Do anything for long enough – spelunking, chicken farming, marriage, presenting live television – and you’re bound to make some mistakes. Thus, no novelist with more than a few books to their name is going to have a perfect run, even allowing for the subjectivity of readers’ opinions; class being permanent and form being temporary, everyone writes a dud now and then. Which brings us to Buried for Pleasure, the sixth of Edmund Crispin’s nine detective novels based around Gervase Fen, Professor of English Literature at a fictional Oxford college, sometime detective, and springer spaniel in human form. A more likeable, enthusiastic, and chaotic protagonist you are unlikely to find, and here the joys of Don-ship have worn off and so Fen has decided to stand for parliament as an MP for an out-of-the-way country constituency in the upcoming General Election. And then there’s a murder, and then another murder, and our springer spaniel is suddenly up to his bloodhound tricks again…
It should be great. It is not. It starts marvellously; I’ve yet to read anyone who is as good as Crispin in building up an environment through a series of unrelated vignettes and asides that you then suddenly realise have perfectly filled out the world you’re reading about. It’s essentially a disorganised cadre of cases – a ‘non-doing’ pig, an amorous drinker, a crime fiction author disposing of an imaginary corpse, a family of decorators, etc – but it supports the loopier streak of Crispin’s writing that can then casually drop in a vicious poisoning without it striking a dissonant note. Fen’s electioneering, too, is wittily covered at first, highlighting his tendency to act in haste and repent at tortuous leisure.
And then…well, then you find yourself halfway through an already short book and you realise that the plot is slowing down, that the chapters are filled with less and less relevant detail, and it occurs to you that you could probably skip to the end and discover the culprit without missing too much (you can, incidentally). The electioneering rapidly starts to gall – and I’m really not sure how this happens, as Crispin has a sharp and unforgiving turn of phrase that should find the ideal fit in the hypocrisy of politics – and the crime seam ends up relegated to about third-tier importance, which becomes a problem when you realise there is no first tier. Given the inevitable references to classic literature that pepper his books, I’ve frequently likened Crispin to Michael Innes except that Crispin is funny and readable. Here, he might as well be Michael Innes.
You get a better sense of Fen’s ebullient character than in, say, Swan Song, but Swan Song is a superior book in all other regards. To take one example, I’m far less bothered by the lack of an impossible crime – the previous books all featured at least one instance of such – than I am by Crispin’s insistence (through his characters) that one particular aspect is impossible when it plainly isn’t; it feels like he’s trying to convince us that this thread of his novels has been maintained by simply dragging the wool down over our open eyes. The previous book in this series – Love Lies Bleeding – suffered from an overlong and underwhelming first half that set up a barnstorming second, and here that’s reversed, with no amount of bluffing it out likely to convince me otherwise!
Now, there’s enough displeasure and discord in the world as it is – the threat posed by ISIS, spiralling public sector cuts, Celebrity Big Brother being back on TV – without me adding to it with a negative review. Class being permanent, this is a textbook dip in form that’s easily forgiven because of the quality elsewhere (his third novel, The Moving Toyshop, is one of the most boundlessly, effervescently creative detective novels ever written). As a place to start, however, it’s not recommended. Only completists need apply.