Monday, March 24, 2014

Swan Song, Edmund Crispin

Gervase Fen makes his 4th appearance in Edmund Crispin's Swan Song (1947), which proves to be as much of a romantic comedy as a murder mystery, though Fen does solve an ingenious mystery.

Barzun and Taylor's A Catalogue of Crime (1971) says:
Educated at Merchant Taylors' and St. John's, Oxford, Edmund Crispin is a man of letters and a musician (organist and composer) as well as one of the masters of modern detective fiction since his 22nd year. Reserved in manner, but a charming conversationalist and as witty in life as he is in his books. His true career is in music, by which he lives as well as courts fame [as Bruce Montgomery]. His preferred composer is Brahms. His first detective novel, The Case of the Guilded Fly (1944), was written in fourteen days. Like those to follow, it features an Oxford professor of English literature, Gervase Fen, who is not at all donnish.
A production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger provides Swan Song's setting and gives Crispin a chance to draw on his musical background.

A good example is this throwaway line on the Oxford Opera House, "About it are ranged busts of the greater operatic masters -- Wagner, Verdi, Mozart, Gluck, Mussorgsky. There is also one of Brahms -- for no very clear reason, though it may perhaps be a tribute to his curious and fortunately abortive project for an opera about gold-mining in the Yukon."

World War II had only just ended when Swan Song first came out and so this quote, from the producer of the opera in the book, carried much more of a sting: "When the Nazis came I was too old for their ideas, and I hated that such fools should worship the Meister, I had preferred that they banned his performances. So I worked here, and then there was the war, and fools said, 'Because Hitler is fond of Wagner we will not have Wagner in England.' Hitler was also fond of your Edgar Wallace, with his stories of violence, but no one said that they were not to be read."

Crispin slips in a comment on British post-WWII austerity as an character explains that she had been "In America. Playing Boheme and dying of consumption five times weekly. As a matter of fact, I nearly died of overeating. You should go to America, Adam. They have food there."

The best thing about Swan Song, though, remains our hero, Fen:
The significance of these recurrent utterances had at last penetrated to Fen's understanding. He became irresponsible.

"There's a diamond tiara gone," he said sternly. "And the specification of the atomic bomb. So if we're all reduced to molecular dust before we have time to turn round it will all be your fault."

"Oh, sir," said the chambermaid. "You're 'aving me on."

"You just wait and see," said Fen, wagging his forefinger at her, "you just wait and see if I'm having you on or not."
And Crispin is not adverse to a little slapstick when necessary:
"Now, Lily Christine [Fen's car]," he muttered, "you can do something for your living."

In this, unfortunately, he proved to be over-optimistic. Nothing he could contrive would start the car. He tampered with the levers, and wound the handle, until he was exhausted. Finally, in an access of vengeful fury, he hurled an empty petrol-can at the chromium nude on the radiator-cap, seized his wife's bicycle, and wobbled frantically away on it.
For this reader, Swan Song ended all too soon.

Three and seven-eights daggers our of four.

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