Sunday, 3 April 2011

A Very British Whodunnit...

If you ever feel the need for an utterly whimsical detective story, you might like to try Edmund Crispin. His gentleman sleuth, Gervase Fen, is a professor of literature at Oxford, giving the author plenty of opportunities to display his erudition. Think Inspector Morse, but half a century earlier. This particular novel, Buried for Pleasure, was first published in 1948.

Surprisingly, it has aged very well indeed. Crispin’s style probably wasn’t cutting edge even then, but now it seems beautifully dated. I hate the word ‘quaint’ because it’s so patronising, but I’m struggling to come up with anything better. Fortunately, Crispin is aware of the kitsch-ness of his story and he pokes enough ironic holes in it to make it all incredibly funny.

This is a murder mystery with a political subplot, as, for no particular reason, Fen attempts to become the MP for the obscure country hamlet of Sanford Morvel. Sometimes this subplot seems poorly thought out and unnecessary, apparently existing only as an excuse for Fen’s presence in the village and a chance for Crispin to air his political views. Whence this gem: ‘...the Civil Service is a body whose mistakes are made so thoroughly and definitively, that they can only be rectified by a procedure equally searching and elaborate.’ Mind you, any threadbare excuse can justify that kind of statement.

As we follow Fen’s nascent political career, it becomes alarmingly clear that although he doesn’t really care for the electorate or for politics – and is spending much of his time investigating various sinister happenings – there is a real danger that he might get elected. Fen’s final speech, in which he desperately tries not to get elected, is a real barnstormer. ‘I am bound to conclude,’ he tells a hushed village hall, ‘that this proven obtuseness is not unrepresentative of the British people as a whole, since their predilection for putting brainless megalomaniacs into positions of power stems, in the last analysis, from an identical vacuity of the intellect.’ Not only can you tell that Crispin doesn’t care much for politics (is it me, or does this all seem remarkably resonant?) but you can also tell that he was a schoolteacher who unashamedly enjoyed the aesthetics of words. This is what made Buried for Pleasure so enjoyable for me. Anyone who can casually drop the adjective ‘Rhadamanthine’ into a sentence certainly gets my vote.

So, what about the murders? Well, I can’t say much, but there are enough of them to keep the story interesting. Although there was one plot twist I could see coming, there were a couple of others I missed. Since Crispin clearly isn’t trying to write a ‘serious’ detective story (if there is such a thing) I think he does pretty well.

The fabulously eccentric cast-list also helps. There is an escaped lunatic with a periodic conviction that he is Woodrow Wilson, a Rector who conspiratorially shelters his resident poltergeist, a crime-writer who likes to test his plots first-hand, and buxom wenches aplenty (‘She’m a rare un for mollocking, is Olive.’) And there is Fen himself, of course, with his absurd rhetoric and his uniquely civilised ability to consume five pints of bitter before lunch.

Overall, this is a very funny book that can be breezed through in an afternoon, although you might find yourself reaching for the dictionary from time to time. And beneath all the wordplay and the witticisms, Crispin has a genuine knack for expressing himself with some beautifully crafted sentences which are a pleasure to chew over.

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