It’s been a few years since I read anything by Edmund Crispin. Following a bout of eagerly purchasing most of his limited library, I actually got around to reading him in the form of The Moving Toyshop. It’s an ok book to be sure, but I was left more puzzled by why it’s so well known. I followed it up with Love Lies Bleeding, which never captured my imagination, and felt entirely forgettable even as I read it.
I’ve always heard good things about Swan Song, and having acquired what I deemed to be the most desirable edition (Felony and Mayhem, 2006), I promptly sat on it for two years. You see, I have this stack of books that I’m “going to read next” – Peter Dickinson’s The Poisoned Oracle, Paul Gallico’s Too Many Ghosts, Michael Innes’ Hamlet Revenge, and roughly a dozen others – that has become a sort of book graveyard. I really do intend to read these next, but somehow when I go to pick my next read, it never comes off this pile. Swan Song was trapped in that perdition as well, and it’s time to break free.
Coincidentally, Swan Song take place directly between the two Crispin books that I’ve read, coming on the heels of The Moving Toyshop (with several references to the plot – nothing spoiler-ish) and right before Love Lies Bleeding. Like The Moving Toyshop, it’s positioned as an impossible crime, although the setup never struck me as truly airtight. We have an opera singer found hung in his dressing room, and it’s treated like a locked room mystery (if you assume murder rather than suicide) even though the door is unlocked. That’s because said door is somewhat in the line of peripheral vision of a theatre caretaker, who is fairly sure that nobody went in or out of the deceased’s room. There’s also a skylight above the crime scene, although it wasn’t until late in the book that it became apparent that the skylight was much too small for someone to fit through. Rest assured that you get a thoroughly clever (if a bit confusing) solution that is worthy of a fine locked room, so I suppose you can treat the book that way.
As far as Crispin goes, this is definitely the best that I’ve read by him. The story revolves around an opera house, without ever tainting itself as an “opera mystery” (I have a bias against books that make themselves too much about the world of stage or screen). Instead we have an engrossing mystery that just so happens to feature an opera cast, but could have been just as successful with another setting.
Amateur sleuth Gervase Fen is on hand to investigate the supposed suicide of the opera’s leading man, and has suspicions that it’s really murder. Fen is always played as a lighthearted character, and here the humor is at just the right level – think John Sladek’s droll Thackery Phin – without getting into antics. The plot moves at a fine enough pace to be engrossing, and Crispin manages to build up a Christianna Brand-like tension in the final chapters, forcing the reader to accept that one of the characters truly is going to turn out to be the murderer. The end has some really big tricks in store – even if I managed to figure out half of it – and you definitely won’t come away disappointed.
I suppose what keeps Swan Song from being truly great is the lack of an airtight presentation of the crime; it seemed reasonable that the solution could have been someone slipping into the room while the caretaker’s attention was absorbed, or a criminal utilizing the inadequately described skylight. If you’re going to have a solution worthy of a true locked room, why not go all in with an airtight setup?
Swan Song also feels a bit limited by the one core crime. There are additional deaths, but they play second fiddle, yet the locked room scenario never receives a full enough spotlight to carry the book. It’s a bit like if Invisible Green had only featured one of the murders; it would be a fine book to be sure, but we wouldn’t still be talking about it today. And that’s exactly what this book felt like: Invisible Green but with one crime instead of three.
Still, that’s more of a criticism as to why Swan Song isn’t making any Top Impossible Crimes lists. It brought Edmind Crispin back to my graces, and I’ll be looking for another read. Maybe I should just throw The Case of the Gilded Fly onto my “read this next” pile…