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The Creative Life and Death of Bruce Montgomery, aka Edmund Crispin


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IMG-7825-300x265.jpgMusic composer Bruce Montgomery (1921-1978), who as Edmund Crispin wrote eight glitteringly witty and amusing detective novels between 1944 and 1951 (as well as, with Geoffrey Bush, a fellow composer and the alleged son of detective novelist Christopher Bush, the classic short story “Who Killed Baker?”) is the subject of a now fifteen-year-old biography by David Whittle, Director of Music at Leicester Grammar School, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books (2007). Every admirer of Crispin’s mystery fiction (and Montgomery’s music) should read this biography, although affordable copies are hard to find—the publisher, Ashgate, lists it at $155. It took me years to find a copy I was able to buy ($35).

David Whittle’s book was money well-spent, for he writes with insight not only about Montgomery’s career in music, but also, more pertinently to crime fiction fans, about the detective fiction that Montgomery wrote under his Crispin pseudonym. Whittle chronicles both the impressive rise of this author—he published eight novels and twenty-one musical compositions by the time he was thirty-two years old—and his long, sad decline. Montgomery’s productive life both as an author and a composer mostly ended by the time he was forty, as he descended into alcoholism and the stunted life of, in Whittle’s words, “an increasingly remote semi-recluse.” To be sure, Montgomery left us the delightful Edmund Crispin detective novels (still in print today), but once one has read them one cannot help but wish for more and wonder why Montgomery’s creative well grew dry so quickly. After his first eight detective novels, Montgomery managed only one additional mystery tale, The Glimpses of the Moon (1977), before his demise at the age of fifty-six. Let us explore the life and death of Edmund Crispin.

IMG-7819-202x300.jpgThe son of a civil servant who rose to become Principal Clerk in the India Office, Bruce Montgomery with one notable exception had a normal, happy childhood and never lost the conservative, bourgeois mindset produced by his upbringing, despite his Oxford education and penchant for gloriously affected Noel Coward/Dorian Gray-ish picture poses (see photo). The only unhappiness in his childhood came as the result of the “congenital deformity of the feet” from which he suffered—he was born with his feet turned inward—so that he underwent frequent operations up to the age of fourteen and during this time had to wear calipers up to his shins. Whittle clearly believes that the painful consciousness of his physical imperfection inhibited Montgomery from having normal physical relationships with women (“he could not be bothered to do what they required,” as Whittle tactfully puts it), although he was attracted by the fair sex and frequently enjoyed their company. Montgomery finally married a couple of years before his death in 1978, when he was in rapidly failing health and no one any longer expected him to prove his manhood, as it were.

Reading locked room mystery maestro John Dickson Carr’s brilliant, shuddery Gideon Fell detective novel The Crooked Hinge, Whittle explains, inspired Montgomery, while still a student at Oxford, to pen his own mystery tale, The Case of the Gilded Fly, which was published in the United Kingdom by Victor Gollancz in February 1944, when the author was only twenty-two. (The novel was published the next year in the United States by Lippincott under the rather more tony title Obsequies at Oxford.) Influenced by the donnish detective novelist Michael Innes (and his own surroundings), Montgomery made Gervase Fen, the man who was to become his series detective, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford.

Gervase Fen quickly became one of the outstanding gentleman amateur detectives of English detective fiction, comfortably rubbing sophisticated shoulders with the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion. In contrast with these two Crime Queens (and Ngaio Marsh, whose detective Roderick Alleyn, though a policeman, is of the same breed), Montgomery did not make Fen’s love life a focal point, but confined the love stuff to secondary characters, who, Whittle notes, tend rather ingenuously to fall in love and decide to get married almost on sight. Fen himself is not really romantic leading man material. He can be vain, faddish and alarmingly blunt and his most prominent physical feature is his “dark hair, ineffectually plastered down with water,” that is “stuck out in spikes from the back of his head” (Holy Disorders).

Love interest is not what distinguishes Edmund Crispin mystery tales, but rather intelligence, humor, wit, narrative zest and—more often, I think, than Whittle recognizes—clever fair play plotting. Edmund Crispin—let us use this name to discuss Montgomery in his authorial guise—has something of the formidable literary intellect of Michael Innes, yet his humor is earthier, less precious, less an acquired taste, with Innes forever remaining the indulgent don and Crispin the precocious, puckish schoolboy. Despite his small output, Crispin is, in my view, one of the great comedic writers in British detective fiction.

