Though on the face of it this paperback looks to be yet another enticing, horror-adjacent offering from ‘60s New English Library imprint Four Square, readers familiar with Bruce Montgomery aka Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen novels will realise that the publishers have actually been pretty disingenuous in presenting this reprint as a straight Satanic thriller.
As the aforementioned readers will be well aware, the Fen novels are in fact broadly comedic, foregrounding an idiosyncratic campus humour pitched somewhere between P.G. Wodehouse and Bruce Robinson’s ‘Withnail & I’, leavened with cheeky, fourth wall-breaking asides and enough literary/classical in-jokes to make anyone who has not committed Palgrave’s ‘Golden Treasury’ and Bullfinch’s ‘Age of Fable’ to memory feel slightly inadequate as a human being.
Not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure, but personally I’m happy to indulge Montgomery/Crispin’s whims, and find his books fairly amusing. More-so, I suspect, than the hypothetical 1965 reader who came into this one expecting some serious, Dennis Wheatley type affair, only to find our protagonist, retiring church music composer Geoffrey Vinter, blundering around causing havoc in the sporting goods section of a London department store during the first chapter, as he struggles to obtain the butterfly net which his friend, Oxford literary professor and amateur detective Gervase Fen, has ordered him to bring forthwith the the fictional Devonshire cathedral city of Tolnbridge.
Vinter, it transpires, has been summoned to Tolnbridge to stand in for the cathedral organist, who has been hospitalised after being bashed about the head by unknown assailants. Before he gets there however, we get to share at some length Geoffrey’s dismay at navigating Paddington Station during rush hour, his attempts to buy and imbibe several glasses of beer as he awaits his train, his developing friendship with the hapless shop clerk who has followed him from the department store in search of adventure, and his lengthy and tormented interactions with the other occupants of his train carriage, only a small handful of whom will go on to play any role in the unfolding mystery.
Amidst all this, the fact that several shambolic attempts are made on Geoffrey’s life during his journey thickens the plot, but otherwise scarcely seems worthy of note.
By chapter three (page 31), our man has finally arrived in Tolnbridge, which I take to be modelled to some extent on Montgomery’s adopted home of Totnes, although it differs from that fine town in a number of important details, not least the dominant presence of a cathedral, around which most of the book’s subsequent “action” (if such it may be termed) accumulates.Significantly, Tolnbridge is also notrorious for “..a frenetic outburst of witch trials in the early seventeenth century, and the equally frenetic outburst of witchcraft and devil-worship which provoked them, and in which several clergy of the diocese were disgracefully involved”;
“‘This was the last part of the country,’ said Fen, “in which the trial and burning of witches went on. Elsewhere it had ceased fifty or sixty years earlier - and then hanging, not burning, had been the normal method of execution. The doings in Tolnbridge stank so that a Royal Commission was sent down to investigate. But when the Bishop Thurston died, the business more of less ceased. One of the last celebrated witch-trials in these islands was the Weir business in Edinburgh; that was in 1670. Tolnbrige continued for forty years after that, into the eighteenth century - the century of Johnson, and Pitt, and the French Revolution. Only a step away from our own times. A depressingly fragile barrier - and human nature doesn’t change much.’”
After arriving at the wrought-iron gates of the clergy-house, Vinter and newfound pal Fielding are introduced to the assortment of ecclesiastical hangers-on who will go on to comprise the story’s pool of suspects (if you don't know difference between a Precentor and a Canon, you’ll be pretty much at sea here). With Fen - effectively the Holmes to Geoffrey’s Watson - stubbornly failing to make an appearance however, there’s little for the pair to do but retreat to the nearest pub - which in this case is the ‘Whale & Compass’ (perhaps based on Totnes’s late lamented Kingsbridge Inn, or so I’d like to imagine).To cut a long story short, Gervase Fen eventually makes his appearance a few pints later, on page 58. Each of Crispin’s books seems to feature the detective adopting a new, loud and disruptive hobby, and in ‘Holy Disorders’ he is inexplicably fixated with capturing, and apparently performing unspecified experiments upon, various insects - hence both his demand for a butterfly net and his extended absence during daylight hours. The reason why Fen is residing in Tolnbridge, apparently at the expense of the church, is never sufficiently explained insofar as I recall, but be that as it may - with our sleuth finally accounted for, we can finally get on with the murder mystery component of the novel.
In addition to the fate of the aforementioned organist (who has been poisoned in his hospital bed, following the earlier assault), this comprises a ghoulish and somewhat surreal variation of the Locked Room mystery, in which the widely disliked Precentor, a Dr Butler, is inexplicably crushed beneath the colossal tombstone of ill-regarded medieval luminary St Ephraim - a tragedy which seemingly occurred when all doors to the building were locked, and no one else was inside.
Eccentric though his writing may be in most other respects, Montgomery/Crispin remained staunchly dedicated to the conventions of the old fashioned whodunnit, and as such, much of the text from hereon in is taken up with the gathering and consideration of alibis, methods and motives, all of which is unpacked at a length liable to prove excruciating to readers who are not fans of classic drawing room mysteries, including the provision of both a map of the crime scene and a lengthy suspect-by-suspect recap to help logically-minded readers reach their conclusion prior to what passes for ‘the big reveal’.
