Love Lies Bleeding, by Edmund Crispin

Love Lies Bleeding cvr

Where detective novels often start off with a single murder, then during the investigation there is another, Edmund Crispin’s 1948 effort begins slowly before producing two murders the same night, one of a man named Love, with a third, and nearly a couple more, later on.  The setting is Castrevenford School, a traditional establishment near Warwick, and the unfortunate victims were both teachers.  Fortunately for justice, Oxford professor of English and amateur sleuth Gervase Fen has been invited to the school’s speech day to hand out prizes so is on hand when the two bodies are discovered the night before.  Additionally a cupboard in the chemistry lab has been broken into and poison stolen, and a pupil at the nearby girls’ school has disappeared after behaving oddly.  Fen noses around, uses his astonishing intuition and powers of deduction, and discovers that the events are related to the finding of a lost Shakespeare play, Love’s Labour’s Won, and some letters possibly by the Bard himself.

The presiding police officer, superintendent Stagge, is out of his depth and grateful to have such a sharp mind as Fen’s to help.  Stagge is respectful towards Fen and remarkably tolerant of his habit of withholding key information, which at one point puts Fen and a girl in danger of their lives, saved only by the heroic efforts of the elderly bloodhound brought along to find her.  Naturally those he interviews are all happy to help, instead of telling him to sling his hook.  It would be easy to categorise this as a ‘cosy’, but there is a harder edge.  One of the corpses is found with a bullet hole through his eye, the bullet lodged (improbably as he was shot from close range) within his skull.  The scene where Gervaise is assisting the injured schoolgirl while being stalked by an assassin generates a real sense of tension.

The plot is intricate, but the lengthy explanation at the end is laborious and not particularly easy to follow, as if Crispin is in thrall to his own ingenuity and must milk it completely for the reader’s benefit.  He may have been aware of this himself.  At one point he breaks the fourth wall when a young admirer tells him she has followed all his cases.  ‘“Ha!” Fen exclaimed, much pleased.  “That’s more than Crispin’s readers manage to do!”’  Towards the end of the book Fen is determined to explain the plot of a detective novel he is writing and the headmaster counters by saying that the events he has just finished investigating – and about which the reader has just finished reading – would make a more suitable novel, ‘“Simenonish, with lots of psychology, to please the high-brow critics…””  Fen is dismissive, saying ‘“no one could possibly make a detective story out of them”’; apart from Edmund Crispin of course, though Fen is a long way from Maigret.  Still, Crispin is good at delineating character, able to sketch his supporting cast deftly while occasionally straying towards affectionate caricature.

Also most un-Simenonish is the humour.  At times the book is very funny, particularly a farcical car chase in which Fen desperately tries to stop the murderer as he careens up and down a country road in his Hispano-Suiza doggedly pursued by Stagge and the headmaster.  Fen and his companions repeatedly push Fen’s car across the road but succeed only in holding up Stagge, while the latter becomes increasingly frenzied at the delays.  One scene entails the destruction of a bible to leave a paper trail through darkening woods, and progress is measured by where they have reached in its various books; anybody with strong religious beliefs is going to cringe, which may have been Crispin’s mischievous intent.

Crispin is spot-on in writing about school speech days.  As a parent who has attended such proceedings at an independent school I find his characterisation of uncomfortable parents, and boys terrified their parents will embarrass them, is accurate.  It is entirely plausible that a headmaster would consider murders on the premises to be an utter bore, detracting from the smooth running of the establishment and creating the unpleasant possibility that parents might want to remove their offspring.  Crispin seems to be settling some scores against the British educational establishment.

While the perpetrators are eventually unmasked, sadly the play is lost in a fire, though on the evidence of the fragment saved it was terrible.  The writing might be by Shakespeare, but as Crispin hints, there is much scope for controversy among the academic community.  Meanwhile Stagge colludes in larceny by handing Fen a small miniature of a young man, perhaps Shakespeare himself, which had been found with the manuscript, on the grounds that Fen is a more worthy recipient than a distant relative of the deceased finder.  How Fen would be able to explain the provenance of such a valuable object later is a mystery in itself, and at a stroke the link with Shakespeare has been severed which must cast doubt on Fen’s scholarly credentials.

The writing is erudite and elegant, with a nice line in metaphor; in this ordered hierarchical world Fen is the lovechild of Margery Allingham and P G Wodehouse.  Crispin takes the reader on a nostalgic trip to a time when it was entirely acceptable for a combined cadet force to keep a .38 gun, live ammunition and a silencer in an unlocked cupboard in a hut, guarded solely by an elderly ex-soldier with a severe stomach complaint, without so much as a murmur of criticism from the local constabulary.  What times they were.

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