Monday, July 12, 2010

What Goes Around ...:
When Imitation Really Is Flattery

It’s been said that there are just seven plots for mystery novels. That might or might not be true, but certainly reviewers often get a case of déjà vu when reading a recent release. Happily, sometimes imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, with the later work being every bit as good as the original; a win-win for readers. Such is the case with a pair of novels penned, respectively, by Edmund Crispin and Christopher Fowler, British authors separated by more than half a century.

Edmund Crispin was the nom de plume of Bruce Montgomery (1921-1978), by turns an organist and choirmaster, later a writer and composer, who was for many years the regular crime-fiction reviewer for the London Sunday Times. A fan of John Dickson Carr (The Three Coffins), his own mystery novels were published primarily between 1944 and 1953.

The Moving Toyshop (1946)
Poet Richard Cadogan travels from London to Oxford, badly in need of a vacation (who knew poets were stressed?). On entering the city late at night he searches for a place to stay. Finding the door to a toyshop in the Iffley Road unlocked, he enters the premises. Inside, on the first (or to North Americans, second) floor he literally trips over the body of an elderly woman, who has been strangled. Hearing someone nearby, he tries to escape, but before he can do so he is attacked and knocked unconscious. When Cadogan comes around he manages to climb out a window and then head off to find the police. The cops listen to his story and return to the scene. What they find forms the basis for the tale; for not only has the body disappeared, but so has the bookstore! In its place is a small grocery shop. The police try to be sympathetic: they chalk it all up to a misunderstanding, due to the blow to Cadogan’s head.

But Cadogan enlists the help of a friend to solve this mystery. Gervase Fen, a professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, is a flamboyant, almost literally larger-than-life figure with an ostentatious (if unreliable) motorcar named Lily Christine III. Fen and Cadogan soon find themselves enmeshed in a mind-boggling mix of improbable chase scenes, devilish clues (including limericks from The Nonsense Poems of Edward Lear), the whole suffused by admittedly droll humor. That humor is often coy. In one scene, while bound up helplessly by the culprits, Fen amuses himself by thinking up titles for subsequent tales in Crispin’s series: “Murder Stalks the University, The Blood on the Mortarboard, Fen Strikes Back.” When Fen is informed that an undergraduate student has dropped off an essay for him, he replies, “That must be Larkin: the most indefatigable searcher-out of pointless correspondences the world has ever known.” The reference is to the respected poet Philip Larkin, a close friend of Crispin’s, to whom this very book is dedicated.

Critic Anthony Boucher described Crispin as a blend of John Dickson Carr, Michael Innes, and the Marx Brothers, and as usual he was not far off. Crispin’s novels are characterized by farcical humor tied to the eccentricities of Oxford academics. If he goes overboard at times (OK, almost all of the time), that is an essential part of his charm.

Enter Christopher Fowler, author of a series of delightfully eccentric tales chronicling the exploits of a quirky pair of septuagenarian London-based sleuths. Fowler appeals to readers in search of character-driven puzzles in the traditional style. His detective protagonists, Arthur Bryant and John May (their names are taken from an English company that manufactures matches), are members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a fictional division replete with a cat named Crippen; Fowler insists it is based on a genuine unit created during the Second World War.

The Victoria Vanishes (2008)
In this story, the aging miscreants from the Peculiar Crimes Unit are planning to mark the retirement of one of their number, Oswald Finch, a forensic pathologist. Lamentably, Finch dies under his own examination table shortly before his retirement party is to take place. He is cremated, and the party quickly becomes a wake. The beer and sausage rolls are moved from the departmental morgue refrigerator to a nearby pub to mark a noteworthy career. The inscription on the retirement cake is quickly modified from Wishing You the Best in Hastings to Wishing You the Best in Heaven. Ever a man for sentiment, Arthur Bryant even brings along the funeral urn containing his late colleague’s ashes. Unfortunately, what with one thing and another he neglects to retrieve the urn on his way out. When he discovers his solecism, he returns to the scene in a panic. To his astonishment and dismay, not only the urn is missing--the pub itself has disappeared.

Firmly tongue-in-cheek, the plot of Fowler’s parody has more wrinkles than a cheap suit. But the author denies that the series can be described as cozy, noting that he raises social issues and has his protagonists disrupt the system in the name of justice.

The Moving Toyshop and The Victoria Vanishes share a gently mordant wit, a captivating puzzle, and a cast of oddballs that will keep their fans in stitches. Each is a fine tale, though (understandably) the literary style of Crispin’s work reflects the age in which it was written. We are the richer for them both.

2 comments:

Pauline Rowson said...

I love The Moving Toyshop and have read it several times. It takes pride of place in my collection of the Golden Age of Crime novels. It's a delight to read. Great to see it featured here. The Silk Stocking Murders by Anthony Berkeley is another gem.

I've not heard of The Victoria Vanishes and must now look out for it. Regards.

Les Blatt said...

I second the sentiments of the last commenter and of Jim Napier as well. My own Crispin favorite is "Swan Song," which is another impossible crime novel and quite funny as well - with Crispin's usual surreal touches. I hadn't heard of Fowler; I'm going to have to look up "The Victoria Vanishes." Thanks!