#302: The Long Divorce (1951) by Edmund Crispin

414wtbfdnol-sx316-sy1Never let it be said that I’m a stubborn man.  Well, okay, no, not that so much, but only a short while ago I was owning up to the shame that I’d probably never read this book and yet here I am — following reassurances from no less authorities than Nick Fuller and TomCat — reviewing, and so presumably having read, it.  Here’s the heart-in-my-hands moment: Crispin wrote 4½ great books, then a terrible one, then this one, then another terrible one, and this was the only one I’d not read.  But it’s bracketed by two books so awful that I’d wipe them out of existence, so my fears were, I feel, well-founded.  And you want to know what I thought, right?  Were my reservations borne out?  Who was right?  Ohmygod the tension…well, let’s get into it.

Honestly, it’s…fine.   You can sort of understand why Crispin quit fictional writing for two decades following this, as it’s rather thin on plot and attempts to superintend this by putting a lot of detail into character mindset, action, or setting, but thankfully we’re nowhere near the barren wasteland of preceding novel Frequent Hearses, a.k.a. Sudden Vengeance (1950).  Essentially a “poison pen plot” in your typical Stage 4 Idyllic English Village, we add in a questionable suicide and an undeniable murder with an impossible angle, and watch the various character types — windy Hotelier, blustery Chief Constable, stoic Reserved Policeman, ambitious Constable, aggressive Mill Owner, flighty Young Girl, two competing GPs — all sort of wander around each other having conversations that explore their feelings but add little to the plot before a conclusion is spelled out to them all by the mysterious outsider.

It reads like Crispin was more interested in the people than the plotting, a sense in no way diminished by a final chapter that takes some pains to resolve the personal issues among them all and establish the status quo.  And I don’t mind this per se, there’s no harm in taking an interest in your characters, but the sense I come away with is that he wrote a sort of Anthony Trollope-esque village story and then put in five paragraphs about death and anonymous letters here and there so it can be sold as crime fiction.  Indeed, it almost feels more interesting from the perspective of how the “old ways” of classic detection are going out of vogue — forensic tests on hairs found in letters, or lines like “very few people realise that you can tell a man’s blood group from his saliva” certainly had no place in Carr and Christie’s (and Crispin’s) best works.  And the following would be frank sacrilege:

“Scotland Yard isn’t called in nearly as often as detective novelists seem to think,” Casby replied with a trace of heat.  “They’re not all that good, you know — if you look at the improvements in criminal science during the last twenty years, you’ll find that nearly all of them originated not in the Metropolitan C.I.D. but in the provincial ones, places like Coventry.”

What would John Rhode say to that, eh?

The flip-side of this is that you have to swallow some pretty chunky soup when it comes to the deductions that round things out, because it does come down to detection rather than science to resolve it.  A key point used to, er, point directly at the eventual killer is the precise sort of thing that, twenty years previously, would have been argued just as lucidly to point away from them, and I find myself somewhat chary at the use of it this way round.  Equally, an overwhelming — like, astonishingly so — coincidence is used from an entirely unrelated matter to resolve two disparate issues that really don’t belong in the same chain of reasoning.

But, well, while I could easily have coped without having read this, there’s still a wonderfully gregarious charm to Crispin’s writing both in moments of lightness:

It was one of Mrs Flack’s most notable characteristics that her laughter had in some fashion got itself detached from her sense of humour … it had developed a regular, mechanical tone as though Mrs. Flack were reading laughter — ha! ha! ha! — aloud from a book.

…and the sober reflections that became more marked in Crispin’s writing as his career wore on (“…a clean hole, a hole matter-of-fact rather than repellent, but wide enough and deep enough to let death in”).  I’d certainly rather have this instead of Frequent Hearses as my abiding memory of Crispin and Fen, but I’d take Swan Song (1947) over both of them.  He feels rather a spent force here, perhaps keen to improve on his previous showing and then put his whimsy and playfulness away to concentrate on other matters.  And, I have to say, a good choice was made all round.

