Picture, if you dare, last month’s meeting of Book Club:
We gathered on Zoom with grave faces, struggling to figure out how to fill the two hours with talk about a very dull book. As it turned out, we made short shrift of a desultory conversation about The Gutenberg Murders and devoted the bulk of our time in a group attempt to make a winning selection for April.
And it worked! How can you go wrong with a novel that begins like this:
“There are few creatures more stupid than the average singer. It would appear that the fractional adjustment of larynx, glottis and sinuses required in the production of beautiful sounds must almost invariably be accompanied – so perverse are the habits of Providence – by the witlessness of a barnyard fowl . . . These scarifying intellectual lapses are observable in actors as well – and it has long been noted that singers who are concerned with the theatre are more obtuse and trying than any other kind.”
I won’t say that these sentiments are, erm, correct exactly. Let’s just say, as one who has dealt with actors, singers and dancers, too – oh Lord, dancers! – on an intimate basis for over forty years, this is certainly how producers and directors feel about them much of the time.
I can’t imagine why.
The book in question is Swan Song, the fourth mystery written by Edmund Crispin featuring his testy Oxford don and amateur sleuth, Gervase Fen. Crispin is the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery, who in the span of nine years (1944 to 1953) wrote just nine books about Fen but also wrote dozens of short stories, many of them collected in two books, Beware of the Trains and Fen Country.
I think I read most of these when I was a much younger man, and yet I have few memories of them – except for a whopping sense of surprise when I got to the end of The Moving Toyshop (1946) and recognized the thrilling climax from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, who lifted the final battle on the merry-go-round straight out of Crispin’s book without giving the author a hint of credit.
Both Swan Song and another mystery, Frequent Hearses, benefit from Montgomery’s interest in music and his central career as a film composer. Hearses takes place on a film set, and Montgomery scored nearly forty films, including several in the Carry On series. Although he began writing mysteries when the heyday of classic puzzle crimes was fading, he was considered one of the last purveyors of true Golden Age-style detective novels. For the most part, Crispin’s output is well-plotted and well clued.
Oh, and it’s also hilarious. Witness this description of a rehearsal:
“On the stage, Rutherston could be heard complaining to George Green about the demeanor of the apprentices in the brawl at the end of the second act. ‘They scamper about,’ he said, ‘like a herd of deer attacked by a Pekingese.’ In the orchestra-pit, a trombonist was doing a very creditable imitation of a Spitfire diving, and a clarinetist was surreptitiously playing jazz. John Barfield was seated in the front row of the stalls, consuming a large orange.”
One can only imagine the proportions of Barfield, an opera singer, as he always has something in his mouth. Crispin pokes fun at the egos and and artistic pains plaguing an opera company that has gathered in Oxford to put on Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, a feat of some significance in 1947, coming relatively soon after Hitler’s defeat.
For the leading role, the producer has managed to secure the services of Edwin Shorthouse, a fine singer but a horrible human being. He is particularly horrible to women, considering himself quite the roue despite being described as “coarse-grained, middle-aged, ill-favored, conceited, and almost continually drunk.” He first makes a play for the lovely crime writer Elizabeth Harding, but she manages to dodge his advances and marry the much younger and incredibly charming singer Adam Langley. Shorthouse next targets a chorus girl with a hot-headed boyfriend and still finds time to run afoul of the company’s new conductor, an excitable wunderkind named Peacock, and in general earn the dislike of every member of the company.
Thus it’s no wonder when late one evening Shorthouse is found in the nearly deserted opera house, hanging from a hook in his dressing room. The evidence of the old stage door guard would suggest suicide as the only possibility, but Adam’s friend Gervase Fen believes it to have been murder – and a locked room murder besides!
Did one of the above mentioned quartet of lovers do away with Shorthouse? Was it the temperamental conductor whom the victim had threatened to have fired? How about the delightful prima donna who loathed Edwin, or his brother, the famous – and famously crazy – composer, who admitted he had journeyed down to Oxford that very evening for the express purpose of murdering his brother?
It takes another murder and several attempts on at least two more persons’ lives before Fen can put together a solution that is both original and delightful. I’ll admit that I had the second murder correctly figured out, based on a murder method that has popped up more than once, including in a very recent read. But the main murder, the impossible crime, totally dodged my limited deductive abilities. Sigh . . . impossible crimes usually do.
From start to finish, Swan Song is a lovely and quite funny read, but Crispin takes a few moments in this novel to wax seriously on the after-effects of the war, both on the English and on anti-Nazi Germans. The opera’s associate producer, Karl Wolzogen, trembles with excitement at this, the first British production of Wagner since the war, and although he views Hitler with contempt, he feels some resentment for the hatred the English maintain for his native land.
“A passing laborer wished him good afternoon, and glanced at him with quick, sharp curiosity when he replied. They distrust us, he thought. They distrust the Germans, and one can’t blame them. But they don’t realize that we distrust them, too. Dresden in ruins . . . The opera house gone; no longer any refuge for the shades of Weber and Wagner and Strauss . . . Perhaps he would welcome a visit from someone with the same background, the same memories, as himself.”
Even Gervase Fen has a moment of utter seriousness connected to the war. In every interview, every meeting, at least one person comments that Edwin Shorthouse is better off dead, that his murderer should be rewarded rather than punished. To which Fen finally replies:
“But none of us has the right to assess the value of a human existence. All must be held valuable, or none. The death of Christ and the death of Socrates suggests that our judgments are scarcely infallible. And the evil of Naziism lay precisely in this, that a group of men began to differentiate between the value of their fellow-beings, and to act on their conclusions. It isn’t a habit which I, for one, would like to encourage. “
I feel another consensus of Book Club is at hand this weekend, but this time we shall be gathering in joyful agreement. At least, I hope this to be true, just as I hope that our upcoming selections are as full of fair play and fun as Swan Song!