Sunday, 30 September 2012

Penguin no. 1304: The Long Divorce
by Edmund Crispin

Constable Burns took crime seriously. He had been accepted into the Police Force soon after his demobilization in 1946, and most of his spare time since then had been spent poring over works of criminology with a view to fitting himself for the day when his longed-for transfer to the Criminal Investigation Department should be achieved. Hans Gross he had read, and Taylor on medical jurisprudence (though his ignorance of anatomy and of general medicine had made that particular book heavy and in the upshot not wholly satisfactory going),....Constable Burns took (I repeat) crime seriously; and it was therefore a little unkind of the gods to decree that his contribution to the solution of the Rubi affair should result from anything so banal as plain observation and ordinary, unscientific common sense.

There was an uneasiness expressed in Corduroy about the gradual encroachment of middle class values into the rural villages of England, and an overt hostility to it in Coming Up for Air. I think in both those cases it was the opening of a 'tea shoppe' which gave the first warning of the coming invasion, and the concern was with what it seemed to represent, a weighting of the aesthetic over the functional, and far too much concern with how things looked.

As Mr Datchery walks through Cotten Abbas after arriving there late one Friday afternoon, he infers that a similar process has been under way in this village, although as this book was written after the war, the process is far more advanced. He senses it in a conformity which can only imply the imposition of a shared set of values, and it can be seen in the style of all the new buildings, and in the inn signs, and in recent changes to the church. He feels confidant in his assumption that he is walking through a place which is no longer a working village; it has become instead the picturesque and protected home of the cultured and the wealthy, of people who commute to London when their artistic occupations require it.

But these upper middle-class inhabitants have not been completely successful in imposing their tastes upon their co-inhabitants. No amount of pressure could dissuade Harry Rolt from building a saw-mill on his land by the village, even though it spoilt their view of the stream. Life in this village hasn't been completely harmonious as a result, but the impasse has been maintained on both sides. Rolt is a stubborn man from up North, with no time for such notions as unspoilt England, and he has been content to remain an outsider in the village in which he lives.

He is just one of the interesting characters with whom Crispin fills his village of Cotten Abbas. There is also the foreign schoolmaster Peter Rubi who imports all his food from Europe, and applies his enthusiasm for psychoanalytic theory in looking upon his fellow villagers as subjects for scientific study; and the young Dr Downing  who had hoped for more excitement and success from life, but finds her practice declining because an innate distrust of female practitioners is one that even these progressive folk find difficult to overcome;  and there is the ambitious Constable Burns, applying his working hours to the menial tasks of rural policing, and his leisure hours to the study of fingerprints and forensics.

As with any small community there is interest in gossip, but Datchery notes that some mechanism of communal self-protection operates to ensure anything really damaging is kept from those it would most alarm. But someone has taken it upon themselves to subvert this process, and anonymous letters have been arriving through the mail slots of unsuspecting villagers, informing them of things they would probably prefer not to know. Poor Mrs Mogridge has learnt of her husband's fondness for the staff, and Mr Rolt knows now that his daughter Penelope has been going about with Peter Rubi. Other letters have simply been obscene, revealing more about the writer's obsessions than any habits of the villagers. But the person writing the letters has been very careful, and after two weeks the police still have no idea who has been sending them .

And then Mr Datchery arrives for his weekend stay, starts asking questions, and things seem to intensify: one villager commits suicide on the Friday, and another is found murdered on the Sunday.

This is a very different book to the the delightfully frivolous The Moving Toyshop. There are fewer literary references, no self-referencing, and although the story still includes a chase, it is a far less manic one. The humour here is concentrated primarily on the character sketches and in Datchery's observations on the idiosyncracies of village life. And there is a greater focus on the plot, with an interesting resolution.

I loved The Moving Toyshop, so perhaps I didn't enjoy this as much, but I recognise it as the better book. In many ways, though, it is just as absurd: Datchery is there for a single weekend and determines not only the identities of the poison-pen letter writer and murderer, he inadvertently solves every other problem facing the village residents. With the exception of the two villagers no longer alive, everyone in the village is far better off by the end of this weekend.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 988: The Case of the Gilded Fly
Penguin no. 1315: The Moving Toyshop


  1. I loved The Moving Toyshop too and this sounds completely different -- presumably does not feature Gervase Fen? But this theme of the changing face of England after the war and the effect on the middle/upper classes is one I've encountered in lots of reading lately. It does sound intriguing, and I shall certainly look out for it. Thanks. I love your blog, by the way, and wish I'd thought of it!

    1. Thanks Harriet. The story does feature Gervase Fen, but he doesn't make his appearance until right at the end.

  2. And also by the way -- did you know that Edmund Crispin wrote the music for the Carry On films?

    1. Yes, I recall reading that. And I think Bruce Montgomery's love of music was evident in each of the Crispin novels I've read.

  3. I've always been of the opinion that The Long Divorce should've been Edmund Crispin's swan song, instead of that abysmal book he, inexplicably, put out a quarter of a century later.

  4. "Datchery is there for a single weekend and determines not only the identities of the poison-pen letter writer and murderer, he inadvertently solves every other problem facing the village residents. With the exception of the two villagers no longer alive, everyone in the village is far better off by the end of this weekend."

    We could all use a Dathcery in our lives! Datchery. Hmmm....

    Love this book, devoted one of my first blog posts to it.

  5. One of the nice things about Crispin was that he always tried to write a different book each time. You might read this or LOVE LIES BLEEDING and assume that he was basically a serious crime writer who had a sense of humour. On the other hand, you might read BURIED FOR PLEASURE and think that he was a comic writer who had strayed into the crime genre. FREQUENT HEARSES has a climax set in garden maze which is genuinely scary, making you wonder what a horror story by Crispin might have been like.

    Like you say, the humour is less manic than in TOYSHOP, although the deranged cat who thinks that he is the Earth's last defence against Martian invasion, is pure Crispin. The final book, GLIMPSES OF THE MOON, reverts to his more farcical earlier style, although it's none the worse for that. I know that TomCat hates it, but I really do like it. It's a comic novel with elements of detection in it, but I laughed out loud at one or two bits, and any book that can do that gets my vote.

  6. I must confess that I love Crispin whatever he writes. I know his later books are supposed to be inferior but I tend to agree with Sextonblake in that I'd rather read one of his less-rated books than many highly-rated volumes by other writers. I'm still recovering from the creepiness of Holy Disorders!

  7. I've never enjoyed Crispin as much as other classic crime writers but he does provide a solid read. Perhaps I ought to pick up one of the green penguins that I have and try him again.

  8. Thanks for reminding me of how much I like Crispin. I'm late to the party having read THE MOVING TOYSHOP and THE CASE OF THE GILDED FLY only last year. But I'm adding the book titles mentioned here to my list. Thanks!



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