Holy Disorders, published in 1946, is the second Gervase Fen mystery by Bruce Montgomery (1921-78), writing under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin. Montgomery is considered to be one of the last of the great Golden Age novelists. He was much admired by his friend Agatha Christie.
Edmund Crispin stands out among his peers for the sparkling humour he brought to his work. His amateur sleuth Gervase Fen – a Professor of English at Oxford – was partly based on Montgomery’s Oxford tutor, W.G. Moore. Fen is eccentric, mercurial, by turns charming or pithy. At one point, Fen spends some time running through suspects’ alibis with his friend, Geoffrey Vintner.
‘Do you get it?’ He asked.
‘No’, said Geoffrey.
‘Nincompoop,’ said Fen.
Fen has the wit of Peter Wimsey, the facetiousness of Rory Alleyn and the capacity for getting in a mess of Bertie Wooster. He takes up enthusiasms rather like Toad from The Wind in the Willows and he frequently quotes the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Gervase Fen is as idiosyncratic as Sherlock Holmes, as brilliant a detective and just as lovable to the reader.
Holy Disorders is set in the hot summer of 1940 with the Battle of Britain dominating the headlines. Beginning in London, we follow Geoffrey Vintner, a confirmed bachelor, organist and composer, on an eventful journey down to the Devon cathedral town of Tolnbridge. He’s perhaps something of a self-portrait as Bruce Montgomery was a bachelor for most of his life and a composer of church music. (He was also well-known for his film scores, composing the music for several Carry On comedies).
Vintner is summoned by Fen to be a temporary replacement for the cathedral organist, who’s been attacked and put out of action. Along with this breakfast telegram, Vintner receives an anonymous letter, warning him not to go to Tolnbridge.
He felt as unhappy as any man without pretension to the spirit of adventure might feel who has received a threatening letter, accompanied by sufficient evidence to suggest that the threats contained in it will probably be carried out.
Before leaving London, Vintner is waylaid while purchasing a butterfly net for Fen – insects of several kinds play a significant part in the novel. His journey manages to be both farcical and menacing. He’s saved from attack by Henry Fielding, a young man who is heir to an earldom and straight out of Wodehouse. He’s looking for adventure and inveigles himself into this one, accompanying Vintner to Tolnbridge. Fielding explains why he hasn’t joined up:
They won’t have me. I volunteered last November but they graded me four, I joined the ARP, of course and I’m thinking of going in for this new LDV racket.
Nothing wrong with me except shaky eyesight…I want to do something active about this war – something romantic. I tried to join the Secret Service but it was no good.
Crispin was an extremely accomplished writer, a real all-rounder. His sense of atmosphere is beautifully written. Settings such as Paddington Station and the journey by steam train, summer evenings in the gardens of Tolnbridge and its surrounding countryside are lyrically described. The author settled in South Devon and was obviously thinking of that coast’s estuaries when he described Tolnbridge. Its topography bears some resemblance to Exeter at the head of the Exe estuary, though only partial. Too much is imagined to be a thinly-disguised version.
When Vintner arrives in Tolnbridge, there’s an M.R. Jamesian feel to the narrative. His hostess at the clergy-house explains that the organist has been rendered insane:
An empty cathedral isn’t a good place to be in all night– even for the unimaginative.
Athough Holy Disorders has a lively, humorous tone, there’s constantly a much darker atmosphere lurking beneath. It reminds me of the way Agatha Christie creates a sense of evil in many of her plots. I wonder if this is a trick they ever discussed? Beneath the larky fun – the feeling that P.G Wodehouse has tried his hand at a murder mystery set in a Trollopian Cathedral Close – there’s an undercurrent of cruelty and malice.
Along the way the narrative is a delight, in places laugh-out-loud funny. Gervase Fen doesn’t appear for seventy-odd pages. His entrance is built up, pantomine fashion, the reader constantly hearing about his latest exploits and reading his messages. When he does burst in, he soon breaks the famous fourth wall, stepping out of the action a moment to address the readers, as though we’re in on the joke. Rarely seen at the time, though Leslie Charteris does this engagingly in his Simon Templar stories.
The novel is full of word-play and literary allusions in a way that reminds me of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s work. You feel that Edmund Crispin was having fun as he wrote, treating his readers as intellectual equals and thoroughly enjoying himself.
Another instance of Crispin having fun and breaking the rules is when he describes the reading matter lying about the clergy-house – John Dickson Carr (whom he admired), Nicholas Blake, Margery Allingham and Gladys Mitchell.
He also has the local inspector say:
The Chief Constable got on to the Yard. I believe they were going to send down one of their best men – fellow called Appleby.
Much to Fen’s indignation. (Sir John Appleby, Michael Innes’s famous detective). Fen, being competitive, determines to solve the case before the Yard – that well-known trope – with all the enthusiasm Morse might show for a free pint of real ale and a fiendish cryptic crossword.
Holy Disorders is hard to describe or categorise. A glorious romp, an adventure yarn, a Golden Age thriller, it’s also an intriguing whodunit with a final gathering and a chilling ‘reveal’ worthy of Poirot.
That probably sounds like too much in the pot but trust me, you’re in the hands of a master. Edmund Crispin’s mysteries are a dazzling treat, as fresh and enjoyable now as the day they were first published.