Swan Song (1947) by Edmund Crispin

A company has gathered to produce Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at the Oxford Opera House, not remotely put off by the fact that such a place never existed, – sorry, attack of the pedant there, but it is Oxford. Sorry, I’ll start again.

A company has gathered to produce Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at the Oxford Opera House, the first performance of the German opera in the UK since the war. The excitement is soon cut short, however, when the odious Edwin Shorthouse is given the leading role. Nobody seems to like the man, but did anyone hate him enough to murder him?

When Shorthouse is found hanged inside his locked dressing room, the first assumption is suicide but Gervase Fen has other ideas. As tensions mount and a second death occurs, it seems that nobody in the company is safe…

Edmund Crispin wrote nine mystery novels and two collections of short stories featuring Gervase Fen, his academic sleuth. The Moving Toyshop is his most lauded piece, although personally I think it’s over-rated with a disappointing solution to the central problem. Swan Song, however, the book that followed it is, in my opinion, a much more accomplished piece of work.

You may argue that maybe the locked room murder method is over-complex (although I can show you many more elaborate such methods), you may argue that the overall picture is not unique (I can think of at least one example that predates this book) but it’s always a hard trick to spot. But these would be nitpicking, not real criticisms.

Crispin does clue the reveal, although I seriously doubt that anyone will spot the clues. Crispin’s text and dialogue is wonderful (with the exception of the Jewish character who would not have been written that way today) and there is a plot point that provides a marvelous misdirection.

All in all, I think this is the most complete Crispin mystery that I’ve read – The Case Of The Gilded Fly, Fen’s debut is the next best – and all in all, a very satisfying read.

Good news – Edmund Crispin’s books are rarely out of print, with the most recent re-issue coming from Collins – so if you haven’t read this one, do take a look.

2 comments

  1. I’m glad to see your top two Crispin picks as they’re my two favorites, as well. Although I haven’t reread The Moving Toyshop recently, I know it was far from my favorite. No one seems to talk about Holy Disorders much but I seem to recall that as another I would put high on my list, if only for the zaniness of the beginning. I’m now rereading Swan Song, prompted by this being the bloggers’ choice this month and the edition I received from Kate recently in a Coffee and Crime box. Practically the first book, mystery or not, that I have been able to focus attention on for a few months.

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  2. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Crispin. I’ve read The Moving Toyshop and Holy Disorders. Toyshop was a fun surreal comedy, just barking mad and filled with the erudite, playful wit that characterises all of Crispin’s writing and is the main reason to read him, in my opinion. Disorders, however, left me cold.

    The writing was erudite enough, but because there was no comedy and it was trying to tackle darker, war-related themes of betrayal and madness, it exposed (I think) an underlying shallowness of characterisation. The characters just felt cardboard and stereotyped.

    However, I also read one of his short stories – on your recommendation, as it happens – the horror-inflected one about evil children, and loved it, so I don’t know. I may try Swan Song.

    Liked by 1 person

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