Richard Wagner's great romantic opera, Die Meistersinger, is one of the absolute gems of the opera house. As with most Wagnerian operas, it tends to be a very long performance, making tremendous demands on the singers (and on the comfort of the audience). It seems both unfortunate and inappropriate, then, to find the star of one Meistersinger production murdered - and murdered under seemingly impossible circumstances. That's what happens, however, in Swan Song, by Edmund Crispin. When I first reviewed the book nearly a decade ago, I said that it was my favorite among Crispin's mysteries. I see no reason to change my mind on that point. Here's some of what I said about the book in my original review:
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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 sing the lead role of Hans Sachs in Wagner’s 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,” there is a balance between the humor and the unpleasant events of the book. And Crispin’s writing style, to me, is quite winning. From time to time he steps outside the so-called “fourth wall” to speak directly to the reader – this is a book, he seems to be saying, and there’s no reason to pretend it’s not. He also has a wonderful touch for bringing out the important aspects of his characters’ personalities. At the beginning of the book, two of the major characters get married, and go on their honeymoon. Crispin ends that first chapter this way:
“They stood on their balcony gazing across the water, now amethyst-coloured in the fading light. ‘How nice,’ said Elizabeth judicially, ‘to have all the pleasures of living in sin without any of the disadvantages.”
That is more than just a very well-phrased line; it tells you something of Elizabeth’s character. And that line – together with the telegram quoted earlier – gives a fair flavor of the strain of humor that runs throughout this novel.
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. For example, shortly after the singer’s death is discovered, we hear the evidence of the night watchman in the theater, a man named Furbelow, whose open door allowed him to see the doorway of the singer’s dressing room, where the body was discovered. The police inspector tells Fen, speaking of Furbelow, “It’s on his evidence, so far as I can see, that the verdict for suicide must depend.” At that point, Crispin inserts a footnote, which reads, simply, “The reader may like to know, at this point, that Furbelow’s evidence was in fact correct in every particular.”
This is playing fair with the audience. This is telling the reader, pay attention to what you are being told, because it will be shown to be quite literally correct. It is the kind of challenge that no true mystery buff can resist.
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.
It is this sense of fair play, together with the decidedly quirky humor and the good writing, that makes Swan Song very much worth your while.
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Swan Song is available in paper directly from the Felony & Mayhem Press; it's also available in electronic formats. There also seem to be a fair number of inexpensive used copies on the market. I think you'll enjoy it very much.
Next week: The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers