The Glimpses of the Moon (Edmund Crispin)

By Edmund Crispin

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1977; US, Walker, 1978

My review

Over-long at 300 odd pages, this is the first (and last) Crispin novel in twenty-six years. And Crispin has changed — for the worse.

The plot reminds me of nothing more than Tom Sharpe’s outrageously lewd comic fantasies, of which the two best are the brilliant Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure. In Crispin’s book, there are two nymphomaniacs, one with a lover named John Thomas; a structure called the Pisser; and several other examples of madcap and coarse humour. While the humour is often very funny, the murder plot is poor. Obscure references are made to the murder for the first fifty pages. There is little thought involved in the solution of the crime, and clues are concealed from the reader, before Fen reveals the solution, padded by continual remarks from the Major and the Rector. The solution depends on a re-working of gimmicks from Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) and a shrewd stylistic quote from Chesterton.

Note several similarities to Gladys Mitchell: the title is reminiscent of The Rising of the Moon (1945), which Crispin admired; elements of the solution are borrowed from The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929); the fete and the red herring of the subnormal suspect come from The Saltmarsh Murders (1932); and the gory business with the corpse is a common occurrence in classic Mitchell.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (T.J. Binyon, 26th August 1977):

This is Edmund Crispin’s first full-length work since The Long Divorce, which appeared in 1951.  Those who have been waiting for this moment for the past twenty-six years may find, after a first hurried reading, their joy slightly clouded by disappointment.  For though The Glimpses of the Moon offers several dead corses making night hideous, a criminal or two and some policemen, it is not a detective story in the mould of the author’s earlier work, but a comic novel constructed round a crime (or crimes), set in darkest Devon.

As before, Gervase Fen is a central character, but he acts throughout more as observer than detective.  And although he is allowed a long monologue after the classical model to sum up events in the final chapter, his exposition seems parodic in intent and performance.  The climax of the book—a hilarious chase across the countryside involving cows, horses, motor-cycles, cars and men on foot, which ends under an evil-minded electricity pylon known locally as the Pisser—violates all canons, since it has very little to do with the plot and introduces a number of characters, delineated in detail, who never appear again.

A second reading, however, alleviates the disappointment and makes it clear that The Glimpses of the Moon is in fact a logical successor to the earlier novels, with the difference that an exuberant fancy, which had hitherto been held partially in check by the exigencies of the form, has here been allowed to blossom freely.

The result is a gloriously funny book, witty and farcical by turns, with an occasional surprising sidestep into the macabre.  The characters range from the eccentric to the grotesque: from the Major, who cannot allow a rhetorical figure in another’s speech to pass unidentified, through Ortrud Youings, a blonde German nymphomaniac of Amazonian proportions, to a frieze of assorted rustics of varying degrees of idiocy.  Anthropomorphism has always been a feature of Edmund Crispin’s style: here we have Fred the whippet, who dislikes pubs; Stripey a priapic tom; Ellis the tortoise, who eats, for preference, premasticated pansy petals; and Xantippe, a somnambulic horse.

Throughout the book the author slashes away at the contemporary scene, which inspires in him an almost Dornford Yatesian disgust.  Some of his targets—television commercials, popular journalism, pornographic films, electricity boards and British Rail—seem hardly worthy of his steel, but he draws blood, on several occasions, from the modern British novel (on which Fen is writing a monograph), and gives a vicious back-handed cut at another institution:

 Fen was not thinking about the murder.  Instead, he was smoking a cigarette and reading The Times Literary Supplement—nowadays vulgarly retitled T.L.S, without even a final stop after the “S”—one of three special issues given over to modern Albanian poetry.