Written by Edmund Crispin — Oxford don and armchair detective Gervase Fen saw a fair bit of England in the course of nine novels and two collections of short stories. The Glimpses of the Moon was first published in 1977. This makes it quite a late arrival in the context of Classics in September, and it was the last novel in a series going back to The Case of the Gilded Fly in 1944. Although the author makes many contemporary references in The Glimpses of the Moon, his style is marked by Golden Age influences. The book has been reprinted in a fine paperback edition, with a fresh cover illustration, by Bloomsbury Reader.
Professor Fen finds him in Devon, where a string of brutal killings and decapitations has the local constabulary puzzled. JG Padmore, a journalist writing a book on a recent killing, wants Fen’s help making the murderer and their victim seem more fully realised on the page. Before they can begin to say no, they are drawn into the mystery when a bystander claims that the accused was nowhere near the scene at the time of the crime. The different accounts are enough to motivate Fen to probe a little deeper, but when a similar murder occurs while the original suspect is behind bars, the investigation is re-opened, and carries on despite the ineptitude of the local police.
The South Coast of England seems to provide ample material for writers of crime fiction, from Graham Greene to Graham Hurley. Some of the killings in Crispin’s final Gervase Fen novel, however, would not be out of place in Southern California as painted by James Ellroy. There’s a body without its head, another with arms and legs removed, and their positions swapped. The brutality doesn’t last long, but the case grows very strange. Once the head has been discovered, it soon disappears to be replaced by that of a pig, and there’s a locked-room situation, with a murder occurring rather farcically in a fairground tent.
The story contains numerous side plots, featuring jilted lovers, nymphomaniac wives, sadistic farmers, and contractors from the South West Energy Board sent out to fix a malfunctioning transformer affectionately named ‘the pisser’ because of the noise it makes. Not all of these subplots further the course of the main plot, and some feel like padding in what is already longer than most of the earlier works in the series. While many of the diversions bring humour to the story, if you’re only on the lookout for a good mystery you might find they get in the way. There’s a slight element of meta-fiction when one character towards the end comments that the detective must know the culprit by now, because we’re nearing the end of the book.
The Gervase Fen series is one of the last great Golden Age detective series, combining the settings and meticulous investigation methods of earlier Golden Age greats with a certain humour and irony, comparable with PG Woodhouse. The writing has a similar irreverence to that of Crispin’s contemporary Ann Bridge, with an added dose of self awareness. The array of side characters is another highlight of the books, from which a great deal of the humour is derived. The Glimpses of the Moon is a bit of an anomaly. It was written over 25 years after the previous novel in the series, The Long Divorce. During the interval, the author – real name Robert Bruce Montgomery – escaped to Devon to recover from the alcoholism that plagued him throughout his life, and eventually led to his death in 1976. Depending on your perspective, with the final Fen novel the author either let his hair down, or ran a little dry. Either way, The Glimpses of the Moon has many of the good traits the earlier novels display with large helpings of absurdity and diversion mixed in.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars