovers the body, it is Appleby who actually solves the mystery. In some of the later Appleby mysteries, Appleby's son, Bobby, also investigates.
As well as the Appleby and Honeybath series, Innes wrote several stand alone mystery novels, but all his books were written in the same humorous, elegant style. 'In his books, he concerned himself more with style and humor than with realism, and his work was widely admired.' (The New York Times Obituary for J.I.M. Stewart.) Innes certainly placed humour above any form of realism. Coincidences abound, both in the plots and in the detection of the crime; his characters are outrageous and (apart from Appleby, Honeybath and their close family and friends) quite often unlikeable. Many of the names could easily grace a Restoration Comedy. Lord Osprey (a tedious, nervous and rambling old gentleman); Honoria Wimpole (a well-born and decisive young lady); Trumfitt (the enormous and threatening local publican); Miss Minnichip (the local spinster); Mr Broadwater (a dedicated fisherman); Bagot (the ancient-retainer butler); Rupert Quickfall (a successful barrister) can all be found in the last Appleby novel, Appleby and the Ospreys (1986), but similar gems can be found in all the Innes' novels.
However Innes' novels are not just about humour, even of the most elegant literary kind. The plots are intricate and fascinating and his understanding of psychology and motivation is excellent. As a young man he had travelled to Vienna to study Freudian psychology and this is evident throughout his work. The first pages of A Night of Errors (1947) beautifully illustrate the on-going emotional destruction of one person by another.
'”Lucy,” said Lady Dromio, “can you see the little silver bell?”
There was a lot of silver on the tea-table; nevertheless Lucy did not trouble to survey it, or to take her eyes from the single fleecy cloud sailing almost directly overhead.
No, mama. Swindle has forgotten it.”
How very vexatious.” Lady Dromio, who had been peering despondently into an empty hot-water jug, glanced with equal despondence over the spreading lawns by which she was surrounded... “How very vexing,” Lady Dromio repeated.
Yes, mama. But the situation is a familiar one.”
Familiar, child?” From under her white hair the faded blue eyes of Lady Dromio expressed a large, vague surprise.
Swindle, I think, has a horror of the ringing bell. He avoids it. One day he will undoubtedly try to avoid the clangour of the angel's trumpet too.”
Lucy, dear, what odd, clever things you say.” Lady Dromio's tone was placid, but there was a remorselessness in the way she flicked open and shut the lid of the hot-water jug... it brought Lucy to her feet – a tall, dark girl in her early thirties, at once lackadaisical and restless. Her movement was received by Lady Dromio as if it was something entirely unexpected.
Well, dear, if you would like to fetch some that will be very nice.”
Lucy compressed her lips, held out her hand for the hot-water jug and departed across the lawn. Lady Dromio watched her go, turned to scrutinise her tea-table, watched again. Across the hot lawn Lucy was almost out of earshot. Lady Dromio called; she picked up and waved an empty cream-jug. Lucy turned obediently back.'
Innes always remained at his core J.I.M. Stewart, an academic and his understanding of criminal motivation is informed not only by his interest in psychology but also by his critical studies, especially concerning Shakespeare. Much of the root of wrong-doing in the Innes' mysteries comes from characters who are thoughtless, selfish, greedy and ambitious, rather than deliberately setting out to kill. The observation he made about Macbeth in his critical study Character and Motive in Shakespeare (1949), could apply to many of the 'villains' in his books: 'The evil which may rise up in a man's imagination may sweep him on to crime, particularly if... he is imaginative without the release of being creative.'

