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Edmund Crispin (1921-1978) - pseudonym for Robert Bruce Montgomery


British writer and composer, master of fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek mystery novels, a blend of John Dickson Carr, Michael Innes, M.R. James, and the Marx Brothers, as the critic Anthony Boucher once described. Crispin's nine humorous Gervase Fen novels are among the most individualistic works of the genre. Crispin was a product of the University of Oxford – his friend during university years was Kingsley Amis (1922-1995), who also loved detective stories and wrote one James Bond adventure. Under his own name, Bruce Montgomery, he wrote the scores for almost 50 feature films.

"Crispin's work is marked by a highly individual sense of light comedy, and by a great flair for verbal deception rather in the Christie manner... At his weakest he is flippant, at his best he is witty, but all his work shows a high-spiritedness rare and welcome in the crime story." (Julian Symons in Bloody Murder, 1985)

Edmund Crispin was born Robert Bruce Montgomery in Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire, of Scots-Irish parentage. He was the son of Robert Ernest Montgomery, a government official, and Marion Blackwood Jarvie Montgomery. Crispin was educated at the Merchant Taylor's School in London. Before World War II he traveled around Europe, particularly Germany. In 1943 Crispin received his B.A. from St. John's College, Oxford, where read modern languages. When ankle problems kept him from playing sports, he turned to writing and music. In 1942 he read John Dickson Carr's novel The Crooked Hinge, a locked room mystery, which altered his view about detective stories and inspired him to create his own detective. The character in Michael Innes's Hamlet, Revenge! (1937) called Gervase Crispin gave him the surname of his pseudonym and his detective's first name.

From 1943 to 1945 Crispin worked as a schoolmaster at Schrewsbury School. His friend, the poet and novelist Philip Larkin (1922-85), worked nearby; they read each other's texts and Crispin also dedicated his third book, The Moving Toyshop (1946), to Larkin. "Bruce was one the few people – in fact I can't think of anyone else, that really brught new delights into my life, and was always likely to find something fresh and rell me about it," Larkin said decades later.

The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944), published by Gollancz, introduced Crispin's series character Gervase Fen, a cynical Oxford professor. It was written while he was still an undergraduate. The figure was partly based on the Oxford professor W.E. Moore, added with some of the characteristics of the author himself. Also the deaf and eccentric Professor Wilkes, the narrator, becomes familiar to the reader. In the story famous but fading playwright Robert Warner goes to Oxford University to mount his latest experimental drama in the college repertory theatre. One of the actresses dies, her body is left at his door. Circumstances point neither accident nor suicide or murder – it is an impossible murder. Most of the action is seen through the eyes of Nigel Blake, a combination of the names of the author Nicholas Blake and his detective Nigel Strangeways.

The critic and mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included The Moving Toyshop in 1987 among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. "The word to describe The Moving Toyshop is 'rococo'. It possesses in splendid abundance the ebullient charm of the works of art thus labelled. It is alive with flourishes. Its mainspring the actual disappearance of a toyshop visited in midnight Oxford, has all the right fancifulness, and at the end it is explained with perfect plausibility." (Keating in Crime and Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987) Poet Richard Cadogan, arriving in Oxford for a holiday, finds a dead woman in a room above toyshop. A blow from a blunt instrument hits him unconscious. When he recovers, the dead woman has disappeared and the toyshop has turned into a grocery store. Police do not believe Cadogan's story and he contacts Gervase Fen. "After all," Professor Fen says to the poet, "it's somewhat unusual business, isn't it." "So unusual," says the pot, "that no one in his sense would invent it." Professor Fen immediately finds a clue: a telephone number written on a piece of paper.

Basically Gervase Fen, a Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, do not solve impossible crimes with logic but with his intuitive ability, and partly because he is aware that he is a fictional type. He is tall, about 40, with cheerful, clean-shaven face, dark hair plastered down with water. Usually he wears an enormous raincoat with extraordinary hats. Fell is happily married, he drives a red roadster, without worrying about speeding tickets. His favorite expostulations "Oh, my paws!" and "Oh, my furs and whiskers!" derive from Lewis Carroll. Fen cooperates with Inspector Humbleby, a policeman. He is interested in literature – perhaps more than solving crimes.

Crispin was one of the last representantives of the Golden Age of British detective fiction. At the same time, he both parodied the conventions of the genre, and drew from it. During a nine year period (1944-1953) he published eight novels, establishing his reputation as a major writer of mysteries. Crispin combined farcical situations with literary references, coincidences with nearly postmodern self-awareness, inappropriate behaviour and sharp observations of the language of various classes and professions. In The Moving Toyshop Crispin lets a truck driver preach "industrial civilization is the curse of our age... We've lorst touch with Nachur. We're all pallid... We'we lorst touch with the 'body.'"

