I am horribly, ridiculously behind, but now my thesis is winging its way to examiners, my last teaching before Christmas is almost done, I can read fiction guilt-free, and in theory I have time to post some more reviews. So here goes.
I like old-school detective stories, and I like Oxford, and I have liked detective stories set in Oxford, and I enjoy Lewis occasionally, but I did not enjoy Edmund Crispin’s Swan Song (1947) very much. Starring Gervais Fen, in a nebulous sort of way, the plot centres around an odious opera singer and the drama behind the scenes–when Edwin Shorthouse is found dead in a locked room after a conversation in which several people expressed murderous intent, could it possibly be suicide as the police suspect?
Gervais Fen is an academic, but it’s unclear, at least from this novel, in what field. He is considered witty, and has, as is right and proper, an ambivalent relationship with the more conventional forms of law and order, i.e. Inspector Mudge. He lacks much personality beyond the occasional quip and leap of logic. In this particular investigation, he is aided by Adam, also an opera singer, but of a pleasant, non-primadonna type, and his new wife Elizabeth, who writes about crime and is well read up on poisons. The action takes place in Oxford just after the war, which is indicated not only by street names and references to random colleges, but the use of the Bird and Baby, which Tolkien, Lewis and the Inklings called The Eagle and Child pub, and the occasional splash of local colour: ‘There goes C.S. Lewis,’ said Fen suddenly. ‘It must be Tuesday.’ And this may be overly persnickety, but if someone’s familiar enough with Oxford and its literary scene to call the Eagle and Child the Bird and Baby, they should know that C.S. Lewis usually went by “Jack.”
Anyway. It’s a pleasant enough read, despite irritations, but it suffers in comparison with the Other Oxford detective novel – Fen seems a pale Wimsey, Elizabeth a non-descript Harriet Vane, the solution to the crime, although ingenious, contains both heavily signposted elements (“he was not to know that someone else knew where the revolver was” and that kind of thing) and elements that the reader, i.e. me, could see coming from miles off but do not become clear to the celebrated detective until the final denouement. Overall, disappointing, but passes the time. I might try another of his books at some point.