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

When reviewing a book by AA Milne I was incredibly tempted to write a review of Winnie-the-Pooh Gets a Clue, a compilation featuring the sleuth bear's greatest moments, like solving The Mysterious Disappearance of Eeyore's Tail and following the forensic clues to track down the ferocious Heffalump, not to mention infiltrating the Poohsticks Gambling Circle.  Of course, in his life as a Great Detective, Pooh was accompanied by his faithful Watson, Piglet. At least Piglet would have been Pooh's faithful biographer if either of them had known how to write.
On a more serious note, I recently read an article that made me consider the use of flippancy in post World War One literature. Detective heroes of this time frequently use facetiousness to camouflage feelings too dark and painful to be shared. The most striking example of this is Lord Peter Wimsey, but there are others whose war service is less frequently mentioned but, by the timing of their books, must have been affected by the War. I think that Anthony Gillingham may well fall into this category; certainly he has the requisite flippancy.
AA Milne
The Red House Mystery.
Mark Ablett was fond of entertaining guests at The Red House and was always very controlling of their behaviour and entertainment. It was a surprise when he announced one day at breakfast that his long-lost, n'er-do-well brother, Robert, was arriving unexpectedly from Australia. None of the guests or servants, apart from Mark's cousin, Matthew Cayley, had known that Mark had a brother. Cayley knew a great deal about Mark because when Cayley was thirteen he had been singled out from his impoverished family and selected by Mark, who paid for his education. Ten years later it had occurred to Mark that 'a suitably educated Matthew Cayley of twenty-three was felt by him to be a useful property for a man in his position; a man, that it to say, whose vanities left him so little time for his affairs.' For the last five years Cayley had been 'not quite secretary, not quite land agent, not quite business-adviser, not quite companion, but something of all four.'
Mark is concerned and unusually communicative about his brother's return after fifteen years, but he insists this guests carry out the planned programme for the day and visit the local golf links.
The main protagonist, Antony Gillingham, is introduced in A.A. Milne's wonderful style, as if the narrator is having a friendly conversation with the reader. 'He is an important person to this story, so that it is as well we should know something about him before letting him loose in it. Let us stop him at the top of the hill on some excuse, and have a good look at him.
The first thing we realize is that he is doing more of the looking than we are. Above a clean-cut, clean-shaven face, of the type usually associated with the Navy, he carries a pair of grey eyes which seem to be absorbing every detail of our person.” Although many people's 'eyes betray them. Antony's never did. He had seen a good deal of the world with those eyes, though never a sailor.'
The comedy of manners when describing Antony's interaction with his father is reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings comedies. When Antony, aged twenty-one, inherits his late mother's money: 'old Gillingham looked up from the “Stockbreeders Gazette” to ask him what he was going to do.
“See the world,” said Antony.
“Well send me a line from America, or wherever you get to.”
“Right,” said Antony.
Old Gillingham returned to his paper. Antony was a younger son, and, on the whole, not so interesting to his father as the cadets of certain other families; Champion Birket's, for instance. But then Champion Birket was the best Hereford bull he had ever bred.'
However Antony's interpretation of seeing the world was 'to see, not countries, but people; and to see them from as many angles as possible. There are all sorts in London if you know how to look for them.' And so Antony, cushioned by his £400 a year inheritance, worked at any job that took his fancy, however menial. 'He had no difficulty finding a new profession. Instead of experience and testimonials he offered his personality and a sporting bet. He would take no wages the first month, and- if he satisfied his employer- double wages the second. He always got his double wages.'
Antony met Bill Beverley when Antony was serving in a tobacconist's shop and they became friends. 'Beverley and he met again a little later at a restaurant. Both of them were in evening dress, but they did different things with their napkins, and Antony was the more polite of the two. However he still liked Bill.' When Antony finds himself in the vicinity of The Red House, where Bill is staying, it is natural for him to drop by to visit him.
Enter Antony Gillingham to The Red House, just after a shot rings out, to find Cayley banging on the locked door of the study and imploring his cousin Mark to open the door. When Antony and Cayley gain access to the study, they discover Robert Ablett lying on the floor, shot dead, while Mark has vanished.
The police, when they arrive, are not incompetent, but quite naturally they believe the simplest explanation, that Mark killed Robert and has fled to avoid punishment. Apart from some suspicion of the eccentric Mr Antony Gillingham, who turned up so conveniently, the police are sure that all they have to do is locate Mark Ablett and the case will be solved.
Antony thinks otherwise. He is happy to take up detection as his new profession and there are aspects of the case that he does not consider covered by the obvious explanation. Most of the other guests return to London but Bill stays on and Antony enlists him to help investigate:
'”Are you prepared to be the complete Watson?” he asked.
“Do-you-follow-me-Watson; that one. Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself – all that kind of thing? Because it all helps.”
“My dear Tony,” said Bill delightedly, “need you ask?”
Through a wonderful medley of stolid police detectives, false clues, ghost stories and secret tunnels, Antony and Bill investigate until they reach the truth behind the crime.
The Red House Mystery is a brilliant, early Golden Age mystery; alight with wit, comedy and shrewd characterisation, and yet with a sadness at the core of the crime. Antony Gillingham is an intriguing protagonist and his relationship with the younger, more naïve Bill Beverley works very well. The end of the book is set up for Antony to potentially investigate other crimes and it is interesting to speculate that if this had been the first in a series, Antony Gillingham could have been as iconic a Golden Age detective as Albert Campion, Peter Wimsey or Roderick Alleyn.

Publisher: Vintage Classics (6 Aug 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-0099521273

Monday, 4 August 2014

Golden Age of Mystery Writers: AA Milne (1882-1956)

When AA Milne is mentioned most people think of Winnie the Pooh, a few may think of his humorous writings for Punch, but like so many great writers of the time, Milne also had a hankering towards detective fiction. His country house, murder mystery, The Red House is a Golden Age classic and it is interesting to speculate what work might have been produced if he had continued in a fictional life of crime.
Also relevant in the year that marks the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War is Milne's War Poetry. He was a serving officer throughout the War, although invalided out of the trenches, and it is clear the horrors of war left its mark on him as it did in so many men who survived.

Alan Alexander Milne was born in Hampstead in 1882. He attended a small public school run by his father and, for a short while, was taught there by HG Wells who was a master at the school from 1889-1890. Later Milne attended Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics. While at Cambridge he edited and wrote for Granta, a student magazine. Many of the articles were a collaboration with his brother, Kenneth, and were published under their combined initials AKM. It was at this time that Milne's work was noticed by staff at the leading humorous magazine of the time, Punch, who offered Milne the opportunity to write for them.
As soon as he left Cambridge in 1903, Milne was employed to write humorous verse and whimsical essays for Punch. In 1906, still only aged twenty-four, he became an assistant editor. During the ten years after leaving university, Milne's literary output was impressive and diverse. He wrote plays, articles, poetry and short stories and his input helped to transform the somewhat ponderous humour that had become an intrinsic part of Punch. His career as a playwright was especially close to his heart, as he wished to emulate his hero JM Barrie.
In 1913 Milne married Dorothy “Daphne” de Sellincourt and they remained married until his death. In 1914 Milne's employment with Punch (although not his literary output) was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. Milne served as an officer in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment until trench fever caused him to be transferred to the Royal Corps of Signals. In the later years of the War he was recruited into Military Intelligence to write propaganda articles. Milne hated this job and felt deep shame at being employed to spread lies about German atrocities and to conceal corruption in Government, Industrialists profiting from the War and senior Military incompetence. He wrote several War Poems, all of them light in tone but which, in Milne's own whimsical manner, spoke out against the futility and exhaustion of War and the serving officers' longing for peace.