Crispin's professional music career began in mid-1940s. Music also inspired the novel The Swan Song (1947), in which a badly behaving bass from the cast of Richard Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is killed. The murder is not the tenor. Crispin defends Wagner's operas, which were sometimes assocoated in post-war England with the Nazis. There is also a vague hint that Gervase Fen had been involved in the murder investigation of Hitler.

Since the age of fifteen Crispin had played piano – in his youth he worked as an organist and choirmaster. Crispin composed under his own name, Bruce Montgomery, choral and orchestral works, songs, and several scores for Gerald Thomas's Carry On series and movies based on Richard Gordon's humorous novels. In addition, he wrote the original music for such feature movies as Eyewitness (1956), The Truth About Women (1957), Heart of a Child (1958), Home is the Hero (1959), No Kidding (1960), Too Young to Love (1960), Raising the Wind (1961), Twice Round the Daffodils (1962), and The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), which was his final film work. Crispin's old mentor Philip Martell conducted the score. Most of his compositions were published in the 1940s and early 1950s. In 1956 he wrote music for a television film called The City – Cairo, but the film was never shown. After he withdrew from writing the score for Follow That Horse (1960), Stanley Black was engaged to compose it.

Upon the story collection, Beware of the Train (1953) Crispin stopped writing novels for many years. In a hilarious story, 'We Know You're Busy Writing, But We Thought You Wouldn't Mind If We Just Dropped In for a Minute' (1969) the narrator tries to finish a sentence, "His crushed had, paining him less now, nevertheless gave him a sense of..." but is constantly interrupted by visitors and phone calls. Growing weary of the city, he built a bungalow in Devon, and settled down to a quiet country li fe, collected classical records, and took an interest in church matters. Succeeding Julian Symons, he reviewed crime fiction for the Sunday Times from 1967 regularly.

The Glipses of the Moon (1977), set in the Devon countryside, was the last Gervase Fen mystery. Engaged in writing a book about British novelist and lonely, Fen talks to a cat, and decides to write a novel of his own, called A Manx Ca (287), but "then it all dissolves into farce," as Crispin says in the story. Generally reviewers praised its humor, wit, and the use of language, overlooking Crispin's frivolity with twists and turns of the plot, and his over-the-top characters, including a hunter "with waist-lenght hair, who was wearing a hoicked-up caftan and prayer beads above his shining riding boots".

In 1976 Crispin married her secrerary Ann Clements, three years before his death. She had started to work for him in 1957, and soon adopted the role of combined secretary and protector, who also went shopping for him and acted as cook. By the early 1970s, Crispin's drinking finally overwhelmed him and he became increasingly semi-recluse. He was hospitalized as an emergency patient for weeks, he needed assistance with changing clothes, and he was too weak to write. Crispin also suffered from osteroporosis. In his final years he attended services at Dartington Parish Church. "I am a Churchman," he told The Armchair Detectice, "not very active one, but the fact that I am one at all in these days is so odd and unexpected that I thought it worth mentioning." Crispin died on September 15, 1978. Fen Country, a collection on short stories, came out posthumously in 1979.

Crispin was an early advocate of SF and presented it as a legitimate form of writing without any excuses – an attitude that was not common in the 1950s, when it was not yet respectable branch of literature. As a science-fiction anthologist Crispin became thoroughly familiar with the currents of the genre and he knew personally such writers as Brian Aldiss and Harry Harryson, who once helped him home from a pub in Totnes. When the New Worlds magazine suffered from financial troubles in the late 1960s, it was bailed out by a Arts Council grant; an appeal was supported by Crispin, Anthony Burgess, Angus Wilson, and other eminent figures.

For further reading: Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books by David Whittle (2007); 'Edmund Crispin' by Michael Dirda, in Mystery and Suspense Writers, ed. by Robin W. Winks (1998); Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William L. DeAndrea (1997); Memoirs by Kingsley Amis (1991); Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, ed. by Anthony Thwaite (1992); Crime and Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); Twentieth Century Mystery and Crime Writers, ed. by John M. Reilly (1985); Twelve Englishmen of Mystery by Earl F. Bargainnier (1984); Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, ed. by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler (1976) - See other university professors as mystery writers: Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake (pseudonym for Cecil Day Lewis)

Selected bibliography:

  • The Case of the Gilded Fly, 1944 (U.S. title: Obsequies at Oxford, 1945)
  • Holy Disorder, 1945
  • The Moving Toyshop, 1946
    - Liikkuva lelukauppa (suom. Leena Tamminen, 1989)
    - episode in TV series Detective, 1964, adapted by John Hopkins, dir. Shaun Sutton, starring Rupert Davies as Inspector Maigret and Richard Wordsworth as Professor Gervase Fen
  • Swan Song, 1947 (U.S. title: Dead and Dumb, 1947)
    - Joutsenlaulu (suom. Jukka Saarikivi, 2005)
  • Love Lies Bleeding, 1948
  • Buried for Pleasure, 1948
  • Frequent Hearses, 1950 (U.S. title: Sudden Vengeance, 1950)
  • The Long Divorce, 1952 (US title: A Noose for Her, 1952)
  • Beware of the Trains: Sixteen Stories, 1953
  • Best SF: Science Fiction Stories, 1955-70 (ed., 7 vols.)
  • Best Detective Stories, 1959-64 (ed., 2 vols.)
  • Raising the Wind, 1961 (screenplay)
    - prod. Peter Rogers Productions, dir. Gerald Thomas, starring James Robertson Justice, Leslie Phillips, Paul Massie, Kenneth Williams
  • Best Tales of Terror, 1962-65 (ed., 2 vols.)
  • The Stars and Under: A Selection of Science Fiction, 1968 (ed.)
  • Best Murder Stories 2, 1973 (ed.)
  • Outwards From Earth: A Selection of Science Fiction, 1974 (ed.)
  • The Glimpses of the Moon, 1978
  • Fen Country, 1979

List of Compositions:

  • Unto Thee Will I Lift Up Mine Eyes, 1939 (text: from Psalm 123)
  • Jesu, That Dost in Mary Dwell, 1940 (text: Gerard Manley Hopkins)
  • As the Hart Panteth, 1940 (text: from Psalm 42)
  • Dance, 1940
  • Study in F Sharp Minor (for the right hand), 1940
  • Five Pieces for String Quartet, 1941
  • Sailor's Leave, 1941
  • Two Sketches for Piano, Op. 1 No.4, 1944
  • Magnificat in a Major, 1941-2 (text: from The Book of Common Prayer)
  • My Joy, My Life, My Crown! Op. 1 No. 3, 1944 (text: George Herbert)
  • Everyman: Incidental Music for Organ, 1942
  • It Is a Show, 1943 (text: John Maxwell)
  • Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind, 1943 (text: William Shakespeare)
  • Fugue in C Minor, 1943
  • Song, 1944 (text: Philip Larkin)
  • Canzona for Violin and Piano, Op. 1 No 1, 1944
  • Romance in B, 1944
  • Overture to a Fairy Tale, Op. 3, 1944
  • Spring, the Sweet Spring, Op 1 No. 5, 1945 (text: Thomas Nashe)
  • Sally in Our Alley, Op. 1 No. 6, 1945 (text: Henry Carey)
  • Hommage to Delius, Op. 1 No. 2, 1946
  • On the Resurrection of Christ, Op. 2, 1947 (text: William Dunbar)
  • Mary Ambree, 1948 (text: anon., from Reliques of Ancient English Poetry)
  • As Joseph Was A-Walking, Op 4 No. 2, 1947 (text: Hone's Ancient Mysteries Described)
  • Fair Helen, Op. 4 No. 1, 1947
  • Bartholomew Fair, Op. 9, 1947
  • Four Shakespeare Songs, 1948 (text: William Shakespeare)
  • I Loved a Lass, Op. 11 No. 2, 1948 (text: George Wither)
  • Gather Ye Rosebuds, Op. 11 No. 1, 1949 (text: Robert Herrick)
  • Christ's Birthday, Suite of Carols for Mixed Chorus and String Orchestra, 1948
  • My True Love Hath My Heart, Op. 14 No. 1, 1949 (text: Sir Philip Sidney)
  • Venus' Praise; Seven English Lyrics for Chorus & String Orchestra, 1952
  • Concertimo for String Orchestra, op. 10, 1950
  • Heroic March, Op. 15, 1949
  • An Oxford Requiem, 1950
  • To Phyllis, Op. 16 No. 1, 1950 (text: Thomas Lodge)
  • An Oxford Requiem, Op. 17, 1950 (text: from Psalms)
  • My Soul, There Is a Country, 1950 (incomplete; text: Henry Vaughan)
  • Go, Lovely Rose!, Op. 16 No. 3, 1951 (text: Edmund Waller)
  • Concerto Waltz for Two Pianos, 1952
  • Willy Drowned in a Yarrow, Op. 14 No. 2, 1952 (text: anon.)
  • Score for Carry On Nurse, 1959
  • John Barleycorn: An Opera for Children, 1962
  • Amorous Flea, 1964

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