IMG-7820-218x300.jpgSuch is Crispin’s penchant for madcap humor that at times the humorous interludes rather overwhelm the mystery plot. This happens most obviously in the two novels which followed The Case of the Gilded FlyHoly Disorders (1945) and The Moving Toyshop (1946). Of the latter novel, in modern times routinely pronounced (by Julian Symons and P. D. James for example) Crispin’s masterpiece, a reader for Crispin’s British publisher Gollancz presciently noted that it had “a thin plot….but nobody cares.” In the reader’s view Toyshop rose to glory on the wings of its comic “verve.” Most modern readers seemingly would agree, although over the years some detection purists, like Jacques Barzun (and, incidentally, myself) have sounded sour notes in the heavenly chorus. “Heaven help you if you’re expecting detection,” noted a querulous contemporary reviewer.

Holy Disorders also amply illustrates this quality of Edmund Crispin’s detective fiction (as does publisher Felony & Mayhem’s brilliant cover design). Gervase Fen does not appear at all in the first third of the tale, the early action mostly being a succession of brilliant comic set pieces as Geoffrey Vintner, Fen’s Watson of the moment, attempts to make his way to the cathedral town of Tolnbridge, where misdeeds are running fast afoot. It seems dark forces are trying to stop him, and he almost immediately is thrown into a hilarious melee in the sports section of a department store. (He is there in the first place because Fen, who has called for Vintner’s aid, has mysteriously requested his friend to get him a butterfly net.)

Afterwards, Vintner embarks on a train journey—train journeys in Crispin’s books invariably are delightfully presented—and there meets an assortment of colorful characters, including a psychiatrist who is having a crisis of faith in psychiatry—Crispin’s ironic play on the conventional situation of the clergyman losing faith in God—and a vociferous member of the newly energized laboring classes, who demands the right to travel in a first-class carriage. “When we get socialism, see, which is what we’re fighting for, see, you and your like will have to show some respect for me, see, instead of treating me like a lot of dirt, see?” this fellow truculently pronounces, sounding rather like American film star Edward G. Robinson in gangster guise. (One wonders what the Crispin’s noted leftist publisher Victor Gollancz made of him.)

Eventually the novel’s mystery plot proper does start to unfold, and an interesting enough plot it is, but probably the highlight of the book is when Fen and Vintner visit one eminent suspect in his home, and find to their bemusement that Poe’s poem “The Raven” seems to be materializing before their very eyes. One reviewer deemed Holy Disorders “social comedy with a focus in murder”—which seems a fair enough description! As well shall see, the mysteries from Crispin’s middle period—Swan Song (1947), Love Lies Bleeding (1948) and Buried for Pleasure (1948)—are less humorously harum-scarum than Disorders and Toyshop and on the whole more satisfying as detective novels as a result.

*******

IMG-7817.jpgIn the late 1940s Bruce Montgomery, still in his twenties, was unquestionably in the prime of his creative life. In 1947, the year his fourth detective novel appeared, he was invited to join England’s Detection Club, a social organization of the country’s finest writers of detective fiction, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and John Dickson Carr. Fittingly, Montgomery was proposed for membership by his idol John Dickson Carr.
The next three Edmund Crispin novels—Swan Song, which deals with the world of opera, and Love Lies Bleeding and Buried for Pleasure, which concern, respectively, deaths at a public school and a country village—are all fine books, reflecting in some respects, as David Whittle notes, a greater seriousness on the part of the author, yet still retaining the peerless Crispin humor. Of the three tales my favorite is Buried for Pleasure, one of the most notable British detective novels criticizing life in a post-war, austerity-era England governed by a Labour party determined to make what it saw as long overdue social and political change in the country. (Others that come to mind are Miles Burton’s Death Takes the Living, 1949, Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, 1950, and Henry Wade’s Diplomat’s Folly, 1951.) Montgomery, a lifelong Tory of “strongly conservative disposition” in Whittle’s words, obviously was not enamored with the Labour party; yet his humor is so winning that readers who may not share his political disposition should enjoy Pleasure too.