...'When the War is over and the Kaiser's out of print,
I'm going to buy some tortoises and watch the beggars sprint;
When the War is over and the sword at last we sheathe,
I'm going to keep a jelly-fish and listen to it breathe.

Oh, I'm tired of the noise and the turmoil of battle,
And I'm even upset by the lowing of cattle,
And the clang of the bluebells is death to my liver,
And the roar of the dandelion gives me a shiver,
And a glacier, in movement, is much too exciting,
And I'm nervous, when standing on one, of alighting--
Give me Peace; that is all, that is all that I seek ...
Say, starting on Saturday week.'
From A Full Heart first published in Punch and then part of the collection of poems, columns and short stories published as The Sunny Side (1921.)

Perhaps the most telling of Milne's war poems is OBE (Wartime), also published in The Sunny Side (1921), written just after the War, in which the Captain of Industry, the Lady of Pedigree who gives tea to soldiers, and the well-born young man who avoids the trenches and becomes secretary to an MP, all receive the OBE (Order of the British Empire); but:
'I had a friend; a friend, and he
Just held the line for you and me,
And kept the Germans from the sea,
And died--without the O.B.E._
It is clear that, in Milne's mind, receiving the OBE had become a mark of shame not honour.
It is interesting to note that in 1917 Milne was also writing an witty, wonderfully funny and remarkably silly, 'adult fairytale' titled Once on A Time. In his original introduction to the book, Milne wrote that he had written Once on a Time 'for grown-ups. More particularly for two grown-ups. My wife and myself.' This follows Milne's deeply held belief that the only reason for writing something is because the author wants to and that he/she will write the sort of book he/she wishes to read. Once on a Time remained one of Milne's personal favourites and a book he was always proud of.
The First World War had a profound effect on Milne. Although not an overtly religious man, he became a Pacifist and in 1934 published a denunciation of war, Peace With Honour.
In 1920 Milne wrote four screenplays for the newly-born British film industry. He worked for Minerva Films, which had been founded in 1920 by the actor Leslie Howard, whom Milne had met when Howard starred in one of his plays.
Another life changing event for Milne occurred in 1920: the birth of his son, Christopher Robin Milne. However, before the arrival in the world of Winne-the-Pooh, Milne wrote his first and only detective story, The Red House Mystery (1922.) The book follows the adventures of Antony Gillingham, a young man who has inherited enough money to see the world in his own idiosyncratic manner by taking numerous jobs, often of a menial nature, and working at them until he grows bored. When Antony drops in unannounced at the Red House, to visit a friend who is staying there, and walks straight into a 'locked room' murder mystery, it is natural that he decides his next career will be as a private detective.
Although it was published four years after the First World War, neither the War or its aftermath are mentioned in The Red House Mystery. However, Antony Gillingham seems to be very much a product of the War. He is intelligent and charming but rootless and disinclined to accept long-term commitment. He has an air of detachment about him and deals with even the most appalling situations by adopting a façade of flippancy. 'It was not a pleasant sight, and with his horror Antony felt a sudden pity for the man beside him, and a sudden remorse for the careless, easy way in which he had treated the affair.' His friend, Bill Beverley, is a much simpler, warmer character than Antony and, although Antony will give Bill the physically undesirable work of diving into a cold, dirty pond, he will also protect him from discovering a second body, when Antony fears they have found its hiding place.
In the 1926 edition of The Red House Mystery, Milne wrote an entertaining and informative Introduction in which he explains his decision to write a detective story, 'I have a passion for detective stories.' He also describes the ingredients he plans to use. A fundamental requirement is that it should be written in plain English: 'It is, to me, a distressing thought that in nine-tenths of the detective stories of the world murderers are continually effecting egresses when they might just as easily go out.'
When it comes to mixing Love and Murder, Milne is determined to keep them both in their place. So much so that he dispatches Bill's love interest back to London, along with all the other female guests, before the body in the locked room is cold. It is part of Milne's brilliance that he weaves this into the plot and does not leave the reader with a vast cast of suspects. In his Introduction, Milne explains the banishing of the love interest in this way: 'A reader, all agog to know whether the white substance on the muffins was arsenic or face-powder, cannot be held up while Roland clasps Angela's hand 'a moment longer than the customary usages of society dictate.' Much might have happened in that moment, properly spent; footprints made or discovered; cigarette-ends picked up and put in envelopes. By all means let Roland have a book to himself in which to clasp anything he likes, but in the detective story he must attend strictly to business.'
Milne's third requirement is that his detective should be an amateur and that 'the detective should have no more special knowledge than the average reader.'
