On his knees in a corner was a tall, lanky man. In one hand he held a large glass of whisky, in the other a walking stick, with which he prodded at some small, mobile object hovering above the floor. This was shortly revealed to be a common housefly, avoiding the attacks with ease and evident enjoyment. How long this scene might have continued it is impossible to say, But the fly, tiring of the amusement, presently took wing and prepared to depart. Its assailant, plainly maddened by this unexpected manoeuvre, aimed the contents of his glass at it, and missed. The fly flew at top speed towards his nose, made impact, went into reverse, and then with what even to the unimaginative was manifestly a shriek of delight, made off through the window.
Thus is Gervase Fen, the undoubted star of Unholy Disorders, introduced to the reader. Of its author, Edmund Crispin, Philip Larkin said, “Beneath a formidable exterior he had unsuspected depths of frivolity.” My OH, who has no sense of humour at all when it comes to mystery novels, doesn’t much like Crispin, but then he doesn’t like Michael Innes either, whereas I love them both. I like characters who play silly games or discuss church music, and the more they toss obscure literary references around, the happier I am (funnily enough, I don’t much like Dr Who these days, and OH watches it when I’m not there – you’d think it would be the other way round.)
The story is told from the point of view of Geoffrey Vintner, a musician, who is sent for by his old college contemporary Fen to fill in as organist in a West Country cathedral city. The summons arrives in the form of a lengthy but uninformative telegram (its tone, Geoffrey notes, being one of callous hilarity) instructing him to arrive with butterfly net. Geoffrey, who’s a bit conscious that he’s becoming an old stuck-in-the-mud bachelor-with-cat, decides that he will go, and sets off, stopping en route to the station to purchase said net. Almost immediately after receiving the telegram he is threatened, and an all-out attack follows hard on its heels. Happily he is rescued by a young man called Henry Fielding. Of course, when he reaches Tolnbridge, Fen isn’t even there to meet him and they have to set off for the local pub, which rejoices in the name the Whale and Coffin, to find him.
The small cathedral town atmosphere is delightfully done, the story implausible in the extreme, but great fun. I realised as I finished that I should have worked out the mechanism of one murder, which has distinct overtones of that famously overlooked Edwardian mystery, The Nebuly Coat (John Meade Falkner), which also features a west-country cathedral. I picked up the crucial clue, and worked out who, but not how – in all honesty, the how is pretty unlikely, but I’m happy to suspend disbelief when I’m so entertained.
One of the things I really enjoy about Crispin is his occasional toppling of the fourth wall – there are some sly footnotes, and a delicious bit when the police inspector says they’ll probably bring in the Yard and Fen says, oh not, not bloody Appleby, or words to that effect. And there’s some splendid silliness about a raven, that would make my OH get distinctly po-faced, so I’m not giving it to him. I haven’t read any Crispin for years, and I’m quite delighted to find him every bit as good as I remembered, and even more pleased that Vintage Books have reissued them.