As the cover of the Felony & Mayhem edition of the novel suggests, Buried for Pleasure concerns English politics. It seems that Gervase Fen has rather quixotically gotten it into his head to stand for a seat in Parliament from a country constituency. When Fen steps out at the train station serving Sanford Angelorum, he finds his quest is met skeptically by his driver, an attractive young woman named Diana:

“Look here,” she said, “you’re a professor at Oxford, aren’t you?”
“Of English.”
“Well, what on earth…I mean, why are you standing for Parliament?  What put that idea into your head?
Even to himself Fen’s actions were sometimes unaccountable, and he could think of no very convincing reply.
“It is my wish,” he said sanctimoniously, “to serve the community.”
The girl eyed him dubiously.
“Or at least,” he amended, “that is one of my motives.  Besides, I felt I was getting far too restricted in my interests.  Have you ever produced a definitive edition of Langland?”
“Of course not,” she said crossly.
“I have.  I just finished producing one.  It has queer psychological effects.  You begin to wonder if you’re mad.  And the only remedy for that is a complete change of occupation.”
“What it amounts to is you haven’t any serious interest in politics at all,” the girl said with unexpected severity.

When Gervase Fen makes his way into the village and his lodging at The Fish Inn, he meets an amazingly rich gallery of characters: a traditionalist detective novelist likely modeled on his fellow Detection Club members John Rhode (Cecil John Charles Street) and Freeman Wills Crofts (“Characterization seems to me a very over-rated element in fiction,” he pronounces); the comely and amiable manageress of The Fish Inn; the owner of The Fish Inn, determined to evade exacting labor regulations by expanding his inn himself, with the help of friends and family—with dubious results; a Socialist lord; the lord’s skeptical, phlegmatic butler (who understands Thorstein Veblen much better than his master); Fen’s unflappably cynical “old boy” campaign manager; a cleric living in a house haunted by a not altogether frightening poltergeist; an escaped lunatic (at times he thinks he’s Woodrow Wilson and is apt to lecture about his Fourteen Points); a chorus of rustics; and, last but certainly not least as things turn out, a “non-doing” pig. Always watch out for animals in Crispin, as Whittle points out in his book.

IMG-7830-225x300.jpgBuried for Pleasure is simply brimming over with a delicious comic froth. I would venture to characterize it one of the finest English rural comedy novels, even with its murders.  Not for nothing, as Whittle notes, is mention made of Stella Gibbons’ novel Cold Comfort Farm. Yet the fair play murder plot line is capably and cogently managed by the author and engaging in its own right. And the political satire is masterful. Fen’s anti-Labour parable concerning the practice of the politics of envy during the Cold War—it seems there were three foxes—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who, jealous of each other’s unique possessions, ended up squabbling until, distracted, they fell “easy prey to a number of cannibal foxes which descended on them from the East and tore them limb from limb”—is quite a clever piece of rhetoric, whatever one’s views of the politics of the era. David Whittle’s own discussion of the Crispin detective novels is quite good on the whole, but I was disappointed that this parable—the high point of the political plot—received scant attention from him.

Buried for Pleasure achieves the comic heights of Holy Disorders and The Moving Toyshop, yet it also offers a more controlled mystery plot—a winning combination, in my view. The last two Edmund Crispin novels from the 1944-51 period, Frequent Hearses (published as Sudden Vengeance in the United States) and The Long Divorce, show signs of further artistic development in a serious direction. In particular, The Long Divorce offers the best of Crispin mystery plots along with an interesting, seriously presented female protagonist.

*******

In his biography of Edmund Crispin, David Whittle argues, correctly I believe, that the last two Edmund Crispin books from the 1944 to 1951 series—Frequent Hearses (1950) and The Long Divorce (1951)—clearly evince the author’s “growing regard for plot.” One reviewer of Frequent Hearses, Whittle notes, lamented his own previous castigation of the flippancies in the earlier Crispin detective novels: “I railed against his undergraduate cleverness, but now that [Crispin] writes a straightforward crime story without the sparkling digressions and slapstick repartee of his earlier books, I am sorry, as it were, that I spoke.”

While I love the manic high spirits of some of the earlier Crispin tales, I find that Frequent Hearses and The Long Divorce have more than adequate compensations, namely strong plots ladled with rich dollops of humor (if not quite of the madcap sort).  Frequent Hearses has amusing satire of the film world (with which Crispin had become familiar though his highly lucrative film score work), but my personal favorite of the two is The Long Divorce.

The epigraph to the novel (“the long divorce of steel”) comes from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. (There’s a play you don’t see pillaged for quotations every day.) I will not say more about this epigraph, but it is quite cleverly worked into the story.

IMG-7829-215x300.jpgThe Long Divorce takes place in 1950, between the dates of Friday, June 2 and Monday, June 5. (At these respective points Gervase Fen is on his way from and on his way to, appropriately enough in a Crispin novel, a train station.) In the guise of “Mr. Datchery”—bonus points if you know this literary reference—Fen is descending on the village of Cotten Abbas to investigate, at local the request of the local police, a rash of poison pen letters plaguing the citizenry.  Just this basic set-up should be more than enough to hook the fan of classic English mystery.  It certainly hooked me.

One is right to take the bait which Crispin offers with The Long Divorce, because the novel is one of the very best of that ever so enticing literary species, the English village poison pen mystery, probably the best known example of which is Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942). More serious-minded in this novel, Crispin at times casts a sharp, discerning eye over Cotten Abbas and he provides some interesting social commentary on post-war English life:

Cotten Abbas is sixty or seventy miles from London and obscurely conveys the impression of having strayed there out of a film set.  As with most show-villages, you are apt to feel, when confronted with it, that some impalpable process of embalming is at work, some prophylactic against change and decay which while creditable in itself has yet resulted in a certain degree of stagnation….It all had a prosperous look—but its prosperity, Mr. Datchery thought, was less that of a working class village than that of a village which has been settled by the well-to-do: in a population which could scarcely number more than a couple hundred, it was obviously the invading middle classes that ruled, badly weakened by post-war conditions, but still hanging on.

This sort of keen observation can be found in other 1950s English village detective novels as well, like Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced and Miles Burton’s Bones in the Brickfield (as well as a goodly number of tales by Elizabeth Ferrars, a key figure in the replacement of the classic “country house” mystery with the more modern “country cottage” mystery); but The Long Divorce offers a particularly fine instance of such.

As in Buried for Pleasure, Fen again ensconces himself at an inn, where he encounters a great many interesting characters. There is Mr. Rolt, the local saw mill owner looked down on by the village elite for his rough ways and determination to locate his mill at a local beauty spot; Rolt’s teenage daughter, Penelope, who talks of the romance of throwing oneself in front of a train and who has a painful crush on an unresponsive local schoolteacher, Peter Rubi, a highly intellectual young man of Swiss derivation; Mr. Mogridge, the gossipy and unctuous local innkeeeper; Helen Downing, an Oxford educated local doctor, relatively newly arrived in the village; George Sims, the established doctor; Inspector Edward Casby, the man tasked with investigating the rash of poison pen letters; Colonel Babington, the Chief Constable, desperately trying to break his smoking habit (like the author at the time); Babington’s demented cat, Lavender, constantly on the alert for a Martian invasion (yes, you read that correctly); Amos Weaver, evangelical preacher and local butcher; and assorted female house servants, increasingly scarce and precious beings in postwar England.

IMG-7818-300x223.jpgSoon after Fen’s arrival, a poison pen letter seemingly induces Helen Downing’s wealthy friend, Beatrice Keats-Madderly, to commit suicide. Following this dire event, a fatal stabbing occurs to one of the characters, who apparently was too close to discovering the identity of the poison pen letter writer. Much to her distress, Helen Downing becomes a “person of interest” in the investigation, many pieces of evidence seeming to point to her as the source of the troubles.
Crispin lavishes attention on the two primary female characters, Helen Downing and Penelope Rolt; and they are treated not flippantly but seriously, with considerable insight and understanding. Rolt is an attractive and appealing girl, but she is painfully in love and acutely awkward in her feelings. For her part, Helen Downing is an intelligent and sensitive woman doctor trying to establish herself in a highly traditionalist village. She bears a certain resemblance to Alida Mountwell, a doctor character in Miles Burton’s excellent 1943 village mystery, Murder M.D., though Mountwell is a more confident individual.

Indeed, with the middle section of the book, Crispin completely shifts the narrative focal point of Divorce from Fen to Downing, sweeping the reader up in Downing’s plight, as suspicion starts to focus on her. This section of the book rather reminds one of psychological suspense novels from the 1950s by such authors as Ursula Curtiss and Margaret Millar. It is quite effectively done.

Narrative focus shifts back to Gervase Fen for the last part of the novel, where he provides a brilliant exposition of the crime. Fen’s deductions are all based on clues fairly presented to the reader, yet in this reader’s case, anyway, a lot of these clues were culpably missed! When Fen departs Cotten Abbas, the Great Detective has restored order to the English village, in the classic fashion so admired by W. H. Auden in his widely-cited (and, indeed, over-cited) essay on detective fiction, “The Guilty Vicarage.”

