Reviewing the Angela Brazil titles in my Kindle (don't laugh, they're highly entertaining and completely free) I was reminded that I intended, many months ago, to blog a little something about Edmund Crispin (born Bruce Montgomery, but who am I to rob a man of his nom de plume?) and in particular his novel Swan Song. Just as that potted bio over to your left says, I'm a fan of fictional detectives, but I was lamentably late to discover Crispin and his joyously nutty professor, Gervase Fen. In truth I only found them by judging a book by its cover – or to be more precise, its spine. I was in the Waterstone's just up from the Coliseum, meandering through the crime section, and something about those Crispin signs said: Read Me.
And when I found that the author "listed his recreations as swimming, excessive smoking, Shakespeare, the operas of Wagner and Strauss, idleness and cats" and that "his antipathies were dogs, the French Film, the Renaissance of the British Film, psychoanalysis, the psychological-realistic crime story, and the contemporary theatre" I knew I was on the right track. Wagner, Strauss and cats? This was a man after my own heart.
He was also an Oxford organ scholar and a composer, and sure enough, there's a pleasingly musical vein running through his books. One features a murderer who's found out through Fen's detailed knowledge of Ein Heldenleben, another sees a spate of cathedral organists meeting with foul play, and then there's Swan Song: all about the murder of a particularly unpleasant Hans Sachs during the first post-war performance in Englad of Die Meistersinger. What's not to love about such a premise? (Yes, from the title, I was expecting Lohengrin or Parsifal, but one can't have everything I suppose.)
It's an excellent and enjoyable whodunnit with all the requisite twists and apparent impossibilities, and well worth reading on that basis alone, but of course what I really loved were all the sly digs, inside jokes and hilariously plausible rehearsal dramas. I couldn't help wondering if the singers in Crispin's novel might have been inspired by some of those he knew in his musical capacities. Not that I suppose anybody would be clamouring to claim a description like this for themselves:
Nice. Not to mention the novel's opening paragraph:
"His habits suggested, in fact, a belated attempt to revive the droit de seigneur, and his resemblance to the gross and elderly roué of Strauss's [Der Rosenkavalier] was sufficiently remarkable for it to be a subject of perpetual surprise in operatic circles that his interpretation of the role was so inadequate."
"There are few creatures more stupid than the average singer. It would appear that the fractional adjustment of larynx, glottis, and sinuses required in the production of beautiful sounds must almost invariably be accompanied – so perverse are the habits of Providence – by the witlessness of a barnyard fowl."
And so on and so forth, but for all the swipes he takes at them, singers on the whole emerge quite charmingly from the story – the reprehensible victim excepted – and in fact the hero (or is he?) is himself a rising star heldentenor. Whose other half happens to be a twenty-something year old writer. Now why does that ring a bell?
Wagner himself is also quite roundly defended by Crispin, who was obviously irked by those who viewed him as a de facto Nazi and accordingly banned his work. Adam, the aforementioned tenor, gives a little speech on the subject early on:
"It's a highbrow axiom...that Wagner was responsible for the rise of Nazism. If you want to be in the fashion you must refer darkly to the evil workings of the Ring in the Teutonic mentality – though as the whole cycle of operas is devoted to showing that even the gods can't break an agreement without bringing the whole universe crashing about their ears, I've never been able to see what possible encouragement Hitler can have got out of it..."
Perhaps not a massively popular opinion in 1947.
As the whodunnit heats up, the operatic stuff fades away a bit, but still: it's a 1940s murder mystery about opera singers and therefore pretty much my ideal book. If Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey could have been interpolated – it is set in Oxford, after all – I'd never need to read another novel ever again. Several of my favourite mystery novelists have incorporated opera into their books – Gladys Mitchell in Death at the Opera, Ngaio Marsh in Photo Finish – but I think Swan Song probably does the funniest and most thorough job of it. For once I half resented the intrusion of the murder: I would have been quite happy just to watch the Meistersinger rehearsals unfold in all their very recognisable chaos.