And last of all, the necessity for a detective's companion or foil. As so many Golden Age writers who followed him also felt, Milne required his Watson. 'Death to the author who keeps his unravelling for the last chapter, making all the other chapters but a prologue to a five-minute drama. This is no way to write a story. Let us know from chapter to chapter what the detective is thinking. For this he must watsonize or soliloquize; the one is merely a dialogue form of the other and, by that, more readable. A Watson then but not of necessity a fool of a Watson. A little slow let him be, as so many of us are, but friendly, human, likeable.'
The American critic, Alexander Woolcott described The Red House Mystery as 'one of the three best mystery stories of all time.' However, in The Simple Art of Murder (1944) Raymond Chandler dismissed that claim, criticising Milne's book for having an unlikely plot. Certainly Chandler's 'hard-boiled' style of crime fiction was very different from the English country house mysteries, which may have prejudiced him, but the conclusion of The Red House Mystery is no more implausible than many other books in its genre. In the context of Golden Age Mysteries, Milne supplies a fair number of clues and the final resolution makes sense.
It is indisputable that Milne was in the vanguard of Golden Age Fiction. Following in the footsteps of Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle, The Red House Mystery was published only two years after the first Agatha Christie 'country house' murder, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and, in tone, greatly resembles Christie's The Secret of Chimneys (1925),although in Milne's case,without the love interest. The Red House Mystery has the same stylish mix of murder and comedy of manners that Christie and Heyer both excelled in.
Towards the end of his Introduction, Milne states his reason for writing The Red House Mystery: 'The only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything is that I want to write it.' This seems to be the guiding light for all of Milne's literary career. When his agent and publisher heard that he wished to write a detective story they were appalled: he was a humorous writer and should stick to that. After the success of The Red House Mystery they were equally appalled when he said he was writing a book of nursery rhymes. Unfortunately for those of us who love detective fiction, Milne followed his determination to write what he wanted. Of course, that is fortunate for all of us who love Winnie-the-Pooh.
In 1924 Milne produced When We Were Very Young, a collection of children's poems. In 1925 Milne published a collection of children's short stories, Gallery of Children, and other short stories that later became incorporated into the Winnie-the-Pooh books. The adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh (originally Edward Bear) and his companions in the Hundred Acre Wood were inspired by the toys owned by Milne's son, Christopher Robin. (The name Winnie-the-Pooh came from a Canadian black bear which was used as a military mascot in the War and left to London Zoo.) The collection of short stories Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926 and The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. A second collection of children's poems, Now We Are Six, was published in 1927. The four books that made up The World of Pooh won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1958. They were all illustrated by E. H. Shepard.
In 1929 Milne adapted Kenneth Grahame's novel, The Wind In the Willows, for the stage. The title Toad of Toad Hall makes it clear that he found the more spiritual aspects of the novel impossible to dramatise for a young audience. Milne also published four plays during this time. In the light of later developments, it is ironic that he used his new prosperity to contribute a quarter of the costs of dramatising P. G. Wodehouse's A Damsel in Distress.
Milne became trapped by his success as a children's writer. The source of his inspiration, his son, was growing up and he had no desire to rework his children's stories and poems. Although America remained keener on Milne's adult work than Britain, by the late 1930s he was no longer a successful writer; even his first literary home, Punch, rejected him, although Methuen continued to publish his work.
During the Second World War, Milne served as a Captain of the Home Guard, although he insisted his troops called him 'Mr Milne', not 'Captain.' In 1940 he retracted some of the stance he had taken in Peace With Honour and wrote War With Honour. Although still a confirmed pacifist, Milne felt that Hitler was the embodiment of Evil and had to be stopped. With his knowledge of propaganda and the harm it could do, Milne was one of the foremost critics of his old friend, P. G. Wodehouse, who had been captured by the Nazis and, during the year of his internment, made radio broadcasts which were broadcast from Berlin. Wodehouse claimed that he had been making fun of the Germans but his claims were not well received by post-war Britain and Milne accused Wodehouse of committing an act of near treason by co-operating with Britain's enemies. Wodehouse retreated to live in America, where he had also been living during the First World War, while Milne was serving his country. He got his revenge on his old friend by writing spiteful, foolish parodies of the Christopher Robin poems and claiming that Milne was jealous of other writers.
In 1952 Milne had a stroke and was an invalid until his death in 1956, aged seventy-four. His literary legacy is incredibly diverse: poems, articles, plays and novels, four iconic children's books, featuring one of the best loved bears in the world, and a remarkable Golden Age detective novel, The Red House Mystery.