In so highly praising the fair play plotting of The Long Divorce, I do not mean to suggest that Crispin eschews humor in the novel. To the contrary, there are numerous amusing sections. Lavender’s anti-Martian mania is absolutely inspired, for example, and Colonel Babington’s efforts to quit smoking are quite funny. Crispin also gets in some droll satirical jabs at Continental intellectuals, in the form of the Swiss educationalist Peter Rubi:

“It is good for the children,” [Rubi] observed benevolently, “to destroy things sometimes.  If they are allowed to do that, they grow up to be saner people.”  He looked politely to Mr. Datchery [Gervase Fen] in confirmation of his doubtful thesis.  “Is that not so, sir?”
“No,” said Mr. Datchery.

In my view, both Fen and his creator unequivocally triumph in The Long Divorce. Unfortunately it would prove something of a last hurrah for both Crispin and Fen.

*******

After the publication of The Long Divorce (1951) Bruce Montgomery would not publish another Edmund Crispin detective novel for twenty-six years. He did, however, author a spate of mystery short stories—mostly short shorts—in the 1950s, plus a very small number of them afterward. These were gathered in two collections, Beware of the Trains (1953) and Fen Country (1979). The former collection, in which Crispin was able to revise the stories, is much the superior of the two, although two of the tales in Fen Country, the classical “Who Killed Baker?”—co-authored with Geoffrey Bush, a fellow composer and supposed son of Golden Age detective novelist Christopher Bush—and the sardonic and brilliantly titled “We Know You’re Busy Writing, But We Thought You Wouldn’t Mind if We Just Dropped in for a Minute,” where a crime writer suffering from writer’s block—who seems suspiciously like “Edmund Crispin”—is provoked to desperate measures to damn the flow of “friends” thoughtlessly interrupting his work) are outstanding. In his biography of Montgomery, David Whittle quite rightly praises both these tales.

IMG-7822-203x300.jpgWe also learn in some detail from Whittle how Bruce Montgomery became a devoted member of the Detection Club, that organization of England’s finest detective novelists. It will be recalled that Montgomery was initiated into the Detection Club in 1947, at the recommendation of his 1940s mystery idol, John Dickson Carr. The charming Montgomery was well-liked by members, including the formidable Dorothy L. Sayers, who indulgently referred to Montgomery as “Young Crispin.” In one letter to Sayers, Montgomery apologized for “cadging so many cigarettes at the last meeting.”

At least several Detection Club members shared Montgomery’s ample thirst for liquor. Montgomery got along quite well with both the popular, convoicial John Dickson Carr and the less popular, misanthropic Anthony Berkeley, both of whom were themselves bibulous gentlemen. Whittle quotes a colorful letter by Montgomery that is filled with sentimental alcoholic reminiscence (this letter is in the possession of Carr scholar Douglas Greene):

Those were the days, weren’t they?—when, e.g., I fell drunkenly asleep on Christianna Brand’s ample bosom in a taxi, and she had the greatest difficulty in shifting me; when you and Tony Berkeley and I indulged in maudlin confessions of our sexual preferences one late afternoon in the Mandrake Club; when I tried, after four bottles of champagne and two of brandy apiece to fight a duel with you in your Hampstead flat with (unbuttoned) foils….

IMG-7823-183x300.jpgThese “amusing” exploits described above are perhaps less amusing when one realizes that Montgomery was developing a serious alcohol problem that would drastically inhibit his creative work. Montgomery also was experiencing dissatisfaction in his romantic life, being unable, evidently, to bring his relationships with women to full emotional and physical consummation. Montgomery “liked to think of himself as a womanizer…but he was simply not cut out for it,” writes Whittle. “This could well account for the idealistic portraits of eligible young women he draws in his novels. There was a juvenile streak in him…and his drinking did not help matters either. ‘There are times I’d be happier without sex,’ he wrote in 1956. With his male friends he talked a lot about women because it was the thing to do, but he was incapable of bringing a relationship to a resolution, perhaps because he did not want to be seen as ordinary in any way.” Additionally, Montgomery’s health was deteriorating due to his overindulgence in alcohol and cigarettes. In Whittle’s view these factors, plus Montgomery’s own temperamental indolence and lack of confidence (despite his impressive early career) led him almost entirely to abandon not only his literary work, but the lucrative writing of film scores as well.

