As the Classic Mysteries podcast is now more than 7 1/2 years old, pre-dating the birth of this blog by nearly a year for that matter, I promised my readers at the beginning of this year to start looking back at some of the mysteries I reviewed in the early days of the podcast.
I thought that Edmund Crispin's Swan Song would be a good place to start. When people talk about Crispin's mysteries, the first one that usually comes to mind is The Moving Toyshop, but I must admit that Swan Song is my favorite. Here's an edited version of my original review:
Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger is one of the great, high romantic comedies in the operatic repertory. It seems a pity to have a Wagnerian baritone murdered in the preparations for this opera – but that’s what happens in Swan Song.
Edmund Crispin was the pen name of Bruce Montgomery, a prolific composer of movie scores and an accomplished organist and choirmaster, according to Wikipedia. Music plays a significant role in at least a couple of Crispin’s crime novels, and it is central to the plot of Swan Song. A particularly nasty baritone, scheduled to play the leading role of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger is found dead, hanging from a rope in his dressing room. Was it suicide? It certainly appears impossible for anyone to have murdered him – yet an autopsy reveals a large quantity of a sleep-inducing drug in the body, and there are signs that the singer’s hands and feet had been tied.
Nobody can be said to be grieving over the singer’s death – in fact, the singer’s brother, when notified, sends a telegram back to the authorities, reading: “Delighted. Hoping for this for months. Suicide eh query. Don’t bother me now.” But the police, quite obviously, cannot simply ignore what has happened.
Assisting with the investigation – at least, he would argue that he was assisting and not hindering it – is Crispin’s detective character, Gervase Fen, a professor of English literature at Oxford University. Fen is a close friend of the chief constable, and, as such, tends to get involved in such criminal goings-on as may occur. Eventually, there will be a second murder and a reasonable amount of mayhem before the mystery is solved.
To my mind, what makes this story stand out – and, for that matter, makes Crispin’s work stand out overall – is the author’s sense of humor. He has a fine touch for the ridiculous. This is sometimes overdone, and it is often incongruous to laugh through a particularly funny passage only to have it turn into something quite unpleasant and bizarre before the end. But in Swan Song, Crispin strikes a good balance between the humor and the unpleasant events of the book.
Swan Song is extremely fair: the reader is given all the clues – although quite often in ways designed to drag a red herring across the correct path to a solution. What we are presented with is another example of the so-called impossible crime, with a witness situated to swear that nobody could have entered or left the singer’s dressing room between the time the singer was last seen alive and the discovery of his body. And yet we are given the clues needed to determine what really happened – if we can interpret them.
When I wrote my original review, Swan Song was long out of print. That's no longer the case; the Felony & Mayhem Press has reissued most of Crispin's books - including Swan Song. I recommend it very highly indeed.