The Long Divorce, published in 1952, was the next-to-last of Edmund Crispin’s detective novels featuring Oxford don Gervase Fen. Composer Bruce Montgomery (1921-1978) wrote nine Gervase Fen mysteries, mostly between the mid-1940s and the early 1950s with the ninth book appearing after a very long gap (the gap being partly a result of Montgomery’s battles with alcoholism).
Many writers of detective stories have tried to combine detection with comedy but very few succeeded as well as Crispin. His books are often laugh-out-loud funny and always delightful.
It has to be said however that The Long Divorce is a lesser effort (possible the author’s alcohol problems were already catching up with him).
The peaceful existence of the inhabitants of the sleepy village of Cotten Abbas has been rudely disrupted by an outbreak of poison pen letters. Some of the letters are merely of the usual sort, abusive and obscene, but the really worrying ones are disturbingly accurate.
The arrival of the mysterious Mr Datchery has also caused considerable speculation. Much of the speculation is to the effect that he is obviously not what he seems to be but no-one is quite sure who or what he really is.
Inspector Casby is a competent and industrious police officer but the letters have him baffled. Of more concern to him is that local doctor Helen Downing appears to be involved somehow although he is sure that she is not responsible for the letters. His concern arises from the fact that he has found himself falling very much in love with Dr Downing.
Poison pen letters are one thing but more serious events are about to disturb the peace of Cotten Abbas - a suicide, a murder and a disappearance.
Crispin was known for his fairly outlandish plots. In this particular case I felt there were a few problems with the plotting, with some very dubious motivations depending on rather far-fetched conspiracies and unlikely sequences of events. There are also a couple of elements that struck me as being a trifle obvious and heavy-handed. Of course it’s the nature of detective fiction that it’s difficult to offer such criticisms because any attempt to back them up with evidence is almost certainly going to reveal spoilers and that’s something I have no intention of doing.
I also felt that while there were some very amusing moments this one lacked the sparkle that made Buried for Pleasure and Frequent Hearses so immensely enjoyable. The plot also lacked the brilliance that Crispin displayed in The Moving Toyshop. The nature of the plot (again I’m being careful to avoid spoilers) also means that Gervase Fen is unable to be quite so outrageously witty and Gervase Fen-like.
Even a lesser Crispin is worth reading, and is certainly vastly superior to what passes for crime fiction today. Recommended, but if you’re new to Crispin read The Moving Toyshop, Buried for Pleasure and Frequent Hearses first.