favourite literary detectives


I was going to do a rec list for Jools, but it would basically be ‘read ALL the Crispin!’ and so here are some things I particularly love about each book. (Two things that I love in general is that they are funny, and stuffed full of literary allusions.) 

One of the joys of Fen is that he is very much himself - he changes not. Nor does Crispin dwell much on his personal life, and so you can read the books in any order. He is also rarely the protagonist; instead we are at the shoulder of a variety of engaging folk who get caught up in murder.

The Case Of The Gilded Fly - Oxford, 1940. Actors. Theatre. Literary allusions aplenty. A disliked victim. And Fen, being glorious.

Holy Disorders - So many vicars. Historical witchcraft. My favourite minor character, Henry Fielding ('Not’ asks everyone 'the author of Tom Jones?’). A scene which knowledge of Poe’s The Raven makes even funnier.

The Moving Toyshop - Oxford, again, and a poet protagonist (Cadogan). Edward Lear. An obsessive Janeite. Fen’s outrageous driving. 'Detestable Characters In Fiction’. 

Swan Song - Opera (Strauss!) Oxford. impossible murders. Crime writers. More of Fen’s outrageous driving. Fey and/or drunk undergraduates. Sometimes this is my favourite book.

Love Lies Bleeding - A boys school. A girls school. Shakespeare. Teenage girls (Crispin writes teenage girls particularly well). Curious manuscripts. An enormous dog called Mr Merrythought. Sometimes this is my favourite book. 

Buried For Pleasure - Fen stands in a local election. An escaped lunatic. Poisoning. Small village life. A mysterious interloper. 

Frequent Hearses - A British Film studio. An actress called Gloria Scott. Theatre. Mysterious identities. A maze. Inspector Humbleby of the Yard. I love this one.  

The Long Divorce - Two village doctors. A local police detective (possibly my favourite Crispin character ever). Romance. Mysterious legacies. Fen in disguise. Another brilliant teenage girl. Trains. Yeah, sometimes this is my favourite. 

Beware of the Trains & Fen Country - Short stories. Little gems of puzzles. Often involving Humbleby as well. 

Also The Glimpses of the Moon (written much later - 1977, the year before he died) which I seem to have mislaid and haven’t read for ages. Fen is in Devon, trying to write a book. It’s not his (Crispin’s) best, but it’s still worth reading. 

And lastly, from the back of Love Lies Bleeding: 

[Crispin] is thirty-one years old, unmarried, constitutionally torpid; for recreation he does crosswords puzzles, reads and sleeps. Unlike most authors, he has not been a lumber-jack, bar-tender, advertising agent, ship’s cat, lecturer in metallurgy, gigolo, and Member of Parliament. For a time after leaving Oxford he was, however, a schoolmaster; and it is to this period of life that he attributes his knowledge of human nature in general and of criminal human nature in particular. 

The Moving Toyshop was the first Edmund Crispin book I read, and although I liked it almost immediately, it was this - the beginning of Chapter 6 - that made me fall irrevocably in love with Crispin, and Gervase Fen, his Oxford Professor of English and amateur detective. Crispin doesn’t often break the fourth wall, but when he does it’s lovely. 

Fen and Cadogan (a poet, and our protagonist) have been clunked on the head and trapped. A few pages later, this happens:

I can’t recommend Crispin enough, if you like 1940s british detective fiction. All the books are great, and I can never choose my favourite. Frequent Hearses is set in a film studio (Crispin also wrote film scores under his real name, Bruce Montgomery). Holy Disorders has my favourite scene, a hilarious referencing of Poe’s The Raven. Crispin is incisive, witty, literary, funny; he’s clever without being an intellectual snob and feels beautifully modern at times. Like all the best detective writers, he has a strong sense of personal morality. And his author photo and profile is the best: