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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Jollity is fairly hard to come by within the pages of my books (P. G. Wodehouse aside, of course), which is why I was surprised and delighted when my eyes landed on a couple of Edmund Crispin detective stories. Crispin, a pseudonym for Robert Bruce Montgomery (1921–78), wrote 10 mysteries starring eccentric Oxford don Gervase Fen. The Fen novels are classic British detective stories in the Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham mold, but they are much, much funnier. Fen, a professor of English literature, likes literary criticism fine, but his true love is crime-solving; fortuitously, his best friend is Sir Richard Freeman, chief constable of the Oxford police, a copper who dreams of being a literary critic. A match made in heaven: Fen is happy to listen to Freeman opine about John Dryden, as long as Freeman lets Fen tag along on murder investigations and, of course, do his own opining, which typically results in the killer being identified by Fen and not the police.
I read The Moving Toyshop (1946), generally considered Crispin’s masterpiece, years ago but still remember it quite well. Frankly, I didn’t even know I owned a copy of Crispin’s debut, The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944), but there it was, sitting on the shelf and offering me an irresistible come-hither look. Clearly, I had found the first entry on my vacation-reading list.
Gervase didn’t disappoint. The Case of the Gilded Fly is a locked-room mystery (a body turns up in a flat just downstairs from Fen’s own rooms at Oxford), but most of the fun takes place outside the room, especially in the bar of a hotel where a troupe of bickering thespians are staying as they prepare to open a new play by a highly regarded avant-garde dramatist. The murder victim was one of the troupe, a vixen who managed to get on the wrong side of everyone, even those in love with her. Crispin gleefully combines a divinely bitchy backstage melodrama with some classic deduction, but layered over all that is Fen’s rapier wit and his spectacularly grumpy refusal to suffer fools, both of which had me cackling contentedly as my train rumbled its way from London to Edinburgh.
The same “bibliodipity” (book-finding serendipity) that helped me spot Crispin on my bookshelves also led to my next reading discovery. Sure, I had a couple of unread Thomas Perrys on my Kindle in case of emergencies, but after finishing Crispin, I definitely wasn’t in the mood for Perry, much as I love him. Now I was looking for something as dry and witty as Crispin but Scottish. I found it in an Edinburgh bookshop, and it was the culmination of a search I’ve been on for nearly 20 years. Back then, I happened to be talking to former Booklister Ray Olson about my fondness for the films of Scottish director Bill Forsyth, especially Local Hero and Comfort and Joy. Ray echoed my sentiments but asked if I’d ever seen an even better Scottish film, Whisky Galore, made in 1949. I hadn’t but have been trying to ever since. (Yes, it’s available on Amazon, but it’s very pricey.) So what do I find on a display of Scotland-set novels but a copy of a book called Whisky Galore, by Compton Mackenzie, published in 1947!
I didn’t know Ray’s movie was a book, but after a quick perusal, I deduced the story was the same: a motley crew of whisky-starved locals on two islands in the Hebrides (wartime shortages having stopped the flow of spirits) receive a gift from the gods when a ship full to the gills with thousands of cases of top-grade whisky bound for the U.S. runs aground on the rocks just a stone’s throw from the islands. The drought is over! Naturally, the islanders, who have been surviving on a mere dram of the good stuff every other day, relieve the wreckage of its cargo.
Frankly, I haven’t had this much fun reading a novel since—I don’t know—maybe the first time I read A Confederacy of Dunces. There’s plenty of P. G. Wodehouse zaniness here, except the characters are much farther down the social ladder than Bertie and his cohorts. But there’s also—wait for this—a touch of Cervantes and Shakespeare. These thirsty islanders, you see, are a WWII equivalent of both Sancho Panza and Falstaff. Standing in for that windmill-chasing idealist in Don Quixote and for Prince Hal, who callously abandoned his boozing buddies in the Henry plays, are a couple of Home Guard stuffed shirts convinced that a few drams of purloined whisky will open the doors to Hitler. But our thirsty islanders make short shrift of their pompous adversaries, and soon enough, everyone is imbibing drams aplenty. Score one for the hedonists in their perpetual battle against the pious.
And score another for me, laden as I was on the trip home with all the single malt I could carry from the duty-free shop!
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