Fen Country (1979) is fun and games, Edmund Crispin style. Just over two dozen stories culled mostly from a British newspaper (the EVENING STANDARD), a few from EQMM and WINTER’S CRIMES, most of them averaging five pages, and all of them entertaining. As Crispin noted in Beware of the Trains, stories of this length can only aspire to the depth of an anecdote, with characterization and emotion taking second place to plot; even so, the author rarely disappoints. Besides, reading Crispin offers the chance to learn new words (how about “esurient”)?
An enthusiastic blurb writer (his enthusiasm equally divided between the author and the people who write his paychecks) introduces us to Fen’s country in remarks on the dust jacket flaps:
Here’s riches! Twenty-six detective stories by the great Edmund Crispin — a splendid hoard, if sadly posthumous. Most of them feature his don-detective, Gervase Fen, and/or his almost equally sharp-witted friend and (unofficial) colleague, Inspector Humbleby of Scotland Yard. And all of the stories are as taut as a highly strung bow, and score a remarkable series of bull’s-eyes.
They turn upon a fine assortment of clues —dandelions and hearing aids, Sunday pub closing in Wales, a bloodstained cat, a Leonardo drawing. There are devices and tricks of extraordinary ingenuity — murder by letter, a circular literary forgery. And cleverest of all, perhaps, there are the many variations on faked alibis and switched victims — the alibied corpse that gives the killer an alibi, or the faked alibi that breaks an alibi. There seems no limit to the intricacy of Edmund Crispin’s invention or the sparkle of his wit. And certainly none to the sheer delight that his puzzles provide.
Fen Country is a bonus in the series of reprints of Edmund Crispin’s earlier novels that Walker and Company is issuing for the growing number of enthusiasts of Gervase Fen and his playful, erudite creator. The author’s last new work (after a twenty-five year hiatus), The Glimpses of the Moon, was published by Walker in 1978, shortly before Crispin’s death. Since then, Gervase Fen has played several return engagements under Walker sponsorship and will continue to do so, but Fen Country’s twenty-six stories are in book form for the first time, and only two of these have appeared in the United States at all. Riches, indeed — as every reader will agree.
About the author:
“Edmund Crispin,” creator of nine detective novels and one previous book of stories featuring Gervase Fen, was a highly successful composer of music for motion pictures under his real name, Bruce Montgomery. A graduate of Oxford and at one time a schoolmaster (a fact to which he attributed, tongue-in-cheek, his knowledge of the criminal in human nature), he was also briefly on the stage. This varied background gave him the factual basis for the richly convincing framework in which he set the often fantastic detail of his stories; the combination places him in the thin ranks of those who have transcended the genre to produce works of genuine all-around excellence.
There we go again with “transcending the genre”! Good thing Shakespeare didn’t try that.
Fen Country (1979)
by Edmund Crispin
Short Story Collection: 26 Stories
1. “Who Killed Baker?” (with Geoffrey Bush) (EVENING STANDARD: 1950)
Over walnuts, stuffed dates, and port — some of it deliberately spilled — Gervase Fen recounts “the case … solved by a very able Detective Inspector of the County CID, by name Casby,” within a mere twenty-four hours. Fen’s version — “… it’s a case in which the mode of telling is important — as important, probably, as the thing told …” — leaves Fen’s annoying acquaintance, Wakefield, howling with rage; the reader may be moved to a similar reaction.
2. “Death and Aunt Fancy” (EVENING STANDARD: 1953)
George Gotobed travels to visit his dear Aunt Fancy, upon whom he has never clapped eyes; the old lady seems to be anxious about her companion, Miss Preedy. By morning, one of the women is dead, a large sum of money is at stake, and George, bewildered by the whole affair, returns to Oxford to consult his tutor, Gervase Fen, who quickly solves it and, characteristically, tops it all off with a literary pun.
3. “The Hunchback Cat” (EVENING STANDARD: 1954)
“Let me tell you about the Copping case,” Fen announces at a party. Clifford Copping, a highly neurotic individual, is discovered murdered — “There was a kitchen knife and a severed throat and an almost inconceivable mess of blood” — in a locked room inside a medieval tower. If one disregards the servants (and why do we do that?), three suspects remain: Isobel, Copping’s only daughter; Peter Doyle, her husband; and “a handsome little high-stepping tortoiseshell cat.” (Who can authoritatively assert that cats are always above suspicion?)