Tomorrow I will publish my review of The Red House Mystery.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Review of The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

Eminent poet Richard Cadogan is feeling bored and middle-aged and so he decides that he needs a holiday. His publisher, Mr Spode, suggests that Cadogan spends a few days with him but Cadogan spurns the offer:
'”Can you give me adventure, excitement,
lovely women?”
These picaresque fancies,” said Mr Spode. “Of course, there's my wife...” He would not have been wholly unwilling to sacrifice his wife to the regeneration of an eminent poet, or, for the matter of that, to anyone for any reason. Elsie could be very trying at times.'
Despite the proffered attractions of Mrs Spode, Cadogan decides to holiday in Oxford. On the journey from London, after several pints of beer, he mistakes his stop and eventually arrives in Oxford in the early hours of the morning. Walking through the deserted town he notices that a shop door is unlocked. Wishing to check whether there are burglars on the premises before he makes a fool of himself by raising the alarm, Cadogan enters the shop. 'The beam of his torch showed the small, conventional interior of a toyshop, with a counter, cash-register, and toys ranged about it – Meccano sets, engines, dolls and dolls' houses, painted bricks, and lead soldiers.'
Exploring further, into the living rooms, Cadogan discovers, lying on the floor, 'the body of an elderly woman, and there was no doubt that she was very dead indeed.' He has time to ascertain that she has been strangled by a thin wire and then he is knocked unconscious. When Cadogan regains consciousness he is locked in a small backroom. He climbs out of the window and makes his escape and goes to alert the police. However, when he returns in a police car to the scene of the crime:
'The police car drew into the kerb. Half rising in his seat, Cadogan stopped and stared. In front of him, its window loaded with tins, flour, bowls of rice and lentils, bacon, and other groceries in noble array, was a shop bearing the legend:
He gazed wildly to right and left. A chemist's and a draper's. Further on to the right, a butcher, a baker, a stationery shop; and to the left, a corn merchant, a hat shop, and another chemist...
The toyshop had gone.'
The police are kind but dismissive, assuming that, at best, Cadogan is suffering from concussion and, at worst, is quite mad. Cadogan turns to his old university friend, Gervase Fen, shelving the long-rankling fact that, '”It was you who wrote about the first poems I ever published, 'This is a book everyone can afford to be without.''
Fen is not a credulous man but he is far more willing than most people to think outside the box and discuss the substitution as something that has occurred. For Cadogan it is a great relief to have a matter-of-fact companion to help him investigate. 'Something like relief was coming back into Cadogan's mind. For a while he almost wondered if he were, in fact, suffering from delusions. Belying all outward appearance, there was something extremely reliable about Fen.'
Cadogan and Fen are now faced with the task of sorting out what is going on. As Fen says, if one works on the assumption, “that toyshops in the Iffley Road do not just take wing into the ether , leaving no gap behind: what could inspire anyone to substitute a grocery shop for a toyshop at dead of night?”'
The investigation to answer this question, not to mention identifying the murdered woman and discovering her murderer, leads Fen and Cadogan on a series of bizarre and sometimes violent adventures, meeting some extraordinarily eccentric villains and and a damsel in distress in the shape of an attractive, very frightened girl called Sally. Fen calls on reinforcements from his colleagues and students, notably the ancient Doctor Wilkes and Hoskins, an undergraduate with a remarkable way with women. At one point Fen postpones his lecture on Hamlet in order to enlist the aid of his students to escape from the police officers who are pursuing Fen, as he explains: '”Not for any crime I have committed, but simply because, in their innocence, they do not know that I am tracking down the perpetrator of a particularly cold-blooded and brutal murder.” Here there was some tentative applause from the back. Fen bowed. “Thank you.”
The Moving Toyshop is a book of many chases, culminating in a pursuit with Fen and the murderer trapped upon an out-of-control steam-powered carousel. One of the most amusing pursuits in English literature must be when Fen, Cadogan, Hoskins, Sally and Dr Wilkes (the latter on a stolen bicycle) attempt to head off a villain, aided by a large selection of students, and pursued by assorted villains, and the outraged proctors in a small car. P.D. James paid tribute to Crispin's frivolity and his comic sense. Certainly, his comic timing is impeccable, as when, towards the end of the hunt, the villain, 'turned left into South Parks Road, tree-lined and pleasant, with the rout still indefatigably pursuing. Two classical dons, engaged in discussing Virgil, were submerged in it and left looking surprised but unbowed. “My dear fellow,” said one of them, “can this be the University steeplechase?” But, as no enlightenment was forthcoming, he abandoned the topic. “Now, as I was saying about the Ecologues-”'
The plot is fantastic and some of the coincidences are too far-fetched but none of this matters. Crispin acknowledged the absurdity in the front page where most writers content themselves with assuring the reader their characters are fictional. 'None but the most blindly credulous will imagine the characters and events in this story to be anything but fictitious. It is true that the ancient and noble city of Oxford is, of all the towns of England, the likeliest progenitor of unlikely events and persons. But there are limits. E.C.'
The Moving Toyshop is regarded as Crispin's greatest novel. Gareth Roberts said that his Doctor Who novel, The Well-Mannered War was modelled upon Crispin's style and that The Moving Toyshop was 'more like Doctor Who than Doctor Who.'
The Moving Toyshop was dedicated to the poet Philip Larkin, Crispin's friend and contemporary at Oxford. Larkin is also mentioned in the book; a mischievous aside, referring to him as a student of Fen's. In return, Larkin said of Crispin, 'Beneath a formidable exterior he had unsuspected depths of frivolity.'
The Moving Toyshop is a delightful book, witty, intriguing and full of action. It is Crispin at his best.

ISBN: 978-0-099-50622-5
Published by Vintage Books

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Golden Age of Mystery Writers: Edmund Crispin

My articles on the Golden Age of Mystery are written at the request of Lizzie Hayes, editor of Mystery People, and originally appeared in the Mystery People ezine. Lizzie has also featured some articles in her own blog. However, I believe that these writers are significant enough to deserve all the attention they can get.

