First published: UK, Gollancz, 1947; US, Lippincott, 1947, as Dead and Dumb
This under-rated Crispin is, in fact, one of the best of the lot, with its skilful depiction of an operatic background (“There are few creatures more stupid than the average singer…”); the depth of characterisation (on one hand, the humour created by ‘the Master’ and his domineering paramour Beatrix Thorn — “in the flesh”, as Fen introduces her; and on the other, the pathetic love of Judith Haynes); the humour, caused by ludicrous similes and Fen’s outrageous unorthodoxy, especially the scene in the chemist’s shop; and the ingenuity of the murder plot—very clever misdirection, even if the gimmick is highly improbable, and the motive weak. All of these, along with Crispin’s idiosyncratic cameos of minor characters such as Wilkes (sadly his last appearance, excepting a minor off-page role in The Long Divorce) and the burglar, all go to indicate one thing: Edmund Crispin was not a writer of detective stories. He was a novelist.
The book is Crispin’s first straight murder mystery since The Case of the Gilded Fly; and there are similarities in the plot to T.C.O.T. Gilded Fly and to SPOILER John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins.
The setting is a production of Wagner’s Meistersinger, a light romantic comedy which lasts a mere 4 1/2 hours. Most of the humor comes from humiliating and then driving out a scheming Jewish caricature. The opera ends with a paean to Holy German Art, threatened by foreign influences. No thanks; I’ll stick to Meyerbeer and Offenbach!
Times Literary Supplement (Miss K.M. Dowding, 23rd August 1947):
In this, his latest detective story, Mr. Crispin, still true to his Oxford setting, has had the pleasant idea of endowing the city with an opera house of modern design, situated in Beaumont Street. Here, during rehearsals for Die Meistersinger an unpopular Sachs is murdered in his dressing room with an ingenuity which for some time baffles even the cocksure Professor Gervase Fen. Some nice character studies and some amusing situations do not entirely make up for a certain sketchiness in the narrative.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 8th November 1947):
Edmund Crispin’s frivolous technique is almost too successful. The death in Swan Song of two members of a lively lot of Wagnerian opera singers at Oxford is so spiced with rollickery, badinage and Professor Fen’s inimitable wisecracks that it becomes impossible to take the murder investigation seriously. This, perhaps, is as well; for the intricate devices by which the main crime turns out to have been effected are a wild contraption, reminding us of Mr. Dickson Carr at his worst.