4. “The Lion’s Tooth” (EVENING STANDARD: 1955)
Little Mary Merrill, daughter of a wealthy businessman, is kidnapped from a convent where she’s staying while her father is in Italy; a ransom demand is duly issued, and the police are duly at a loss for clues. But never fear, Fen is here, called in by the reverend mother — and he’s armed with an automatic pistol this time. Only Fen tumbles to the decisive clue — “Something yellow” — and within a few hours he is face-to-face with the culprit. Here is a case in which the solution is lost — and found — in translation.
5. “Gladstone’s Candlestick” (EVENING STANDARD: 1955)
Gina Mitchell announces defiantly to her tutor, Gervase Fen: “I am NOT a thief.” Believing her, Fen sets about proving her innocent of stealing an historic candlestick worth 400 pounds from her bedridden grandfather’s manor house; apart from Lord Stretham and Gina, only two other people seem to have had the opportunity to do the theft: Humphrey Lister, her cousin, and Henry Challis, an acquaintance of Lord Stretham. Gina is especially distressed because her grandfather believes she did it. (Crispin does not play fair here, particularly with the powder clue on the mantelpiece.)
6. “The Man Who Lost His Head” (EVENING STANDARD: 1955)
Sir Gerald McComas enlists the aid of a reluctant Gervase Fen; McComas believes that his daughter Jane’s fiance, “a fledgling barrister by the name of Brian Ainsworth,” has stolen “a small but valuable Leonardo drawing” from his study. To avoid public scandal, McComas wants Fen to determine where Ainsworth has secreted the sketch, not an easy thing for the young lawyer to do since he has spent the night in jail — where, as you know, inmates are searched. After asking two questions — and confirming the answer to one with New Scotland Yard — Fen has the solution to a case that shows chivalry is not dead.
7. “The Two Sisters” (EVENING STANDARD: 1955)
Percy Wyndham, just recovering from a nervous breakdown, eagerly accepts his aunt’s offer to stay in her cottage, miles from anywhere, while she is in France; one further bonus is that her housekeeper, Mrs. Blench, is deaf and “Above all … tranquil.” Percy’s tranquility is greatly disrupted, however, by the appearance of Bessie, Mrs. Blench’s money-hungry “disreputable sister”; Percy’s aunt had also warned him that Mrs. Blench, distrusting banks, keeps large sums of money on the premises. An insomniac — even with medicine — Percy witnesses one night what he believes is a struggle between Mrs. Blench and Bessie on the edge of the woods; but it’s only when he casually mentions this to Gervase Fen that Fen begins to realize Percy didn’t witness merely a struggle, but the aftermath of a murder ….
8. “Outrage in Stepney” (EQMM: 1955)
Gervase Fen dabbles in international intrigue. Among other things, Fen must deal with Scotland Yard’s Special Branch; a German Communist who mispronounces the American President’s name; that old German folk-tune “Anchors Aweigh”; “a very large, very drunk young man”; and the problem of a would-be defector who is under constant surveillance — but with Fen’s finagling, Auntie Beeb provides the breakthrough.
9. “A Country to Sell” (EVENING STANDARD: 1955)
More international intrigue: Christopher Bradbury, an American agent and Oxford graduate, consults Gervase Fen with his problem — “So what it comes down to … is just this: either the top guy in Washington is a traitor, or I am …. and I did NOT sell out.” After Bradbury had communicated instructions by phone, “a valuable man was shot dead in Hampstead, and months of work collapsed in ruins, because those instructions were known.” There’s a spy in the woodwork — or should I say the copper wiring — all right; the irony is how a domestic squabble, a stymied romance, and the desperation of a dying man all converge menacingly on Christopher Bradbury. (And when he is congratulated on his Sherlockian deductions, Fen demurs: “‘Not deductions,’ said Fen with some rancour. ‘Intelligent guess-work — nothing more.’ He is fond of compliments, but likes accuracy even better.”)
