It has taken me many years to begin to undo the habits authors like Edmund Crispin set me into. My motto has been for many years that of The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett: never say in one word what you can say in one hundred. I also follow Dead Poets Society’s Mr. Keating’s advice to avoid common phrasing. So when Edmund Crispin trots out words like “steatopygic” or “suilline”, I’m content (even if I have to look them up). And when someone not only explained, but “He explained at great length. He explained with a sense of righteous indignation and frustration of spirit” – well, that’s a kindred spirit, that is. And when Fen uses variations on the White Rabbit’s exclamations, I sigh and know that yes, Crispin is in part to blame for the fact that I don’t speak – or write – like anyone else I know. It takes great concentration to write an email shorter than a thousand words (or in one draft).
Maybe books like this are one reason I didn’t swear for a good portion of my life (at least until I started driving regularly). “‘– you,’ Mr Sharman said viciously.”
Maybe books like this are one reason I love a pretty simile. I love an “open window where the porter leaned, like a princess enchanted within some medieval fortalice”. And “Wordsworth resembled a horse with powerful convictions”.
And I don’t read like anyone else I know, not in “real life” at least. That’s why blogs and book-centric sites are so valuable – I know there are people out there whose standards are – well, Edmund Crispin high and not Stephanie Meyer high.
“‘Sorry. It was a quotation from Pope.’
“‘I don’t care who it was a quotation from. It’s really rather rude to quote when you know I shan’t understand. Like talking about someone in a language they don’t know.'”
– I wonder if that’s a backhanded slap at Dorothy L. Sayers and Lord Peter’s habit of pulling out mass tonnages of quotes, often in random languages. In the only other Crispin I’ve read in recent years, The Case of the Gilded Fly, there was a remark I very definitely took as such. (I wonder if the “speaking disrespectfully of the immortal Jane” was indicative of the author’s real feelings.
It felt very much like the moving toyshop of the title was merely a vehicle (so to speak) for Fen to sail through and show off his effortless brilliance. And for various characters to break the third wall with disconcertingly hilarious references to the author, the publisher, and the fact that they’re not, technically, real persons. (“‘Let’s go left,’ Cadogan suggested. ‘After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.'” That would have flown about fourteen miles over my head when I originally read this, lo those many years ago.) The flippancy flows fast and glittery – and then when you least expect it come a deeper stretch that achieve deadly seriousness. “Euthanasia, Cadogan thought: they all regard it as that, and not as wilful slaughter, not as the violent cutting-off of an irreplaceable compact of passion and desire and affection and will; not as a thrust into unimagined and illimitable darkness.”
‘Sauve qui peut’, mes amis – save yourself if you can. If you want to sound like everyone else, it’s probably best not to steep yourself in clever, eccentric, carelessly witty British Golden Age mysteries. Oh, my ears and whiskers, it’s not easy fending off the philistine.
The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.