On the Aller House lawn, twice yearly, the Burraford Church Fetes were held…
‘People come to our Fetes from miles around,’ the Rector said complacently. ‘And it isn’t all women, either; the men come because they can get pickled in the beer tent and enter their tykes for the dog show and gawp at the legs competition… The fairground stuff helps, too, makes a change from stalls selling doilies and jam and daffodil bulbs and musty old copies of Blackmore and Annie S Swan.’…
Though not large, the fortune-telling tent was relatively ornate. It was labelled MADAME SOSOSTRIS FAMOUS CLAIRVOYANT. Inside was murky, lit by an ancient hurricane lantern perched on top of a stepladder in the right -hand rear corner. On a rickety oval table with cigarette burns and beer-glass rings there were playing-cards, a skull, a crystal ball, a stuffed lizard falling to pieces and a packet of ten Guards. Behind the table sat the Rector; to his bombazine dress he had added a wig and a peculiar hat with an impenetrable veil. In front of the table was a chair for clients.
commentary: This was Edmund Crispin’s final crime book. (Four of his earlier ones have featured on the blog.) It arrived in the world in 1977, 25 years after his previous full-length novel and often seems (and this is not a criticism) as though it is set in the 1950s.
He had another career as a composer, and provided music for many British films: when I wrote about the TB-ward-themed comedy Twice Round the Daffodils last week, I missed the fact that Bruce Montgomery (Crispin’s real name – he took the pseudonym from Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge!) had written the score. He was a good friend of blog favourites Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin.
He is a much-loved crime writer. The books were funny and clever and in an older tradition, and all his fans have their own favourite ‘wink to the reader’ moment. In this book, series sleuth Gervase Fen peers at himself in the mirror, then:
At this rate, he felt, he might even live to see the day when novelists described their characters by some other device than that of manoeuvring them into examining themselves in mirrors.It is part of his sweetness and charm that that this was far from true in 1977, and probably not in the 1950s either. And this in a tale where Fen’s proper job is to write a book about 20th century novelists, who are regularly name-checked with funny comments throughout the book – many of his friends feature. He also uses a lot of unusual words, hoping the reader will look them up I guess: indult, ergophobe, paynimry.
The crimes in the book are quite gruesome, and it’s hard to think of anyone solving them – but there is one truly magnificent clue, which is the one thing I remembered about the book from reading it when it first came out – what DID happen to the missing bit of the body?
The references to nymphomania were rather mind-boggling (though very much of their time).
But as ever you read Crispin for the fun, and I thought this was well up to standard. Fen collects the usual group of mates and they wander around collecting information and trying to work out what is going on. The Rector, above, is a particularly fine character. The Major has discovered television (again, more 1950s than 1970s) and sings advertising jingles all the time – many of them were familiar to me and circulated in my head for a day: ‘The hands that wash dishes can be soft as your face…’
Altogether I really liked this look into the crime fiction past: it felt like a part of history, and made for a great read.
Reading about the author in Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder for the purposes of this blogpost, I discovered that Crispin did a lot of crime reviewing – that sounds very interesting, I can’t be the only person who would love to read his opinions. I wonder who he wrote them for, and if they would be easy to collect?
The top picture is from the Library of Congress.
The ladies at the cakestall are from 1954, but seemed very much in the spirit of the summer fete in the book. Fortune teller from the National Library of Wales.