I had never read any of Edmund Crispin's books until I researched him for this article. Now I am horrified that I might have missed the pleasure of discovering the unequalled Gervase Fen. Most of Crispin's Fen books have been reprinted and are available to buy. So treat yourself and enjoy.

Edmund Crispin is the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery, known as Bruce Montgomery, who is remarkable because he achieved equal fame, under his own name and his pseudonym, in two different fields of creativity. As Bruce Montgomery, he was a popular composer and, as Edmund Crispin, an acclaimed writer of nine detective novels and two volumes of short stories.
Montgomery was born in Buckinghamshire in 1921, and educated at Merchant Taylors' School. As a child he had a congenital deformity of the feet and, up to the age of fourteen, he had to endure many operations and wear callipers to prevent his feet turning inwards. He graduated from St John's College, Oxford in 1943, having been for two years its organ scholar and choirmaster. He taught at Shrewsbury School from 1943 to 1945. His initial fame came as a composer of choral and vocal music, the best known of which is An Oxford Requiem (1951.) He then turned to film work and wrote the scores for many British comedies in the 1950s. He composed six scores for the Carry On series, including the original Carry On theme. In 1961 he was responsible for the screenplay and score of the comedy set in an elite music school, Raising the Wind. This film drew heavily on the casts of two popular comedy series of the time, the Carry On and the Doctor series, although it did not belong in either series.
From 1944 until 1953, as Edmund Crispin, he published eight detective novels and one collection of short stories. His literary output then dried up, although he still wrote reviews of books in the crime and science fiction genres for the Sunday Times. In 1977, just before his death, he completed and published a final crime novel, The Glimpses of the Moon. Crispin died in 1978, and in 1979 a short story collection, Fen Country, was published posthumously.
From 1953 onwards he produced little music or literary work, although he edited seven volumes entitled Best Science Fiction, which were published in the 1960s. He lived quietly in Devon, in poor health due to alcohol-related problems. In 1976, he married his secretary, Ann. He died two years later in 1978.
While studying at Oxford, Crispin read and admired detective stories; his particular heroes were John Dickson Carr and Michael Innes, and when he started to create his own detective fiction he adopted the name of one of the characters in Innes' novel, Hamlet, Revenge! As his pseudonym.
Crispin's detective is Gervase Fen, a professor of English at St Christopher's College, Oxford. This fictional college is located next to Crispin's own college, St John's. Fen's character is reputedly based on an eccentric Oxford professor, W.E. Moore. In the first of Crispin's detective novels, The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) we encounter Gervase Fen as the train he is travelling on is delayed just outside Oxford: 'At no time a patient man, the delays drove him to distraction. He coughed and groaned and yawned and shuffled his feet and agitated his long, lanky body about in the corner where he sat. His cheerful, ruddy, clean-shaven face grew even ruddier than usual; his dark hair, sedulously plastered down with water, broke out into disaffected fragments towards the crown.' A few years later, his physical appearance has changed very little but we are given more information about his taste in clothes: 'His face was cheerful, ruddy and clean-shaven, with shrewd and humorous ice-blue eyes, and he had on a grey suit, a green tie embellished with mermaids, and an extraordinary hat.' (Love Lies Bleeding, 1948.)
Fen is in his early forties, a man of great academic distinction, boundless energy and insatiable curiosity about all manner of things. His passion is for detecting crime, just as the favourite hobby of his friend, Sir Richard Freeman, the Chief Constable of Oxford, is English literature.
Fen is never the romantic hero. If romance intrudes it is usually the province of a friend,colleague or former student of Fen. Gervase Fen is married to 'a plain, spectacled, sensible little woman, incongruously called Dolly', (The Case of the Gilded Fly 1944) who is not in the least perturbed by Fen's behaviour, as when an elderly, deaf colleague of Fen foists himself upon the company and demands whisky: 'Fen got it for him with painful reluctance, and contented himself henceforth with uttering in a penetrating whisper various slanders against the old man, to the acute embarrassment of everyone except Mrs Fen, who was apparently quite used to it and who said, “Now, Gervase!” in an objurgatory but automatic manner every few minutes.' (The Case of the Gilded Fly, 1944.) Fen's marriage is a happy, placid affair, which allows him to be on easy terms with attractive young women without taking the matter any further. 'She wore a light dress of plain black, with white collar and cuffs, which modelled her figure to perfection. Even Fen, who being comfortably married, had some time ago, more from a sense of wasted effort than from any moral scruples, given up looking at girls' figures, was manifestly impressed.' (Holy Disorders, 1945.)
Much of the information we get about Fen is thrown in, almost incidentally. We know he has children because, at one point, he is summoned back to an investigation when he is playing ball with his son. Also, when he feels his case has become becalmed, 'he went home and spent the remainder of the day eating, sleeping, reading, vilifying his children and practising desultorily on the French horn.' (Frequent Hearses, 1950.)
We discover that he served in the First World War because, when a villain tries to shoot at him and his companion, 'Fen, who had fought in the Great War, fell flat on his face, with well-drilled precision. Geoffrey, who had not, remained immobile, gaping in frank stupefaction.' (Holy Disorders, 1945.) That is all we are told about Fen's military service and we are given no information about his youth.
