Originally published in 1948
Gervase Fen #5
Preceded by Swan Song
Followed by Buried for Pleasure
Castrevenford school invites English professor and amateur sleuth Gervase Fen to present the prizes at Speech Day. However the night before, strange events leave two staff members dead. The Headmaster calls on Professor Fen to investigate.
Often quite amusing with a fun motive, though I think the steam runs out shortly after its discovery.
In the days running up to the annual Speech Day at Castrevenford School its Headmaster is dealing with a variety of crises. First there is the report that a student from the neighboring girl’s school who was taking part in his school’s student production of Henry V returned home from rehearsals looking quite distressed, prompting an investigation into whether any of his boys had behaved in an untoward fashion. Then he has to deal with an upset science master whose chemicals cabinet has been broken into, though it is unclear whether anything was stolen. But worse is to come when on the eve of the festivities two of the masters are found shot dead in the night.
Fortunately for the Headmaster and the Castrevenford School community they happen to have invited English professor and experienced amateur sleuth Gervase Fen to give out the prizes that year…
This is my second attempt to review a Crispin novel since starting this blog though it is the first to actually appear on the site. Last year I had read The Moving Toyshop but the timing proved unfortunate as I read it right before an unplanned hiatus and by the time I was able to write again I found the details had slipped from my mind. Ask me what I think of the book and you will probably get a response along the lines of “I think I liked it”.
Unfortunately I am not entirely confident that this review will do him justice either. After all, I read this book on January 5th and 6th. While I was grateful for the distraction and moments of amusement, I am not sure that I did Crispin justice by reading it while keeping one eye on the news. He deserves a little better from me and so I will do my best to afford him my full critical attention with my next read.
Let’s start by discussing the aspect of the book that worked best for me: its setting. I enjoy mysteries set in British public schools, in part because it is such a familiar setting to me. I have shared before how I attended one such institution myself and while my own experience was hardly a joyous one, I find that school communities are fascinating and quirky places filled with fascinating and quirky people. In other words they make a perfect environment for a murder story.
Crispin had himself been both a student at a public school and, for a couple of years, worked as a schoolmaster at one so he had a good handle both on the physical environments of a school and the attitudes and culture of its faculty, rendering both convincingly. It is not just the details of school life which are well observed but also the fussy independence of the teachers, interference from parents and the sense of tradition and occassion. Castrevenford felt like a real location to me.
The first couple of chapters are quite entertaining as we watch the headmaster go about his business in preparation for speech day – an event I loathed and did my best to sneak away from each year. The general tone of these early interactions is comical though I was a little surprised that there was a suggestion that a female student may have been raped by a male student that seemed to go a little against the general tone of that chapter. It does, of course, transpire that no such event took place so that darker turn is averted.
I particularly enjoyed the appearance of a character who I think rather steals the book. That is the aging and cantankerous bloodhound, Mr. Merrythought, whose ‘homicidal fits’ make him impossible for the headmaster to control and make Fen quite uncomfortable. Crispin milks Fen’s discomfort and the headmaster’s acquiescence to his life being ruled by the animal for all it is worth, gifting the character a memorable introduction and adding to the sense of comedic chaos prior to the discovery of the murders.
Though the two murders take place almost at the same time they occur at opposite ends of the campus meaning that each is examined independently, being given their own chapters. I must say that there is little whimsical or of note about either murder, save for the strange feature of an electric fire being left running on an already hot night at one location and a note left at the other. What makes them interesting is that they occurred so close to each other and both victims seem to have been killed by the same gun.
I don’t think I can go much further with describing the crimes without risking spoiling them. There is, of course, a link and Fen will have to figure out what that connection could be. This does not involve a lot of evidence – just a couple of small details he is able to build his deductions around – but things do seem to come into focus with the discovery of a third murder. That introduces some clearer evidence and gives a stronger sense of the themes and of the direction that the investigation will take, introducing its most entertaining idea which relates to the motive for the crimes.
That motive is, for me, the most interesting aspect of the crimes. It is not exactly original – in fact I have read another work published in the same year by Elizabeth Daly that explores a similar idea. I do think that it is done well though and that Crispin explains it in a way that is quite clear, even if the policeman is a little slow to pick up on what had happened.
Unfortunately the motive is uncovered quite early in the novel which leaves a lot of narrative space to fill at the end and I didn’t feel that the investigation had enough remaining points of interest to sustain it. Once you uncover the motive, it becomes quite easy to connect the dots and recognize how each of the three murders relate to one another. There simply isn’t much left to detect and so the final chapters adopt more of an adventure story style, albeit a rather gentle one, before Fen explains it all. I enjoyed those chapters because they once again made use of Mr. Merrythought but if the descriptions of the activities of a misanthropic hound don’t amuse you then you may find them slow and feel like they are padding.
While I think there are some pacing issues with this novel I should emphasize that I found it very enjoyable anyway, in very large part because of the comical elements of the story. This material largely landed for me and kept me engaged even when the crime plot seemed to drag. It is those elements of the novel that I am sure will be what I remember most about it.
I am not sure which Gervase Fen story I will try next. I own Holy Disorders and Swan Song but may circle back to The Moving Toyshop and give that another go. If anyone has any strong opinions (or weak ones that they feel like stating forcefully) feel free to share. I promise next time I will give him my full attention!
This counts towards the Murder is Academic category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked the book though felt it was unbalanced, particularly in relation to the disappearance of Brenda.