Since the mid-1950s, Montgomery had been promising his publisher, Gollancz, a new mystery, Judgement in Paris, but in 1965 he dropped the project. By 1969, Montgomery claimed he was two-thirds through with a new Gervase Fen crime novel, entitled The Glimpses of the Moon, but it did not finally make it into print until 1977, just two years before Montgomery’s death. Judging from his correspondence, Montgomery now found writing a murderous endeavor. “[S]eems the same mixture as before….I don’t seem to have matured in any way,” he wrote dispiritedly of Glimpses in 1969. And: “[O]n the final agonising stages of my bloody novel.  God almighty, how I detest writing!”

A 1966 journal that Whittle discovered makes sad reading for the Edmund Crispin admirer.  Here are some brief extracts:

2 January  Hangover.  Day in bed.
3 January  [N]othing accomplished.  Must have read, but can’t remember what.  Must have drunk a bit, too.  Again futile.
4 January  Much too much drink.
5 January  Gave up smoking, god help me.  No drink all day either.  (No work, either).  Reading Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Swing, Brother, Swing’—poor, and if she’s going to write about jazz bands, why the hell can’t she find out something about them?  ‘Tympanist’ indeed.

Whittle quotes two more bleak weeks from this unutterably grim journal of human futility. Unquestionably Montgomery had descended a great way from that handsome and dazzlingly brilliant, insouciant young man at Oxford who produced both detective novels and musical compositions seemingly with the greatest of ease. Still there are some positive things to say about the last dozen years or so of Bruce Montgomery’s life, as David Whittle shows. In 1967, Montgomery became, at his friend Julian Symons’ behest, Symons’ successor as the crime fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times. He remained active in the Detection Club. And, in 1977, he finally gave fans of Edmund Crispin their long-awaited glimpse of a new detective novel.

*******

Bruce Montgomery had started his detective novel The Glimpses of the Moon as far back as 1965/66, but had been able to complete it only after his 1976 marriage to his secretary Ann Clements, who proved able to manage her alcoholic husband, difficult as he could be at times. “In many ways,” notes Montgomery’s biographer, David Whittle, “Ann became Montgomery’s nurse, but she was an exceptional woman.” She needed to be such in dealing with her charge:

In the 1970s, [Kingsley] Amis recalls receiving telephone calls from Ann introducing Montgomery who, when prompted by Amis, would reply with no words, just vague noises. He was probably so drunk that he could not speak. Amis would keep on trying to get a word out of him, with little or no success. Montgomery’s sister, Shelia Rossiter, recalled visiting Ann to have coffee one morning and arriving slightly early. Montgomery was still in his dressing gown, drunk and abusive, and demanding to know what she was doing there. Rossiter could not tell whether this was the effect of the previous night’s drinking or because he had made an early start. From time to time Ann would pack him off to Moorhaven for another course of treatment. Against Ann’s wishes Rossiter visited him, and on one occasion found him more or less crawling up the walls. Although he had nothing in his hand, he was flicking the ash of an imaginary cigarette and stubbing it out.

Incredibly, Montgomery’s so-called “friend” Kingsley Amis—who comes out Whittle’s biography as a nasty, jealous backbiter in my view—declared himself baffled by what Montgomery saw in Ann, in one letter making what Whittle calls, justly enough but with considerable restraint, a “typically ungenerous comment.” Amis, explains Whittle, “thought that someone who had known plenty of attractive film starlets should have had higher standards.” Noxiously Amis wrote another of Edmund Crispin’s pals, poet Philip Larkin: “I say, why’s he going to marry that woman with all the teeth, eh?”

IMG-7828-222x300.jpgFortunately “the woman with all the teeth” shepherded the rapidly declining Montgomery into finally completing The Glimpses of the Moon. Was it worth waiting a quarter century for this final novel? Personally, I find Glimpses a weak book, a succession of sometimes forced comic vignettes strung together by a frayed murder mystery plot; yet it is nice to see Gervase Fen back in a novel again for one last time, in a bucolic setting and confronting some whimsically oddball characters and situations. All the emphasis on misplaced body parts in rural surroundings suggests that Montgomery had been reacquainting himself with the works of a fellow Detection Club member whom he had enjoyed as a student back in the 1940s, Gladys Mitchell (who was then approaching eighty), particularly her joyously macabre second tale, The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929). Mitchell also was a great favorite of Philip Larkin.