Fen is clever, vain and boastful; he makes a lot of fuss about an insect sting on his finger but when he is in real danger he is courageous, as when he is tied up and at the mercy of an enemy agent who: 'stepped forward and kicked Fen in the face.
After a minute: “That hurt,” said Fen mildly, “and you've knocked out one of my teeth.” He spat it on to the floor. “Why do you conspire against your country?”' (Holy Disorders, 1945.)
On another occasion, Fen and the young woman he is attempting to rescue are being stalked by by an enemy who intends to kill them and is holding a gun on them: '… it was held in a very steady hand – the shadows which it threw were motionless, with the sharp, unreal contours of shadows in a stage set. Of the figure behind it nothing could be seen except the slim, well-cared-for hand which held the revolver. Fen checked the instinct to flight, swiftly turning his back on the light to shield Brenda with his body. Futile enough, he knew; one bullet for him, one for her, and so an end.' (Love Lies Bleeding, 1948.)
A complex character, abrasive and often offensive, Fen is a staunch ally. '”Come on,” said Fen. “We're going to make a move now.”
He helped her to stand. She staggered, one arm around his neck. The raincoat dropped unregarded to the ground.
“All right?” he asked.
She gave a little gasping laugh. “I can manage.”
On an impulse, he kissed her gently on the forehead. “Bless you, my child,” he said lightly. “Now, as quietly as possible, and no talking, please.”' (Love Lies Bleeding, 1948.)
Fen's speech is frequently as eccentric as his manner. His favourite explanation is, '”Oh my dear paws!”' quoting the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
The character that shares more of Fen's adventures than any other is his small, red sports car, Lily Christine III; a vehicle as eccentric and egocentric as Fen is himself. Lily Christine is an invaluable ally in the numerous comic chases that are scattered throughout Fen's adventures and can always be relied upon to help him to make an entrance that cannot be ignored.
In The Moving Toyshop (1946), Crispin treats us to a leisurely and beautiful description of morning in Oxford: 'Out of the grey light came a gold morning. The leaves were beginning to fall from the trees in the Parks and in St. Giles', but they still made a brave show of bronze and yellow and malt-brown... All over the city in colleges and belfries, the mechanism of clocks whirred, clanged and struck nine o'clock, in a maddening, jagged syncopation of conflicting tempo and timbre.'
And then, into the civilised scene: 'A red object shot down the Woodstock Road.
It was an extremely small, vociferous and battered sports car. Across its bonnet were scrawled in large white letters the words LILY CHRISTINE III. A steatopygic nude in chromium leaned forward at a dangerous angle from the radiator cap.'
Having turned into the private road leading to St Christopher's and narrowly missed demolishing the college buildings and the President, who had been standing looking out of his window, the car traverses the college grounds and, 'thundered across a strip of lawn, buried its nose in a large rhododendron bush, choked, stalled, and stopped.
Its driver got out and gazed at it with some severity. While he was doing this it backfired suddenly – a tremendous report, a backfire to end all backfires. He frowned, took a hammer from the back seat, opened the bonnet and hit something inside. Then he closed the bonnet again and resumed his seat. The engine started and the car went into reverse with a colossal jolt and began racing backwards towards the President's Lodging. The President, who had returned to the window and was gazing at this scene with a horrid fascination, retired again, with scarcely less haste than before. The driver looked over his shoulder and saw the President's Lodging towering above him, like a liner above a motor boat. Without hesitation, he changed into forward gear. The car uttered a terrible shriek, shuddered like a man smitten with the ague , and stopped; after a moment it emitted its inexplicable, valedictory backfire.'
This is one of the most the glorious things about Crispin's novels; they are funny on several different levels from sophisticated satire to slapstick farce, worthy of the Carry On films that Crispin had been involved in as a composer.
The plots that Gervase Fen tackles are complex and quite often fantastic, although always intelligent. This is because Crispin is fond of the locked room mystery and, having created an apparently impossible crime, he has to find a way out of it.
The character of Fen is a delight, whether he is working at his 'proper' job as a Professor of English or straying into whatever new career his restless imagination takes him. In Buried For Pleasure, (1948) he decides to stand for Parliament, (inevitably as an Independent candidate) and proves to be a remarkably fluent and persuasive speaker, until he decides that he would hate being an MP. At this point he gives a final speech telling his prospective constituents what he thinks of them. 'Fen got to his feet and stood for a moment surveying the rows of politely expectant faces below him with a satisfaction that he had not experienced in his whole lifetime. And the survey completed, the banquet of consternation savoured in anticipation, he removed the safety pin of his grenade. “It is often asserted,” he said, “that the English are unique amongst the nations for their good sense in political matters. In actual fact, however, the English have no more political good sense than so many polar bears. This I have proved in my own person. For some days past I have been regaling this electorate with projects and ideas so incomparably idiotic as to be, I flatter myself, something of a tour de force.”... “Such dreary fallacies as these, expounded by myself, have been swallowed hook, line and sinker.” (Buried For Pleasure, 1948.)
Imagine Fen's dismay when, despite this tirade, he wins by one vote. Fortunately an error on the part of his agent allows him to escape his parliamentary fate.
