The first novel in the Gervase Fen series and the first of Crispin's novels which I've read, this was the August 2012 group read for the English Mysteries Book Club. Gervase Fen, an Oxford don and gifted amateur detective, solves the murder of an actress apparently hated by all who knew her.
This review, written by my friend Jane and this one written by my friend Tracey, leave me little to say about the novel. Jane and Tracey (as usual) do a great job with their analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the work.
I’ll content myself with listing the things I most like and dislike about the novel. First, the things I like:
• The WWII Oxford setting;
• The stylish prose (possibly a bit pretentious, with its liberal sprinkling of Latin quotations and literary allusions, but I’m a sucker for that sort of thing);
• The post-modern, self-referential touches;
• The theatre theme;
• The juxtaposition of the lecturer in literature who loves detecting crime and the policeman whose hobby is literary criticism;
• Gervase Fen’s put-upon but wonderfully snarky wife.
Now for the things I dislike:
• The confusing cast of characters who were difficult to distinguish one from the other.
• The incredibly annoying Fen. I accept that he’s supposed to be annoying, but I kept hoping that something about his eccentricity would become endearing. It didn’t.
• The relentless misogyny of the text. For me, this went beyond the difference between language and attitudes which were acceptable in the 1940s but are not acceptable today. According to the narrative, the victim, a sexually promiscuous and deeply unpleasant young woman, deserved to be murdered. In fact, the murderer did the world a favour by disposing of her and Gervase Fen spends a lot of time asking himself and other characters whether apprehending and punishing the murderer would be just. I’d like to think that this was, as my friend Jane believes, the author playing with his readers, but I’m concerned that it was meant seriously. While I’ve become accustomed to the casual anti-Semitism and racism which is prevalent in pre-WWII British crime fiction, I’ve not encountered such obvious sexism before in this kind of novel. It may just be that I’m used to reading female mystery writers of the period – such as Sayers and Tey – who dealt with gender issues in quite a different way.
Overall, in my mind the negatives of this novel outweigh the positives. My reading of other reviews of Crispin’s work suggests that this is not the best of the Gervase Fen series, so I may read another at some point. But I won’t be in any great hurry to do so.
Rounded up to three stars because of the great setting, the excellent prose and Mrs Fen.