10. “A Case in Camera” (EVENING STANDARD: 1955)
Detective Inspector Humbleby makes his first appearance — sans Fen — in this collection. Humbleby is induced to spend some leave time with his wife’s sister and her husband, Pollitt by name, a superintendent in a village CID; Pollitt confides that he is about to be forcibly retired because he went against superiors’ orders in the investigation of a murder case. A woman has been killed, evidently during the commission of a home break-in, but Pollitt’s policeman’s instincts tell him otherwise; he suspects the husband and a young female reporter because their alibi is a bit TOO neat, especially the photograph the young lady allegedly took of the husband at the time of the crime. Humbleby breaks their alibi in what could be called an earth-shaking event.
11. “Blood Sport” (EVENING STANDARD: 1954)
Another solo outing for D.I. Humbleby as he looks into a case of murder by rifle. An impoverished aristocrat named Ellingham — “one of what they call backwoods peers” — is the prime suspect in the death of his only remaining servant, Enid Bragg, who the autopsy reveals was “Five months gone, our Enid was.” The motive is sound enough, but as Humbleby determines, the means — a rifle with a perfectly clean barrel — points away from the prime suspect and straight at the most unlikely person. (In just four pages, Crispin relates a story that a lesser writer could take 300 pages to tell.)
12. “The Pencil” (EVENING STANDARD: 1953)
Hard-boiled fans should like this crime story of a professional killer hired to infiltrate one group of mobsters by another crime group; he discovers that being in the middle of the road can get you run over. The titular pencil figuratively and literally writes an epitaph of someone’s life that ends in ironic fashion. (No Fen or Humbleby in this one.)
13. “Windhover Cottage” (EVENING STANDARD: 1954)
A story featuring the detectival skills, not of Fen or Humbleby, but of Detective Sergeant Robartes of Scotland Yard. Wendy Cowen, married for only two weeks to Phil, has just returned from the States when Robartes comes to her door with grim news of a woman who has been found murdered in Windhover Cottage, their out-of-town residence; and Phil has no confirmed alibi. Robartes proves just how observant and thoughtful a policeman can be when he connects a sound motive and another unsupported alibi with the down-gear shift and odometer of a Jaguar.
14. “The House by the River” (EVENING STANDARD: 1953)
One cool October evening the strangled body of Elsie the servant girl is found in an outbuilding of Gregson’s estate — “Gregson the widower, Gregson the pathetic, Gregson the bore,” reflects the superintendent — which is just across the river from the chief constable’s house. The superintendent has it all figured out even before the chief constable returns from London, and his solution does not make him at all happy; only the prospect of imminent retirement does that: “I’ll be glad to be done with it, he said to himself now: my God, yes. I’ll be glad to get away from it all.” A somber meditation on responsibility and duty, innocence and guilt, and murder and suicide. (No Fen or Humbleby here.)
15. “After Evensong” (EVENING STANDARD: 1953)
The lifeless body of Mr. Soane is found in a churchyard; the police determine the time of death with an unusual degree of certainty. Mrs. Soane and their friend Oliver Masters had left him alone there, they say, in the pink of health, and went for a short walk, only pausing briefly upon encountering an old duffer, Colonel Rackstraw, as they crossed over a bridge, giving them all an alibi for their whereabouts at the time of the crime — or so it would seem. A wily inspector (unnamed) sorts it all out, breaking an alibi with a faked alibi and catching a killer who is too clever for his own good. (No Fen or Humbleby here, either.)
16. “Death Behind Bars” (EQMM: 1960)
This story is in the form of a ten-page letter from the Assistant Commissioner of the CID to the Home Secretary concerning the death of Dr. Harold Wynter, convicted on a shaky manslaughter charge, in one of HM’s prisons; the cause of death was by nicotine poisoning, but the question is whether or not it was self-administered — and further, just how was it done? The AC assures the Home Secretary that an exhaustive investigation has eliminated all but one way for it to happen: “Despite the external appearance of what thriller-writers describe as an ‘impossible murder’ or a ‘locked-room mystery,’ the ingenious yet simple way in which Wynter had in fact been murdered was easily deduced from the facts I have given above.” Perhaps. (Again, no Fen or Humbleby.)