The pervading feeling of the fantastic is not just in Crispin's plots it is also in Fen's character and actions, as when let loose in a murdered opera singer's dressing room. 'Fen had been standing in front of the mirror, painting a large black moustache on his face. He now turned and exhibited the result. Elizabeth uttered a little squeal of delight. Fen frowned at her.' And, a little later, '”This becomes interesting,” said Fen. He had applied removing cream to his upper lip, and now looked as if he had been eating blancmange.' And yet, a few moments later, 'Fen had stopped fidgeting, and was sitting on the edge of the dressing-table, his blue eyes intent, his usual fantastic naivety for the moment in abeyance.' (Swan Song, 1947.)
Crispin's use of language is remarkable in that he can combine humour with wonderfully precise description. He conjures up images with a few words: 'And in the midst of them stood the Inspector, like a minor devil enumerating the canons of hell to a coven of particularly obtuse witches.' (Swan Song, 1947.) At the same time he has a great deal of fun, reminding readers that Fen is a fictional character. '”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., and Mrs Bradley, and Albert Campion, and all sorts of famous people.”' (Swan Song, 1947.)
In Holy Disorders Fen is disgruntled when Scotland Yard is going to be brought in, although he grudgingly admits that Appleby (Michael Innes' iconic, fictional detective) is good at his job. Unfortunately Appleby is not the detective that arrives to solve the case but some very inferior policemen. A Fen and Appleby book would have been truly wonderful.
In The Moving Toyshop, when Fen and his companion are overpowered and tied up, Fen whiles away the time in the following unique manner: '”Fen steps in,” said Fen. “The return of Fen. A Don Dares Death (A Gervase Fen Story).”
Cadogan moaned and opened his eyes... “Murder stalks the University,” said Fen. “The Blood on the Mortarboard. Fen Strikes Back.”
“What's that you're saying?” Cadogan asked in a faint, rather gurgling voice.
“My dear fellow, are you all right? I was making up titles for Crispin.”'
And, (in the same book) referring to his 1940s publisher's political inclinations, during a chase scene when they come to a fork in the road, '”Let's go left,” Cadogan suggested. “After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.”
The action of the Gervase Fen novels is set in the early 1940s, either during the Second World War or a few years after the War. Although the stories are set in the time of Crispin's years as a student at Oxford University, he has created a character twenty years older than himself who is a professor not a student; a character that has the prestige, connections and confidence to insert himself into numerous investigations. Real life characters, such as Philip Larkin and C.S.Lewis appear 'off stage' in the books and The Moving Toyshop is dedicated to Larkin, who was a friend of Crispin.
Amongst the likes that Crispin listed in early editions of his books are Wagner and Shakespeare and these interests are also obvious in Gervase Fen. The crime in Swan Song (1947) is set against the background of the first production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger to be produced in Britain since the Second World War and Fen's first arrival upon the scene is with the following complaint: '”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 a no more deserving victim than some unfortunate opera singer.”'
Crispin also states that he dislikes dogs and this is equally evident. The unfortunate canines that appear in his books inevitably meet a heroic but violent end. The non-doing pig, unattractive but obsessively faithful, also fares badly at Crispin's hands. However, Crispin does like cats, as is obvious in his portrayal of Lavender, the cat who sees Martians in The Long Divorce (1952.)
Crispin takes places and experiences that he is familiar with and makes them his own. Indeed, in more than one book, he tends to dwell on the difficulties and delays of train travel into Oxford. In many books the background is wartime and post-war Oxford, where theatrical performances inevitably lead to death, as in The Case of the Gilded Fly and Swan Song. He also knows life in small villages and produces cameo sketches of wonderfully eccentric locals, as in Holy Disorders, Love Lies Bleeding, Buried for Pleasure and The Long Divorce. He uses his knowledge of being a first class organist and composer to create the character of Geoffrey in Holy Disorders, which also uses his knowledge of the High Anglican Church. His memories of teaching at a private school form the background in Love Lies Bleeding. In Frequent Hearses his experience of film studios form the background for the novel, and, as always, Crispin is happy to mock himself as well as others. 'She put down the instrument. “A composer,” she explained soberly, like one who refers to some necessary but unromantic bodily function.'
Crispin is a remarkable writer who combines elegant description, witty observation, eccentric characters and sudden moments of sheer comedy, and places it within a plot of intriguing if often fantastic complexity. He can also write incredibly tense drama: the plight of Judy, lost in a maze on a dark, wet night, alone and painfully aware that a murderer is very close at hand is truly terrifying. (Frequent Hearses 1950.)
Crispin breaks all the rules and pulls it off, apparently without effort: author viewpoint slides through the novels so smoothly it cannot be considered an intrusion and Fen frequently makes humorous, mildly critical observations about his 'author.' Fen is an engaging character, a man of insight, intelligence and humour, and one who does change and grow: '”As I get older,” he explained, “I get less resilient and more predictable. It depresses me sometimes.”' (Frequent Hearses, 1950.) However, the essence of the Gervase Fen novels is their comic presence, as observed in the New York Times: 'Crispin is noted for an ability to embellish clever storylines with Marx Brothers touches.'

The Gervase Fen novels were originally published by Gollancz.
Many are now back in print, published by Vintage Books.