Montgomery bemoans modernization throughout the novel, condemning both the invasion of the countryside by the “South Western Electricity Board [SWEB]”—particularly as manifested in the form of a huge menacingly vibrating pylon (see the stark Gollancz dust jacket) which is known locally, even to little old genteel ladies of the neighborhood, as “The Pisser”—and omnipresent television commercial jingles, which evidently have taken over the brain of the seemingly rather simple-minded local Major, who incessantly repeats them.

Whatever one thinks of The Glimpses of the Moon, Montgomery had other creative accomplishments in his generally unaccomplished later years (those past the age of forty). He edited notable anthologies of both detective and science fiction, contributing as well significant prefaces. Whittle’s Appendix One, “Montgomery and Detective Fiction,” profitably examines Montgomery’s views of crime fiction.

Although in his own genre writing Montgomery’s comic exuberance could overwhelm his commitment to fair play detection (who really cares about the formal puzzle plot in The Moving Toyshop?), as a critic of the genre “Edmund Crispin” was a passionate and articulate defender of the traditional fair play form, often taking issue with his friend, the crime novelist and critic Julian Symons, who urged the superiority of the serious literary crime novel over the frivolous puzzle-oriented detective story. “I’m also faintly discouraged because the ‘better’ reviewers over here all seem to be highly contemptuous of orthodox detective fiction nowadays,” Montgomery memorably wrote American crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher in 1960. “None the less, I’m convinced that there’s still a large public for that kind of thing, as opposed to sub-Chandler thrillers, realistic stodge about police routine, or spineless pseudo-profound guesses at criminal psychology; so I shall push on regardless.”

In his capacity as a Sunday Times crime fiction reviewer, “Edmund Crispin” proved particularly astute in noting the promise of modern day British Crime Queens P. D. James and Ruth Rendell. Both women, Whittle notes, wrote him appreciative thank you letters for his critical support:

There is no one whose encouragement and criticism has meant more to me than yours (the more so because of my great respect for you as a writer)….You have been kind to me from the beginning and it was your generous review of ‘Shroud for a Nightingale’ which gave me the breakthrough I needed and which seemed so long in coming. (P. D. James, 1977)

[Y]our two reviews, so generous and enthusiastic, have made me really happy and give me a confidence I sometimes lack. (Ruth Rendell, 1970)

Unfailingly generous to and supportive of other writers, Montgomery even praised Julian Symons’ seminal genre study Bloody Murder, though he profoundly disagreed with much of it. Yet he bemoaned what Symons praised: the dark and dismal path British mystery fiction was taking in moving away from the detective story toward the crime novel. The original idea of the Detection Club, he noted bluntly in 1976, had been to get mystery writers “to stop propounding imbecile plots in appalling English” in the manner of the Edgar Wallace/Sapper school of crime fiction; now, rather mortifyingly, that body had become “to all intents and purposes, a thriller-writers’ Club.” Despite his concerns about the direction it was talking, however, Montgomery never resigned from the Detection Club, though he did just that—resign—when the Crime Writers’ Association in 1976 awarded its coveted Gold Dagger to Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution, a book he dammed as “a preposterous and inept pastiche.”

It was at a Detection Club dinner in 1977 that Montgomery’s mystery writing friends saw a “clearly very ill and…much reduced figure” of a man. “His neck was so thin that it was not touching the collar of his shirt, and his voice was so weak that only those close to him could hear what he said,” writes Whittle, paraphrasing a 1992 letter form Julian Symons. At the time, crime writer Josephine Bell (an octogenarian who had begun writing detective fiction back in the 1930s), wrote Ann Montgomery worriedly that at the dinner she had found Bruce “woefully changed.” Bell was right to worry. Within less than a year Bruce Montgomery was dead—not from liver failure as many suspected, but from heart failure, the latter, badly weakened organ having been unable to withstand the stress of needed surgery on his body.

Certainly the later years of Bruce Montgomery tell a tragic tale indeed, but at least these were not years entirely bereft of personal accomplishment. Nor can anything detract from the glittering successes that Montgomery enjoyed in the 1940s and the 1950s with his detective novels and film scores. Concerning the detective novel, “Edmund Crispin” wrote at least several enduring genre classics that will continue to be remembered in the decades to come. As should David Whittle’s biography, a fine tribute to an accomplished and interesting man.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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