Also, the cat is barely in it, so why the last two Kindle editions of this felt the need to imply its presence so heavily on the cover is beyond me…

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s The Lucky Policeman because both involve the discovery of a dead body in the woods.

22 thoughts on “#302: The Long Divorce (1951) by Edmund Crispin

  1. I’m a little bit disappointed that your opinion ended up, in the middle ground, between your previous stand of never wanting to read the book and our recommendations. It would have been funny had you either loved the book or completely despised it, because we could have ragged on you either way. Now all we can say is “fair enough.” You’re a real killjoy, you know that, JJ? 😉

    You picked an interesting title for your next read! Curious to see what you make of that smorgasbord of miracle crimes.

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    • I ruin everyone’s fun. Y’know, I might just make that the new tagline of this site…

      It’s certainly nowhere near as bad as I’d feared, and I’m grateful to have been buffaloed into this so that I can believe there was enough in Crispin’s tank to give us one more attempt at a good plot. The characters really come through, too, even if he is just leaning heavily on a lot of types — which goes to show how well these archetypes can be deployed. Not everyone could make it work, but they really felt very distinct and well-enough realised to me.

      As for Murder in the Red Chamber…yea, I’ve not taken on a really meaty impossible crime for a while, so I’m verrrry interested, Have you read it?

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      • I read and reviewed the book almost a year ago, which you can read here. The story is massive in scope and can probably never fully be appreciated unless you’ve read the source material that the book was based upon (a four-volume, two-thousand page counting novel, titled Dream of the Red Chamber, from the late 1700s). Ashibe used settings, characters (etc) from that classic novel and therefore a lot of references and relationships probably went right over my head. But taken by itself, it is an original detective novel with half a dozen of impossible crimes. So what’s not to like?

        Just be warned that the cast of characters is huge.

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  2. “I’d certainly rather have this instead of Frequent Hearses as my abiding memory of Crispin and Fen, but I’d take Swan Song (1947) over both of them.”

    Which Crispin titles would you say show him at the top of his game? I’ve only read ‘Gilded Fly’ and ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ – and I enjoyed both. 🙂

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    • My tastes would go thus: Toyshop and Swan Song are this best, then Gilded Fly and Holy Disorders, then Love Lies Bleeding, then this, then Buried for Pleasure, then any five books by any selection of authors you care to name, then Frequent Hearses, then a framed photo of a cuddly toy, then Glimpses of the Moon.

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      • I expect I am the only person in the entire world who enjoyed Glimpses of the Moon … mostly because the central “trick” was so darn clever that it just went right past me. I grant you that it’s not very well written and Crispin was not at his best when descending into vulgarity (the “Pisser”) — you can almost see the alcohol taking over. But that “trick” — man, oh, man. Even his worst books have more originality than the entire outputs of other GAD writers.

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        • Godammit, Noah, don’t make me curious to reread TGotM because I don’t remember what clever thing you’re talking about…

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  3. Been ages since I read this one so can’t remember much about it. Feel like I should get around to re-reading more of Crispin. Since this read, which you thought you would never do, wasn’t as bad as you thought it was going to be, maybe you could re-consider The Chinese Chop? lol

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  4. This was better than I thought you were going to say, I am glad to hear too that such a good writer still had flair and life towards the end, even though his life was falling apart. It seems like the work reflects on his state of mind in many ways. Its quite tragic really.

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    • Yeah, it’s nice that I’ve set the low bar of “not absolutely busting a gut with rage and confusion” and this has managed to sail over it. And Red Chamber does look interesting; I’m in the mood for something that’s likely to be a bit hard work but probably worth the effort, and that seems to me like it will fit the bill. Time will tell…

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    • Yeah, not Crispin’s finest hour, but not his worst. There’s certainly a savagery there, but given how fully he operated within the confines of a classic GAD setup previously I wonder if this was a deliberate choice to be seen more in keeping with the prevailing trend of crime fiction…

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