17. “We Know You’re Busy Writing, but We Thought You Wouldn’t Mind If We Just Dropped in For a Minute” (WINTER’S CRIMES: 1969)
I suppose we’ve all had days like Ted Bradley is having: one interruption after another, after another, ad nauseum — the annoying phone calls from his creditors (yes, they want their money) and a petulant girlfriend; answering the doorbell for his deaf housekeeper, the meter-reader, a lost Frenchman. Ted is, after all, an author: “… forty-seven, unmarried, living alone, a minor crime-fiction writer earning, on average, rather less than 1,000 pounds a year”; and solitude is what writers crave most when they’re working. But when the doorbell rings again and there stand Daphne and Stanislas, real-life crime enters Ted’s life and refuses to go away …. (Saki could have written this one; still no F or H.)
18. “Cash on Delivery” (1979) (Previously unpublished)
Mr. Elliston wishes greatly to be rid of his wife; Max Linster, a professional killer, is willing to oblige Elliston — for a price: five thousand pounds. And so the plan is set; during what is supposed to look like a burglary Linster will strangle the lady, collect the lettuce, and abscond to the Continent. Unknown to Elliston, however, Linster has something else in mind, a nasty little surprise for the bereaved husband …. (Fen, Humbleby, where are you?)
19. “Shot in the Dark” (EVENING STANDARD: 1952)
The village of Cassibury Bardwell suffers an explosion — not of a gas main, but of erupting passions. Joshua Ledlow is smitten with Vashti Winterbourne, but so is Arthur Penge; to complicate things further, Joshua’s sister Cicely is in love with Arthur, “thereby converting the original triangle into a sort of—um—quad-rangle,” as Detective Inspector Humbleby puts it. Other problems linger, as well: When Joshua’s body is found near a footpath, a gun with Arthur’s fingerprints all over it nearby, it looks open-and-shut — but wait, witnesses can vouch for Arthur’s and Joshua’s whereabouts for most of the evening, and other witnesses near the footpath at the time Joshua should have died swear they heard no gunshots. It’s quite a conundrum — until Gervase Fen suggests that it isn’t Arthur who has an alibi, it’s the corpse …. (NOTE: This story appears to be a cut-down version of “Otherwhere,” which appeared in Beware of the Trains — or, conversely, “Otherwhere” is a greatly expanded reworking of “Shot in the Dark.”)
20. “The Mischief Done” (WINTER’S CRIMES: 1972)
The REINE DES ODALISQUES isn’t a who or a where but a what: a diamond, Humbleby informs Fen, worth well over 100,000 pounds — which, the Inspector ruefully admits, has been stolen “literally from under my nose, when I was supposed to be helping to protect it.” Of course, stealing a diamond and unloading it for profit are two quite different things, the latter sometimes more difficult than the former; however, there is the possibility of insurance fraud, as Humbleby points out. The cast of suspects is quite impressive: Asa Braham, a jeweller and present owner of the REINE; Ben, Asa’s phlegmatic brother; Shirtcliff, the sedulous Safeguard security man; Clyde Savitt, a Richard Burton-esque movie star and avid diamond buyer; a combination of these, perhaps; or could it be someone else? (The brief epilogue, steeped in irony, should not be missed.)
21. “Merry-Go-Round” (EVENING STANDARD: 1953)
D.I. Humbleby recounts to Fen a recent case of literary forgery, this at the expense of one of Scotland Yard’s experts in that area, by name Snodgrass. Brixham, an Augustan period book expert and small press owner, has been offended by Snodgrass and effects an appropriate revenge on him. “No,” says Humbleby, “it doesn’t really do to play jokes on the police …. However, there has been just one instance, quite recently, of the thing’s being brought off with impunity and, on the whole, justification.” (No mystery here — or even a crime — but amusing nonetheless.)
