‘The hands that wash dishes can be soft as your face,’ [the Major] suddenly sang at the Rector in a loud, crackling falsetto, ‘with mild green Fairy Liquid ... Liquid, Liquid,’ he sang. ‘I like that melodic turn, or whatever you call it, on “Liquid”. Very affecting.’
‘It’s your wits it’s affecting, if you ask me,’ said the Rector. ‘I suppose you haven’t been eating properly again. He doesn’t eat properly,’ he reported to Padmore.
‘Ah,’ said Padmore, pretending to have had a suspicion confirmed.
‘You’d better stay to lunch,’ the Rector told the Major. ‘Liver and bacon today, fill you up with vitamin B.’
‘Good,’ said the Major. He liked eating with the Rector, who not only had a first-rate cook but also declined to allow conversation during meals. Explaining this policy to his Bishop, who had been about to dine with him during the course of a visitation, ‘What is the good,’ the Rector had said, ‘of God giving us delicious-tasting foods, if every time we lift a forkful to our mouths we have to break off to cope with the inane prattling of our guest?’ [...]
‘A Dettol home is a happy home,’ the Major sang.
‘Can’t ask you other two,’ said the Rector, ‘because there’s not enough.’
The Glimpses of the Moon is part of the huge bookish plunder I dragged back to my lair with me after my holiday in England. It came courtesy of the Samaritan’s Bookshop in Ipswich, a place from where it is impossible to leave without at least one book, and on the cover the publisher has excitedly proclaimed, ‘Worth waiting for! His first novel for over twenty years’. Does the book live up to this? Read on and find out, dear reader.
Edmund Crispin, pseudonym of Bruce Montgomery, is best known for The Moving Toyshop, but during the 1940s and 1950s he wrote seven other comic detective novels featuring the Oxford professor of English literature, Gervase Fen. A friend of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, Crisping was invited to join the Detection Club – whose members included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and John Dickson Carr. He was also, under his real name, a composer of film scores; his work includes the music for some of the Carry On films. However, despite early success, Crispin/Montgomery’s life was far from happy. He suffered from ill health, was a chronic alcoholic and was to die of heart failure at only fifty-six. (All of this biographical information is from The Passing Tramp blog, where you can also find discussion of Crispin’s other works.)
The drink and the poor health seem to be the reasons why Crispin’s fans had to wait twenty-six years for The Glimpses of the Moon. The Passing Tramp describes it as ‘a weak book, a succession of sometimes forced comic vignettes strung together by a frayed murder mystery plot’, so if you are new to Crispin’s work it probably isn’t the place to start. I have to say that I enjoyed it on the whole – though I felt the scenes with the hunt and the pylon were an unnecessary indulgence and dragged rather. It is certainly a very odd detective novel, perhaps not really a detective novel at all.
We begin in a Devonshire pub with Fen, the Major and Padmore, a journalist, eight weeks after the gruesome murder of Routh, a local farmer, for which an Australian farm-hand named Hagberd has been arrested and charged. Fen has with him a pig’s head in a sack. All of a sudden, an ancient man named Gobbo starts speaking to them, apparently providing Hagberd with an alibi; Padmore eagerly drags the Major and Fen off in pursuit of corroborating evidence. Soon there has been another murder and the pig’s head in the sack turns out to be not quite what it ought to be...
As The Passing Tramp notes, the structure of the book is indeed a series of comic vignettes involving ever more characters. Everyone is wildly eccentric and bizarrely named; the whole book is completely over the top. The solution to the murder is provided quite perfunctorily at the end of the novel and relies on information that has been withheld from the reader, thus making it impossible to work out in advance as in a more classic, puzzle mystery. Crispin holds back the details of Routh’s death until Chapter 3, which definitely feels like teasing. In a more conventional detective novel the amateur detective would be central; here, Fen is a minor character in the scenes in which he appears and absent for about a third of the book while the police detectives investigate, futilely. Although he does propose the line of inquiry which leads to the identification of the killer, he is hardly involved in the investigation and does not solve it himself – to the exasperation of the Major:
‘Well, my dear fellow, if you say so. But who is the Botticelli murderer?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But you must know by now, my dear fellow,’ said the Major plaintively. ‘We’re practically at the end of the book.’
There are similar metafictional moments spread out through the book, as when Fen tells Padmore that Crispin ‘writes up’ the accounts of his cases ‘in his own grotesque way’, and there are plenty of literary jokes too. Indeed, Fen explains that the solution to the murder relies on ‘the Chesterton Effect’, named after the author of the Father Brown mysteries. Crispin also pops in a surrogate-Montgomery character, Broderick Thouless, who composes scores for popular films – in this case horror rather than comedy. There is plenty of music in the novel too, from the singing Major to Fen deploring Mahler.
I couldn’t help but come away with the impression that in this book Crispin is really just playing about. The reluctance to divulge basic information about the first murder at the start of the book, the refusal to place his detective centre-stage or provide any clues and the constant divergence into comic scenes that have little to do with the murder plot, the abrupt solution at the end – all of these suggest to me that Crispin is deliberately toying with the reader’s expectations and indulging his own comic instincts (and also his wish to moan about various aspects of modern life, like pylons and hunt protesters). But as a result of jettisoning a more conventional plot Crispin I think loses drive and coherence in the book, and this is compounded by his inability to resist adding more and more characters. Still, it feels as if he was having fun writing it (I hope he was) and that sense of fun does communicate itself; I largely enjoyed it despite its weaknesses and I giggled a lot. It may not be up to his earlier work, but it is still very much worth reading.
Incidentally, the book seems to have no connexion with the Edith Wharton novel of the same title, which seems odd given how literary a writer Crispin is. I am not really sure what it means here, but I think it alludes to the moon as the source of lunacy and so is about flashes of madness.