Although published in 1946, ‘Holy Disorders’ was evidently written during the war years, which lends an interesting backdrop to proceedings, reminding me somewhat of Powell & Pressburger’s bucolic wartime fantasias (particularly ‘A Canterbury Tale’ (1944)).
There are frequent references to the war effort, to idle soldiers hanging about hither and yon awaiting orders, and to the latest news from overseas, and it is little surprise therefore that a further quirk is added to the already over-stuffed plot when it is revealed that the powers-that-be have detected illicit radio transmissions emanating from the vicinity of the cathedral, leading the discovery of a radio set hidden in an inaccessible part of the building, and the subsequent assumption that a cabal of Nazi spies must be abroad in sleepy Tolnbridge.
Amidst all this incident meanwhile, there is even room, surprisingly, for a little romance, as Geoffrey Vinter finds himself smitten with the daughter of the ill-fated Precentor - a graceful and demure young lady who, much in the manner of female characters in novels like this one, uncomplainingly acts as den mother and cook to the assorted oddballs hanging around the clergy-house. Like any good ‘Brief Encounter’ era Englishman, Geoffrey delivers his proposal of marriage whilst staring fixedly ahead at a row of radishes. (“Brutish roots,” he reflects, “what do they know of the agonies of a middle-aged bachelor proposing marriage?”)
This whole business is actually surprisingly affecting, forcing us to reflect on the fact that, whilst Edmund Crispin may have adopted the voice of a gout-addled college rector for his writing, Bruce Montgomery was actually only twenty-five years old when he completed this novel, and presumably subject to the same passions as other young men making their way in the world, and what have you.
With the novel’s rambling plotting already so loaded with under-developed tangents, it’s no surprise meanwhile to discover that the Black Mass / devil worship angle - though assuredly present - never amounts to much more than fairly half-hearted diversion. The irony here however is that the brief passages in which Crispin’s writing shifts away from comedy to explore more macabre subject matter are actually extremely effective, evoking an atmosphere worthy of the era’s horror/weird fiction greats;
“They paused by the hollow where the witches had burned. It was overgrown, neglected. Weeds and brambles straggled over it. The iron post stood gaunt against the fading light. They found rings through which the ropes and chains had passed. The air of the place was almost unbearably desolate, but in imagination Geoffrey saw the hillside thronged, above and below, with men and women whose eyes glowed with lust and fright and appalling pleasure at the spectacle to be offered them. […] A woman they had known - a next-door neighbour perhaps - a familiar face now become a mask of fear in whose presence they crossed fingers and muttered the Confiteor. Who next? And in the breast of that woman, what ecstasy of terror or vain repentance or affirmation? What crying to Apollyon and the God of Flies…? It needed little fancifulness to catch the echo of such scenes, even now. And here, they had accumulated - week after week, month after month, year after year, until even the crowds were sick and satiated with the screaming and the smell of burned flesh and hair, and only the necessary officers were present at the ending of these wretches, and the people stayed in their houses, wondering if it would not have been better to face the malignant, tangible living rather than the piled sepulchres of the malignant, intangible dead.”
I mean, you certainly don’t get that sort of thing in the middle of a Jeeves & Wooster.
Thereafter, this sense of a lurking evil underlying the city is given an atavistic twist via an extremely sinister (though underdeveloped) sub-plot which sees Fen interviewing a teenage girl who has been brain-washed through the use of drugs into participating in the Black Mass and carrying out the diabolical whims of her masters.
Sadly, the contemporary Satanic ceremony which Fen and Vinter subsequently manage to infiltrate proves both boring and rather farcical - it seems that the novel’s villains are merely using diabolism as a front for their more legitimately nefarious goals, again for reasons which remain somewhat unclear - but those ‘Witchfinder General’ / ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ vibes are really nailed down again during a section of the book in which (for reasons which appear entirely superfluous to the central narrative) our heroes are invited to read the long supressed secret diary of seventeenth century witch hunter Bishop Thurston. A section of this diary is reproduced in full, effectively comprising a short-story-within-a-novel, and once again, it is excellent stuff - a nasty little tale with a supernatural twist which could easily have found a home in any given ‘70s horror/ghost story anthology.
More representative of overall tone of the novel however are incidents such as that in which Fen and Vinter encounter a ‘Royal Professor of Mathematics’ who seems intent on reciting the entirety of Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ from memory, only to lose him again a few pages later following yet another visit to the pub, or the chapter which finds the investigators extracting much merriment from a visit to a potential suspect whose home boasts a pet raven resting upon a bust of Pallas above a chamber door, and a wife named Lenore, yet who pleads complete ignorance of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. (“I haven’t much time for verse - he’s good, is he?”)
In conclusion, you might say that, if Montgomery/Crispin had taken a slightly more serious approach to is storytelling there and had engaged more thoroughly with the more macabre elements of his tale, he could have written an absolutely splendid horror novel here. But, I suspect that’s rather like saying that if Noel Coward had ditched all that camp stuff and got a bit more into the rugged outdoors, he could have written a cracking western.
At the end of the day, the Crispin/Fen novels are what they are. They are entirely reflective of the peculiarities and obsessions of their unconventional creator, but if you can angle your antenna somewhere in the vicinity of his preferred wavelength, they remain thoroughly entertaining, and certainly a little different from anything else you’re liable to find knocking about in your local Oxfam.