First published: UK, Gollancz, 1945; US, Lippincott, 1946
This is the darkest of the Crispin novels, and strikes an odd, jarring note. It is a mixture of farce, witchcraft and M.R. James ghost stories, proper detection, and pure thriller elements (a sinister gang of Nazis in the neighbourhood) — almost as if Crispin has little idea of what direction he is going in. (This indecision would last until 1947, when he produced Swan Song, a straight mystery; the delightful Moving Toyshop (1946) is an odd mixture of farce and detection, mainly farce.) There are too many characters, none of whom are on-stage long enough to become real; and the murder proves a disappointment — espionage and Nazism being the motives. The method is obvious from the beginning. However, much of the humour is excellent, and Fen, here pursuing lepidoptery, is amusing and engaging.
The title comes from Chaucer, and was used in Nicholas Blake’s The Smiler with the Knife (1939). Note strong similarities to Carr’s Hag’s Nook (1933) — the moved slab, the vigil ending in death, the clergymen, the supernatural diary entries. Also strong similarities to M.R. James’ “Count Magnus”, “An Episode of Cathedral History”, and “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral”. One of the villains has a name similar to the lead villain in Margery Allingham’s Sweet Danger. Crispin mentions as his literary ancestors John Dickson Carr, Nicholas Blake, Margery Allingham, and Gladys Mitchell (it was in this book that I first heard of her); and Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby is an off-stage threat.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 27th April 1946):
Mr. Crispin belongs to the highly-educated school, who quote from the classics at the head of each chapter. Their trouble is that with all their erudition they are no nearer an original plot and have to gloss over their imperfections by all sorts of literary extravagance. In Holy Disorders a cathedral organist is drugged in the cathedral, and soon afterwards the Preceptor is squashed. The plot should be exciting, but the author allows himself to be distracted by the prevalence of witchcraft in the neighbourhood. As the time when these crimes occur is wartime, spies too, those dreary concomitants of war, are liable to obtrude. Gervase Fen, the literary don, lords it over this jumble of attractions.