A review of Frequent Hearses by Edmund Crispin – 230507
The seventh in Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen series, Frequent Hearses, which also goes by the alternative title of Sudden Vengeance, was originally published in 1950. Its titles come from a couplet from Pope’s Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady; “on all the line a sudden vengeance waits,/ and frequent hearses shall besiege your gates”. In Pope’s poem a young lady commits suicide, and the poet calls for vengeance on all those whom he deemed responsible for her death. In Crispin’s novel, the young lady who calls herself Gloria Scott throws herself into the Thames and those who led her to this tragic moment of despair are one by one murdered.
Bruce Montgomery, Crispin’s alter ego, was an accomplished composer and wrote scores for films, including the Carry On series. He uses his knowledge of the film industry to good effect in an entertaining first half to his book, which satirises the rather laissez-faire way in which British films were made and the bitchiness and underlying tensions of those involved. Gervase Fen finds himself at a film studio in the role of a literary expert to advise on the plot for a life of Alexander Pope. As a professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University he is well suited for the role, especially as it seems to involve little effort other than attending the odd script meeting and getting to the out of the way studio at Long Fulton.
As he arrives at the studio, he bumps into an old police associate, Inspector Humbleby who is there trying to shed some light on the true identity of Gloria Scott. Fen is drawn into the investigation, and soon three members of the Crane family, all involved in the film in which Gloria was to play a small part, are poisoned. Whodunit and why?
The why is telegraphed by the allusion to Pope’s poem. As is his wont Crispin is not shy in wearing his erudition in his text and there are the usual large helpings of literary allusions and direct quotations in the story. Aficionados of Conan Doyle will not fail to spot the Holmesian reference in the stage name of the young actress. The who aspect is trickier and, unlike in earlier stories, Fen plays a less central role in the solving of that mystery, although his role, like that at the film studio, is to advise, to point out, direct and give the benefit of his knowledge and expertise. Once the logistics and timings of the poisonings are clarified and mapped against the movements and alibis of each of the suspects, the identity of the culprit is obvious.
There is a distinct change of mood between the two halves of the book. The first is light and breezy, very funny in parts, bitingly satirical about post war Britain and the British film industry. The second part of the book has a much darker feel about it with a wonderfully atmospheric and thriller-like chase in a maze, a generous nod to a similar chase in one of M R James’ tales with a furtive glance to Greek mythology to boot. (Although Crispin loosely describes it as both a labyrinth and a maze, for a pedant like me it is clearly a maze).
As we get to know more about Gloria, the book takes an even darker twist. The girl has had an awful childhood and her hopes of making it in the film industry offer a route to better herself, only to have her aspirations toyed with to meet the lusts and jealousies of the Crane clan. In the modern argot, Gloria suffers extreme mental health issues as a consequence of workplace bullying. Her tale is tragic and this reader, at least, had growing sympathy with the individual who took it upon themselves to be her tormentors’ nemesis. I will never look on the autumn crocus in the same way again.
Although I did not think it matched some of his best, there is much to savour in the book.