Review: Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin

219. Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin
Publication: Felony & Mayhem (February 15, 2006), originally published 1945, Paperback, 240pp / ISBN 1933397284
Genre: Mystery
Rating: Buy it!
Read: November 15-18, 2010
Source: Paperback Swap
Summary from Amazon:

Gervase Fen–the eccentric Oxford don with a knack for solving “impossible” crimes–made his debut in The Case of the Gilded Fly, which Edmund Crispin (in reality, composer Bruce Montgomery) wrote to win a bet. With Holy Disorders, Crispin’s skills matured, but Fen remains as maddeningly childish as ever, still deliciously fond of his own wit and erudition, and given to quoting Lewis Carroll at inappropriate occasions. First published in 1945, Holy Disorders takes Fen to the town of Tolnbridge, where he is happily bounding around with a butterfly net until the cathedral organist is murdered, giving Fen the chance to play sleuth. The man didn’t have an enemy in the world, and even his music was inoffensive: Could he have fallen afoul of a nest of German spies or of the local coven of witches, ominously rumored to have been practicing since the 17th century? Tracking down the answer pleases Fen immensely–only the reader will have a better time. This, said the New York Times Book Review, is “Fen at his very best.”

Review

I really enjoyed this one. It reminded me a bit of a snarkier version of Dorothy L. Sayer’s mysteries, mixed with some of Agatha Christie’s humor. It’s technically the second in the series but they take forever to show up on Paperback Swap (this one was about a two year wait?) and I’m not waiting for the first book to start reading Edmund Crispin. Plus I figured with these long mystery series it’s not super important to read them in the correct order anyway, and I think I did okay.

Gervase Fen isn’t actually the main character of this book. In fact, his point of view only ever shows up once, way near the end. The main narrator is a fellow called Geoffrey Vinter, an organ player and small-time music composer. He mostly follows along behind Fen like a subpar Dr Watson, but he’s actually a decent sort of person and I quite enjoyed reading about him. I also really liked a secondary character called Henry Fielding, who save Geoffrey from being killed at least twice but then basically disappears for half of the book only to reappear as a less interesting version of himself.

Fen, I gather, is something like a mad scientist, except he doesn’t really do science (although he does do “experiments,” i.e. keeping insects in a cupboard and making them insane with some sort of gas. This comes into play near the end of the novel). He’s vain and irritating and I think if he was a real person I’d be infuriated, but I actually kind of liked him in this book. I think that Mr Crispin was trying to go for a sort of Sherlock Holmes character, except Fen isn’t always right about his deductions and he’s even more dramatic than Holmes is.

It’s a pretty clever book, actually. Mr Crispin certainly knew his stuff– there’s plenty of references to other detective stories, general literature, and tons of other stuff that I didn’t always catch. The writing is a bit dense– it took me a few tries to decode some of his passages, mostly because he uses so many words that I don’t know the meaning of (see below) but also because it’s just a super-intelligent mystery novel. It tripped me up sometimes, I’m not ashamed to say, but by the time I was halfway through I got the hang of it.

Grotesque, thought Geoffrey as he lay in bed next morning, gazing with earnest fixity at the ceiling: a preposterous gallimaufry of hobgoblins and spies. The murders were very well in their way; at least it was demonstratable that they had occurred. But ghosts were inconceivable, enemy agents almost equally so. Daylight, he reflected, restores us to sanity, or at least to that blinkered and oblivious condition which we call sanity. (115)

If you like smart mysteries with likable characters, humor, and a whole heap of metafiction (as well as meta-referential), with a bit of action and espionage and near death, you’ll no doubt enjoy the Gervase Fen novels. The only downside was that there weren’t any good female characters (what female characters there were), and there was a weird thing about “marihuana” making a person susceptible to hypnosis and brainwashing. (Did he get that from Reefer Madness?)

Dictionary

  • quotidian: ordinary; commonplace. Page 74: “Beneath the placid, quotidian ritual of the cathedral town lurked unknown forces which were moving ponderously, devastatingly to the surface.”
  • sutlers: a person who followed an army or maintained a store on an army post to sell provisions to the soldiers. Page 82: “”Since the cathedral is under suspicion,” said Fen, “presumably its sutlers are under suspicion as well.””
  • logomachy: an argument or debate marked by the reckless or incorrect use of words; meaningless battle of words. Page 90: “Fen resumed his wanderings, the Inspector his logomachy.”
  • gallimaufry: a hodgepodge; jumble; confused medley. Page 115: “Grotesque, thought Geoffrey as he lay in bed next morning, gazing with earnest fixity at the ceiling: a preposterous gallimaufry of hobgoblins and spies.”
  • perfervid: very fervent; extremely ardent; impassioned. Page 115: “Nothing, essentially, had changed since the previous night; the even of yesterday, which, it was evident, the mind was only too willing to write off as perfervid delusions of its own, stood dismayingly impervious to such high-handed attempts at erasure […]”
  • colloquy: a conversational exchange; dialogue. Page 116: “Long experience had taught Geoffrey that mental colloquy, however confidently embarked upon, generally ended in irrelevancy, divagation and chaos […]”
  • divagation: to wander; stray. Page 116: “Long experience had taught Geoffrey that mental colloquy, however confidently embarked upon, generally ended in irrelevancy, divagation and chaos […]”
  • traduced: to speak maliciously and falsely of; slander; defame. Page 119: “”Uncommunicative, yes,” he admitted eventually. “And liable for that reason to be–traduced.””
  • rakehell: a licentious or dissolute man. Page 174: “He was a curious problem of a man– an inconsequent mingling of rakehell and Puritan.”
  • quiddity: a trifling nicety of subtle distinction, as in argument. Page 176: “Certainly some extraordinary legal quiddity must have been involved– though I have never succeeded yet in properly discovering what the legal position was– because elsewhere in England witches were invariably hanged and not burned.”
  • profligacy: 1. shameless dissoluteness. 2. reckless extravagance. 3. great abundance. Page 177: “Yet Donne himself was a notorious Rakehell in that earlier part of his life that preceded his reception in the bosom of the Church of Christ, a man of great profligacy and extravagances, an associate of London whores and conycatchers.”
  • conycatchers: a cheat; a sharper; a deceiver. Page 177: “Yet Donne himself was a notorious Rakehell in that earlier part of his life that preceded his reception in the bosom of the Church of Christ, a man of great profligacy and extravagances, an associate of London whores and conycatchers.”
  • recusant: refusing to attend services of the Church of England. Page 258: “”I thought so. A recusant priest is supposed traditionally to celebrate the Mass.””

Past words. Thanks to Fyrefly for the inspiration!

And

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3 Comments

  1. I love “quotidian”! And a bunch of those others are new to me… I’ll have to see if I can find somewhere to use “conycatcher” in conversation.

    I don’t normally read a lot of mysteries, but I think I would get along with this type of “classic” British mystery just fine.

  2. I like “traduced” too, and also “profligacy”. And I’d like to get all self-righteous and say I don’t like books with no good woman characters, but I’m about to read Beau Geste again so I can’t talk. :p

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