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Cover of 'Swan Song'Well, well, well. So what do you say to a detective novel in which, in response to a telegram saying that his brother has been found dead, a character says “DELIGHTED HOPING FOR THIS FOR MONTHS SUICIDE EH QUERY DONT BOTHER ME NOW CHARLES SHORTHOUSE”? The telegram reply is mad, quite mad; so is the character that sends it; and so, you might think, the man who invented this, Edmund Crispin. Mad, and deliciously so.

And this book is a bit of delicious madness. Crispin’s forte tends to be sheer farce, laced with wicked, clever witticisms and obscure literary allusions. His characters are extremes, for the greater part–extreme eccentrics, extreme geniuses, extreme philosophers, extreme all sorts of things–and this larger-than-life scale on which they operate often results in hilarity.  Gervase Fen, Crispin’s English professor of English Lit. and detective, is rather reminiscent, in approach, of the very silly Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy Sayers’ Whose Body, but, if anything, Fen is actually nutty where Wimsey seemed to affect nuttiness (and other novels in which  Wimsey features show us that the silliness masks a troubled mind). To Fen, a nice murder is a puzzle to be solved—there are no moral concerns here. He  seems, in fact, determined to enjoy himself as much as possible, even to the point of indulging in some completely off-kilter deception to get things done and to get information he wants. And of course, Crispin permits such deception for the purpose not of showing anyone what a genius at disguise Fen is—he decidedly isn’t, since he doesn’t bother with it—but simply because the result is good-natured, rollicking comedy.

In this case, Fen is called in to investigate the mysterious death of Edwin Shorthouse, a much-disliked opera singer.  We are in Oxford, where rehearsals are on for the first post-war production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Shorthouse has been found, hanged, in his dressing room, with the door locked. Suicide, eh? That’s what his brother says in the telegram quoted above. As it turns out, this is not suicide, but murder—but how do you murder somebody by hanging in a closed room, with a witness around to testify that nobody entered or left at the time of death? Somebody from among the opera’s cast and production members has been clever enough to do so, and it is Fen’s job to find out whodunit and how.

Suffice it to say that, as well as being a grand comic turn of a book, this is also a deviously plotted one. The investigation is complicated and the identity of the murderer a genuine surprise. It has the signature Crispin (and also John Dickson Carr) flaw of being a little too elaborate to be soved so neatly, but no matter; as it is for Fen, it is supposed to be a puzzle. Right through, Crispin treats us to pithy observations on each of the characters, on Wagner, on singers in general, on composers, and on whatever catches his fancy, really. The only false note is struck, I find, at a point when there is another death and tremendous sorrow for one of the characters. The black-comedic tone doesn’t wear very well all the time. It is murder and death and extreme hatred that we’re dealing with, after all; at times, a certain gravity we feel robs us of any enjoyment.

Still, I forgive a lot for the moment in the book when a little man says, reproachfully, to somebody just rescued from  an apparent suicide attempt: “Think of the nice birds, and the nice trees, and the nice bloody atom bombs, and all the things what make life worth living.” Now that is, most certainly, a worthy sentiment. But give me a nice bird and a nice tree and a nice bloody Edmund Crispin, and keep the atom bomb, dear sir.

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