A while back I got awfully excited about Edmund Crispin. I had read a number of reviews of his books and determined that this was an author I wanted to read. A few bulk purchases later and I had most of his catalogue on my shelf. My original intention was to start with the well regarded Swan Song, but instead I elected to go with his most famous book – The Moving Toyshop.
Although it was an enjoyable read, I didn’t quite get what the fuss was about. And who knows, maybe there wasn’t really any fuss to begin with. The Moving Toyshop was a fine book – clever, well paced, and overall fun. It just never quite delivered in the mystery department in the way that I was hoping.
For my second encounter with Crispin, I decided to go with Love Lies Bleeding. For one, it seems to be regarded as one of his stronger books. For two… well, there’s just something fascinating about the title.
Love Lies Bleeding is set at Castrevenford – a sprawling campus of a boy’s school. Mystery comes quickly, with a young girl from a nearby girl’s school having disappeared after a planned rendezvous with a male student in the science building. There’s the added puzzle of purloined poison from a classroom laboratory, as well as a pistol missing from the arms room (yes, the room in the school where they keep the guns…of course).
Oxford professor, part-time sleuth, and professional wise-ass Gervase Fen soon arrives on campus to provide a speech at some yearly festivities. He’s welcomed by a double murder. First, a teacher is found shot dead in a commons room. Suspiciously, a heater has been placed by the body and his watch is stopped, suggesting that someone was trying to obscure the time of death. Far across campus, another teacher (last name Love) lies dead in his study.
You know… I’m not going to try to sell the mystery more than that. For some reason it just never really gripped me. We basically have a double murder on our hands and the potential that more will occur (and they do). I think I was partially turned off by the way that the investigation unfolded. Fen is paired up with the typical well intentioned but over his head detective. Fen seems to understand what is happening from the get go, dismissing the heater placed by the body and stopped watch as irrelevant and traipsing through other elements of the investigation in similar style. Almost immediately we’re assured that Fen knows exactly what happened but just needs a bit more evidence to prove it.
The notion of an all knowing detective who has the mystery mostly figured out from the start isn’t exactly an anomaly in GAD, but when I’ve experience it in the past there’s typically another hook to the story that draws me into the mystery. In this case it seemed like some fairly straightforward deaths and all I had to look forward to was the identity of who done it. And when it came to the cast of potential suspects – well, they all kind of blended together. Various teachers, staff members, and other school personnel – I forgot each character soon after briefly encountering them.
Now it might sound like I hated the book, but it’s more that I wasn’t drawn in by the mystery. Crispin is a clever writer and he peppers the pages with absolutely beautiful sentences. Gervase Fen is a mildly humorous character with a tendency to condescending observations. I ended up sitting back and lightly enjoying the tale unfolding. The story takes some unforeseen turns and at one point gets downright chilling during a scene in a dark forest. It all concludes with an action sequence that had me laughing out loud a few times.
The solution to it all left me a bit wanting. Fen provides a lengthy explanation in the vein that I’ve seen Ellery Queen use in his early books – “the killer must possess these six traits and so by process of elimination…” I’ve never been a big fan of this approach, because the detective tends to state a series of assumptions as if they are air tight facts and then lays a strong layer of logic across that flimsy foundation. I’m not going to claim there are holes in the solution presented in Love Lies Bleeding, but it just wasn’t that satisfying. Whereas I normally savor the end to a detective novel, this was more of a case of “mmm, ok, I guess that checks out.”
Looking back, I think The Moving Toyshop is the better of the two Crispin books I’ve read. The mystery of a disappearing toyshop was weak, but there was an interesting semi-impossible crime that unfolded towards the end of the book. Love Lies Bleeding? I don’t quite know what it has to stand out, even if it was an enjoyable enough read.
As for Crispin – perhaps this isn’t the next great author I was hoping for. His writing is engaging enough that I’ll continue to read him, but at this point I’m in no rush to get to his next book.