22. “Occupational Risk” (EVENING STANDARD: 1955)
Humbleby has an embarrassment of riches — or, rather, rich MEN — as suspects to choose from: three knights, one of whom has committed murder. The body of an elderly gentleman, identity unknown, is found underneath a coffin in a churchyard in Belgravia by an understandably startled sexton fishing for his dropped pipe. By coincidence one of the local policemen had encountered and conversed with the victim in a pub the previous evening; the old fellow, his tongue loosened by excess drink, had confided much about why he was in town — to get an unnamed knight to own up to his responsibilities in regard to a servant girl who had been treated shabbily by this man. Gervase Fen suggests a little test of knowledge that, while not conclusive, would be an important first step in solving Humbleby’s dilemma (or should that be TRI-lemma?).
23. “Dog in the Night-Time” (EVENING STANDARD: 1954)
In the Sherlock Holmes story, a vital clue concerns what SHOULD have been noticeable but wasn’t, and the same holds here. One of Fen’s pupils, Ann Cargill, approaches him with her suspicions about a valuable diamond owned by her recently deceased father. She not only suspects her father’s estate executor, Mr. Spottiswoode, of fencing the stone but also her legal guardian, Uncle Harry, whom she characterizes as a “rather nice, inefficient, sentimental sort of crook who always gets caught sooner or later.” But Spottiswoode has died, leaving a suspiciously lumpy bank account, and Uncle Harry — who has himself called in D.I. Humbleby — seems the embodiment of innocence. Like Poirot, Fen employs his little grey nose hairs to sniff out the malefactor.
24. “Man Overboard” (EVENING STANDARD: 1954)
D.I. Humbleby regales Fen with the Colonna case: two brothers from America, Saul and Harry, who take up residence in England. Harry, however, has a drinking problem severe enough to get him admitted to a sanatorium in South Wales; Saul, meanwhile, has managed to get himself discharged. Nevertheless, they buy a small sloop; and it’s while they’re out in mid-Channel during a gale that one of the brothers goes over the side and presumably drowns accidentally. But thanks to the unanticipated intervention of a blackmailer, the American system of document dating, and blood on top of new varnish, Humbleby collars a killer.
“Blackmailers? … although you may be surprised to hear this,” declaims the Inspector, “in my experience they’re generally rather nicer than any other kind of crook …. I don’t care what novelists say. I like blackmailers. Salt of the earth.”
25. “The Undraped Torso” (EVENING STANDARD: 1954)
As a photographer for a weekly magazine, Ericson has grown accustomed to people strongly objecting to having their picture taken; but he wasn’t expecting such a reaction from a local resident here in sleepy little Dirlham-on-Sea, as he confides to Gervase Fen in a local pub. Fen summarizes the situation: “So what it boils down to is that here we have a man who doesn’t mind having his face seen and photographed; and who doesn’t mind having his body (on which there are absolutely no identifying marks) SEEN — but who’s frightened enough to break an expensive camera when someone takes a picture of it.” Fen’s sleuthing instincts are aroused sufficiently so that he takes off for London and thence to the cottage of an elderly widow near Wycombe, returning to Dirlham with a reluctant Ericson and a greatly interested Detective Inspector Humbleby; for, you see, quite by accident Ericson’s innocent black-and-white photograph has helped solve a twenty-year-old criminal case.
26. “Wolf!” (EVENING STANDARD: 1953)
D.I. Humbleby has reached a PONS ASINORUM in a knotty case; as he tells Fen: ” — but the fact remains that as between robbery with violence on the one hand, and a calculated parricide on the other, I can’t for the moment see anything to choose.” It involves the death of Tidgwick, “a rich old gentleman who got shot through the heart yesterday evening in his own sitting room”; Tidgwick, who was notorious for being an incorrigible practical joker; Tidgwick, father of Harold — “a successful businessman with an over-developed conscience” — and Mortimer — “a tubby, cheerful young fellow with big winking glasses, a research physicist … [who] has an appetite for material luxuries somewhat in excess of his income.” So obviously we should suspect Cain rather than Abel, right? However (and there’s always a “however”), it should be noted that both Harold and Mortimer have rock-solid alibis — Harold was on the phone with old Tidgwick when he heard the shot, and Mortimer was at home when Harold called him just after hearing the shot — hence Humbleby’s indecision about the case. Gervase Fen is able to cut the Gordian knot with his simple knowledge of modern communications. Perhaps this clue will help: “Can you hear me now?” No joke.