I've never been a huge fan of "noir" mysteries, with protagonists burdened with guilt and gloom and authors who seem to thrive on unhappiness. Perhaps that's one reason why I so enjoy the books of Edmund Crispin and the off-the-wall humor to be found in his stories. I think it's worth a trip into the vault to unlock and dust off one of Crispin's best: Buried for Pleasure. Be forewarned that one of the major themes of this book is English political life - close enough, I suspect, to the upheavals we've all witnessed in American politics over the past couple of years. In this case, here's what I had to say about Buried for Pleasure when I reviewed it on the Classic Mysteries podcast back in 2009 (seems like an eternity ago, doesn't it?). I've edited it a little...
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Our book this week features one of the oddest mixes of ingredients we’ve ever come across in a mystery. Consider: one Oxford don, who does his detecting while engaged in a campaign to get himself elected to parliament. One escaped lunatic, who thinks he is Woodrow Wilson. One village innkeeper engaged in a do-it-yourself project to completely rebuild his inn. One police inspector trying to solve a murder involving a box of poisoned chocolates. A writer of mystery stories who acts out his plots to make certain they are merely improbable, not impossible. There is the local rector who appears to be haunted by a poltergeist. Add in assorted English village rustics and barmaids. And go beyond the human cast to include one "non-doing" pig. They all add up to what must be one of the strangest and funniest mysteries ever written – Buried for Pleasure, by Edmund Crispin.
I have had the pleasure of reviewing some of Crispin’s other mysteries on this podcast. Crispin – the pen name of author and composer Bruce Montgomery – wrote a series of novels and short stories featuring Oxford English professor Gervase Fen. Buried for Pleasure was the sixth of these novels, appearing in 1948, and I think it is one of his best.
In this book, Fen arrives in a small English village called Sanford Angelorum to campaign. He has decided to stand for Parliament as an independent candidate – and the political scenes are absolutely wonderful satire. Near the beginning of the book, the young woman who is driving Fen’s taxi asks him:
"I mean, why are you standing for Parliament? What put the idea into your head?"
Even to himself Fen’s actions were sometimes unaccountable, and he could think of no very convincing reply.
"It is my wish," he said sanctimoniously, "to serve the community."
The girl eyed him dubiously.
"Or at least," he amended, "that is one of my motives. Besides, I felt I was getting far too restricted in my interests. Have you ever produced a definitive edition of Langland?"
"Of course not," she said crossly.
"I have. I’ve just finished producing one. It has queer psychological effects. You begin to wonder if you’re mad. And the only remedy for that is a complete change of occupation.”
That gives you just a taste of the humor in the book. And I’ll come back to it in a moment. By the way, the “Langland” referred to by Fen is a fourteenth century English poet, William Langland, which may explain Fen’s attitude.
But first, a word about the mystery. Fen discovers that there seems to be a murderer loose in the neighborhood of Sanford Angelorum. It begins with the poisoning death of a local woman, who was sent a box of poisoned chocolates in the mail. There will be a second, bloodier murder, followed by a murderous attack on a young woman who has already been the victim of a near-fatal auto crash. Ultimately, with Fen’s help, the crimes will be solved – and this is a classic puzzle mystery; in fact, the readers are given the key clue fairly early, in a conversation with Fen himself – who draws a great deal of attention to it. The reader has no justification to complain about the withholding of clues.
But in this book, the mystery is almost secondary to the humor – the humor inherent in the characters themselves, and the fine political satire that jumps off the page at you. After the ups and downs of American politics over the past year or so, [Note: Please remember this review was written in 2008! -Ed.] this satire – even though it was written 60 years ago – is as fresh and funny today as it was when it first appeared. If you read Buried for Pleasure for no other reason, you should not miss Fen’s final speech to a political rally on the night before the election – after he has decided that he really does not want to be elected after all. It is brilliant and hilarious. And then there’s the escaped lunatic. And the rector’s poltergeist. And don’t forget that "non-doing pig," one of the odder and funnier animal characters in detective fiction. This wonderful mystery is back in print. Your favorite bookseller should be able to get you a copy of Buried for Pleasure, by Edmund Crispin. You won’t regret it – unless, perhaps, you’re a politician with a rather thin skin.
You can listen to the original review from the podcast by clicking here.
Next week: Black is the Colour of my True Love's Heart, by Ellis Peters.