First published: UK, Gollancz, 1951; US, Dodd, Mead, 1951. Also published as A Noose for Her, Spivak 1952.
‘In a village, everyone knows all the scandal about everyone else — but of course, people take terrific care it shan’t get to the ears of anyone it’d hurt and upset.’
This was the last novel Crispin intended to write — for it was his last for twenty-six years, until The Glimpses of the Moon. Fortunately, as Crispin intended, it is one of his best.
The story takes place against a first-class village background, “essentially a residential village for members of the cultured upper middle class … who needed to be within reach of London but who could dictate their own time of arriving there”. The depiction of rural life, and of the effect of the poison-pen on the small community, is excellent. The characters are particularly vivid—the woman doctor heroine, suspected of murder by her policeman fiancé, is an unforgettable character; Professor Fen, first mentioned on page 143 of 191, masquerading as ‘Mr. Datchery’, “‘a Mass Observer, engaged in studying certain aspects of rural life'”, a name borrowed from Edwin Drood, is sensible and straight-forward, and has a valid reason for being on the scene of the crimes (Crispin’s handling of Fen as both a comic and a believable character has always been a very skilful display of tight-rope walking’); and the minor characters, including the innkeeper Mogridge, whose “habit of reading between the conversational lines, instead of accepting what people said at its face value, leads to communication with him almost always degenerating into a maze of cross-purposes”, and Inspector Casby’s housekeeper Mrs. Flack, whose “laughter had in some fashion got itself detached from her sense of humour, so that it bombinated irrelevantly in an emotional vacuum”, are skilfully drawn. There is also a wonderful depiction of a dotty religious sect, and what may be the best thriller sequence in detective fiction.
The murder plot is also first-class, involving a particularly ingenious suicide / murder, and a brilliant device to divert suspicion. The locked garage, wherefrom the murder weapon vanished, thus incriminating the woman doctor, is an original idea, and more original than the clichéd corpse in the same situation, as well as being a brilliant variation on an idea that R Austin Freeman devised. Fen’s detection is brilliant—a display of logic as dazzling as Ellery Queen at his best.
Note similarities both to Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger (poison pen letters), and to Miles Burton’s masterly Murder, M.D. (sympathetic woman doctor in village).
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Richardson, 31st August 1951):
Mr. Crispin belongs to the school which might be described as the “academic improbables”. It derives—with, perhaps, promptings from the Holmes-parodists—from Miss Dorothy Sayers. Mr. Crispin’s detective is Gervase Fen, an English don, of the type that wears home-made tweeds and hand-woven ties. This time he solves a series of murders in the village, which have been instigated by poison-pen letters. Mr. Crispin can always be relied upon to enliven and amuse. It is to be hoped, however, that he may one day regain the almost classic form which distinguishes his Moving Toyshop.